Photo of Japanese Men Sitting


Writer Maggie Kinser

About Maggie

Through my work, based for the most part on live interviews, I’ve pondered the way we define ourselves through design, architecture, activism, localism, and the translated word. I see the world as a collection of individuals leaving small but important messages, delivered in the moments of contact between product (poster, sculpture, architecture, product, fashion, event) and viewer, resident, user, wearer or participant.

The best day is one when I can hear the passion in another’s story, the childhood discovery of that evening light that led to a career as a photographer; the controlled interaction of the tea ceremony that invigorates a graphic designer; the trip to Chiang Mai that intensified a student’s desire to write, to capture it all. The second best day is the day I write that story.

Let the critics critique. I care about the individual and why on earth this is the path he or she chose, the product he designed, the color scheme for the brand she built.

I write what’s needed: website bios are the short form, monographs, the long form. In between are articles for blogs, newspapers and magazines. I’ve written books from my own proposals and responded to creators’, editors’ and publishers’ requests as well. I also edit and provide feedback on projects of all sorts. Feel free to contact me with your idea.


Maggie's Dad, Bill Kinser

Maggie's Dad

Bill Kinser, designer and teacher (1931-1999)

To my dad design was not an art, but a trade, with simple, verifiable rules. Dad was fascinated by the transformation of logic into visual symbols and the use of those symbols to persuade. He taught me to look at the world as a puzzle that could be decoded, and delight in the dreams that lead people to attempt grand acts. 

The interviewer in me came from my dad, who took me everywhere with him and talked with everyone he met about what they knew and not what he knew. With Dad I visited gas stations, design labs, sale barns and photographers' houses. Dad collected ancient books for their typography and printing, and was forever fascinated with the kinship between social history and visual history.

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Charleen Kinser's Character Fred

Maggie's Mom

Charleen Kinser, animator, designer, craft writer, editor, creator (1933-2007)

It’s been my favorite never-ending job to describe the world of Charleen Kinser. With her whole life, she taught me how to edit the details to describe character.

After a powerful career as a young adult in animation, shortened by marriage, she worked her design education from Chouinard Art Institute (now Cal Arts) into her life as a creative force, focusing at the beginning and at the end on childhood amusements. As I was growing up, she worked as the crafts editor of American Home Crafts, as well as a freelance soft sculpture designer. Two of her more memorable commercial products were a line of a half dozen three-foot-high Orphan Annie dolls for a Chicago store window and a huge fabric hot dog (with mustard) for 7-Up.

And she wrote books. I remember most clearly her working on Outdoor Art for Kids (Follett, Chicago, 1975). My late brother, Tom, and I were the guinea pigs and models for the crafts and the accompanying stories inspired me to write. In the late 1970s, when I was becoming conscious of the larger world, Mom established Charleen Kinser Designs/Forever Toys, which for 26 years employed local artisans (mostly women with kids) doing piecework to create the characters Mom designed to be played with: toys made by hand for an international market. She gave teenage me my first writing job: to describe these creatures in story and doggerel. The production crew finally disbanded in 2000, but for Mom’s one- or two-of-a-kinds, I continued to write the stories until she stopped making them as well.

People called her “whimsical”, but like all good characters, hers were real in the minds of those who made them part of their lives, and I think of my writing about them as non-fiction.

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Call me, Ishmael Meme

Great Books

Irreverent? Maybe so, but at St. John's College ("The Great Books School"), there was nothing more fun than making the work of the great thinkers our own, on every level. This is one of the postcards I made to raise money for Reality, the final party.

Close-up of Japanese Dragon status

Life in Japan

My freelance work in Japan taught me by example that man is inherently flexible, intellectually and physically. We can understand any point of view, any value system. We can take on any way of life. 

From the beginning, almost all of my friends were Japanese, and--in their language--I asked them to elucidate their values, their habits, their emotions. Japanese is a good language for this kind of talk. 

In 1990, I married a Japanese, an artist from a family that for generations had held a Shinto shrine on the southern island of Shikoku. We moved into a thatched farmhouse in the mountains north of Kyoto. We began a family. Sheer immersion in the same rural life my neighbors lived, with their centuries-old festivals and their easy belief in animism, made their concerns mine, and their values mine.

A tutor at St. John's once told a class pursuing Pascal, "translation is impossible." After so many years in a foreign culture that became my own, I still long to prove him wrong, if only slightly.

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Closeup of Japanese Design Element

Unpublished Works

Every writer has stories she wishes she’d pitched or sold. Two from the early 1990s that I remember with regret, and one I pitched recently that I didn’t pitch hard or wide enough stand out. Other than those, I’ve been fortunate to find homes for most of my ideas.

In 1999, when I met a young Japanese thatcher from our village who’d visited the UK, studied thatching there and dreamed of thatching a Japanese house with the much more efficient and evolved British methods, I went to my dad with the great idea of writing about this young thatcher. His response depressed me at first: “If the dream isn’t realized, there IS no story; there’s just another young man with a dream.” That one comment burned me up with its unassailable truth so much that I resolved to make the dream come true, with or without the young thatcher.

For two years, I planned and plotted, digging up every resource, bending every even slightly interested ear, and in 1999, I successfully brought over a British thatcher to work with yet another Japanese thatcher, and together they performed the first cross-cultural rethatching of a 100 year-old Japanese farmhouse. The first thatcher, the one with the dream, ended up dropping out of the thatching business altogether, depressed by the weight of his dream. But other thatchers joined in our project, and through TV and newspaper exposure, magazine articles and lectures, they and I went on to influence many more. I heard recently that there is a collection of thatchers, internationally, including that original British thatcher, who are still cooperating with one another to advance the art.

When I’m discouraged, fearful to pitch a certain story or approach a certain media outlet, I remember the truth I learned that year: Without action, a dream is just a dream.