“I firmly believe in face-to-face contact,” declared Aaron Keller, co-founder of design firm Capsule. Granted, our interview was before the freak-out over the coronavirus arrived in the United States, but the thought nonetheless holds. “The massive move to so much digital, it becomes so shallow.”
I like his solution. Every month for the last 10-plus years, he’s been hosting a luminary to speak at Capsule, in its dramatic and colorful office space in Minneapolis. The group started with about 10 people and has grown to more than 80.
When he first mentioned the idea to a colleague, she exclaimed: “You’re doing a French-style salon!” like during the French Revolution. “They’d get together, and there was a lot of drinking and they started stirrings,” Keller said. For himself, his employees and his audience, Capsule’s version of those salons serve as inspiration, a way to think bigger about something other than the exact problem in the middle of your plate on that particular day.
Each gives a talk for 30 minutes. “My only requirement, you have to say the word ‘design’ in your speech,” Keller said. The speakers have been quite varied.
Take one recent speaker, a noted apple breeder at the University of Minnesota, who described the parentage of one of its most famous varieties, the First Kiss, which Capsule helped to name. “The mom is the Minnesota princess Honeycrisp, and the dad is a redneck from Arkansas,” is how the grower described the apple, Keller said. “It takes 18 years to get to a new apple.”
Or consider Eric Dayton, scion of the Dayton family and a restaurant owner, retailer and a livable urban design advocate. “He is an authentic entrepreneur,” Keller says, and also, yes, our “local billionaire,” but “he’s using entrepreneurship to do good. He could sit back and not do anything.”
There was the chocolate man, who’s inventing a fermentation process in a controlled environment that produces dark chocolate without the bitterness. “If it’s really dark it’s barely edible,” Keller explains about the percentage of cacao in the usual chocolate-making process. “His is a 92 percent and it tastes like a 70.”
There was the blow painter, whom Keller calls “the Kevin Bacon of the Twin Cities.”
“She’s a very interesting character, faith-driven. She did blow painting for the audience.” That’s right, blowing paint through a straw to create a piece of art. She says “the archangel Michelangelo guides her,” Keller said. “People loved it, thought it was totally different, something that you wouldn’t do on a Thursday morning.”
There was the guy that studies memory, who notes “we have really strong memories from our teens and early 20s,” then it’s all a mush. “He theorizes it’s because we get in these patterns,” Keller said that prove to dull our senses. Then he scrolls through his phone, exclaiming over a half-dozen more former and upcoming speakers. “It’s freaky cool stuff.”
Keller admits the monthly salons are difficult to keep going, and he concedes there are direct benefits to his business. Capsule gains attention from potential clients, and he and his employees get to expand their minds. “We’re selling our brains,” he explains, “so advancing our brains as a group is an important thing to do.”
But more to the point, the salons guard against everyone just staying home and YouTubing everything, “which would be a sad end to society, wouldn’t it? (of course, until the virus succumbs, that’s the only safe option)”
As Keller says about the topics, “This is not something you talk about every day,” and that is the point. What about you? How are you expanding your mind beyond the quotidian? (And if you don’t know what that means, take a brain-expanding moment to look it up.)