Friday, December 22, 2006
Steven Caney: inventor, designer, author
One of the most creative minds in Carlisle belongs to Steven Caney. He is an inventor — a real inventor, with "hundreds of inventions," he says, and several patents, including a membrane switch now used in most appliances and a clock with one moving part. For the past 12 years, Caney's inventive mind has been focused on what he calls his "magnum opus" —a phenomenal book for kids and adults titled Steven Caney's Ultimate Building Book, designed to inspire kids to think and act creatively.
Published just last month, the book will intrigue parents, delight kids and answer questions you may have wondered about — who invented glue? How was Stonehenge built? Why were Quonset huts so practical during World War II? At almost 600 pages and thousands of illustrations, this book is a behemoth, devoted to a wonderfully comprehensive exploration of design, construction and invention. With excellent visuals, it describes in loving detail 150 projects made from building systems that use everyday materials. They are for "builders" from age six and up, and "players" as young as two.
Many of those everyday materials are surprising. There is a bird feeder made of stale bagels, cut in pieces to create blocks. There is a tetrahedron made of coat hangers (did you ever wonder who invented the coat hanger and why? Caney tells you.) There is an igloo made of Jello building blocks. And just perfect for Carlisle is the Mosquito Chamber of Doom, made of toothpicks, jellybeans, black panty hose and tape, designed to lure and trap our least favorite insect.
Interviewed at his Indian Hill home last week, Caney looked back at the beginnings of the book. "It started out being about things I wanted to learn about," which in fact covers everything from types of bridges to kinds of tents to animals and insects that build structures, and as they say on TV, "much, much more." Wanting to learn about everything dates back to the four-year-old Steven Caney, growing up in Wilmington, Delaware. "I was fascinated by junk materials," he remembers, and he began to make many of his own playthings. Materials from a nearby construction site, odds and ends from his father's old coffee cans, an assortment of "junk" from his mother's junk drawer, and an assist from his grandfather's basement workbench found their way into various contraptions and machines by the time Caney was six or seven. "Most of the time I would attach parts in ways they seemingly wanted to go together," he explains in his book, "and then try to figure out what I had invented." By age eight, he was the neighborhood builder, inventor and fixer of things among his peers.
Caney's inventive mind took him to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, specializing in industrial design. He credits RISD with teaching him that inventing is a viable profession and providing him with talented colleagues who helped produce his Ultimate Building Book. Family members were also involved: "My son Noah, who has degrees in the arts and architecture from RISD, designed the book," and his wife Shelly did the research. In addition Noah, who lives in Westford, designed many of the projects described in the book.
After graduating from RISD, Caney worked for Creative Playthings in Princeton, New Jersey, and in the late 1960s he came to Boston where he designed the new Boston Children's Museum in Jamaica Plain, under the direction of Michael Spock. It was there that Caney observed children coming to the museum, working with experiments and engaging in open-ended play. His work with children and his experience in designing for them led him to write four books on playthings between 1970 and 1985.
How kids learn
Caney has a clear-eyed understanding of how kids learn and how they harness their creativity. Much of the material for this book came from his work with youngsters in schools near Detroit, and in New Hampshire and Maine. He also worked with the New Hampshire Young Inventors Program for kids in kindergarten through eighth grade. "In working with structures," Caney explains, "the kids learned about something that stands up by itself. If it doesn't stand up, they learn why. Squares are weak, triangles are strong." He adds, "If something doesn't work, kids are naïve enough to stick with it until it does work, unlike some adults." He adds, "You get such an honest reaction from [kids] when they interact with materials. They give you an immediate response."
Steven Caney's Ultimate Building Book includes several Carlisle connections. In addition to Shelly and Noah, neighborhood children in the Jacques and Forsberg families are pictured; some of the photographs had been used in Caney's earlier books. "Rick Culkins [son of Barbara Culkins] lived in the center when I did and assisted in some of the projects," says Caney. Culkins continued to work on projects in the current book.
Although extremely modest about his accomplishments, Caney mentions that his Ultimate Building Book has just won a 2006 National Association of Parenting Publication Award.
Caney's book will be under many Carlisle Christmas trees this year. And save the gift wrap because there are several projects in the book that use colored paper.
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito