I have often been asked why I wear a bow-tie. It is a valid question, after all, there are not many men who still wear them regularly (although I am hoping that is changing). To be honest, the genesis of the bow-tie in my life was born from my competitive nature and was accompanied by all the angst about acceptance and mockery that you would expect. The story goes something like this:

My first year at the University of Idaho I took a Landscape Architecture studio course. Landscape Architecture was my minor for my Bachelor’s Degree. I was a transfer student from Salt Lake Community College and was 4 or 5 years older than most of the sophomore students that comprised the student body in that class. I also came to the University of Idaho with a couple years of professional work experience with a civil engineer’s office. The combination of a few more years of wisdom earning and some professional insight gave me an advantage in my project presentations.

Let me digress for a moment; design school consists of a series of “studio” courses where various “design problems” are explored. The design problems vary in terms of complexity and nature. During each “project” there are often critiques with your professor and classmates regarding your progress; at the culmination of each project there is always a critique with a jury of other professors or visiting professionals. If you know anybody in the design industry you may hear them reference “crits” or “jurys” and the emotional damage they suffered because of them. The final crits are often the cause for loss of sleep, deteriorated relationships and gobs of stress. The evening after final crits is often when design students are found around campus making bad decisions due to the ecstasy of being “free” from the weight of the project just completed.

I would approach my final critiques with the same trepidation that my classmates felt. The difference, early on, was that life experience had taught me that a presentation, of this importance, required a shirt and tie. So, I pressed my best “Sunday” shirt, found a matching tie and set off to defend my design.

I survived.

While I don’t remember much of what was said about my design that day, or in the debrief with my professor; I do remember that he remarked on my “professionalism” and my “comportment” (look it up, I did). He also took time during the next class period to point out to my classmates the power of professional dress and used me as an example of the “right way” to present my design to the jury. As a member of a competitive design school, I notched a mental victory for myself.

Much to my chagrin, EVERYONE was dressed professionally at our next crit. I was no longer a stand-out based on my “professionalism.” While I received a good grade for my design, I was out-done by some other great designers in the class and they received the lion’s share of our professor’s accolades. I felt pangs of envy.

As I continued my search for a “leg up” over my classmates I came across a fantastic movie about the architect Louis Kahn. During the movie there was a discussion revolving around the architect being known for wearing a bow-tie. Apparently, when drawings were still done with pencil to paper the bow-tie was a functional solution to a serious problem. During the 1950’s it was common for every male architect to wear a tie (there were very few women in the profession). As you would work on your drawings throughout the day, there would be a distinct possibility that your tie could drag around through the lead you had placed on the page. This would not only ruin your tie, but worse, it would ruin your drawing and the day’s work. This problem was solved with the use of the bow-tie. Architect’s could maintain a professional appearance with out the problem of ruining drawings. Form could follow function.

The germ of an idea had been planted in my mind and the next time I was back home I went to the department store and found a bow-tie. I wore it to church the next Sunday. My wife rolled her eyes and begged me to take it off and put on a “normal” tie. My mom echoed her concern. My brothers laughed. I persevered.

It worked. Like clockwork, I was again recognized as a “man apart,” I found a differentiating factor – I could be a little bit special. I also soon found that I had crossed a bridge that few, if any, of my classmates dared cross. I had found a competitive advantage that would not be challenged. At first, the bow-tie was only used for my crits but as it gained notoriety I became tied to it as an identifier. It was ubiquitous, people I didn’t know that I knew recognized me as the “guy in the bow-tie.” It soon grew beyond my control, I would be criticized for being found wearing a normal cravat. The bow-tie was me, and I was the bow-tie.

Under these circumstances I began my professional career. The bow-tie followed. I’m sure on some level there are people in our community who still only know me for what I wear around my neck. It is a little silly, but it reminds me of my roots as a designer; it reminds me of the roots of my profession and it reminds me that I should always seek for ways to do it better.

Eric Roberts

About Eric Roberts

Eric Roberts is Vice President at SH Architecture and specializes on Government, Higher Education and Rural-based Client segments. Eric is an expert in sustainable design and navigating sustainable programs such as LEED, GreenGlobes, and local and federal tax incentives for sustainability. Eric is an avid sketcher frequently sharing his work on our blog and promoting Urban Sketchers throughout Nevada. He also serves on the Western Mountain Region Executive Board for the American Institute of Architects.

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