It all started when…

In 1984 I left my position as senior designer responsible for The Industrial Design and Graphic Design Group at Tektronix Inc., a billion dollar company, in Beaverton, Oregon. Coaxed by my colleagues, I applied to the masters program at the new Domus Academy in Milan, Italy. The school accepted only 25 students for the Industrial Design program taught by luminaries of the Italian design community. One of the principal instructors was Mario Bellini, my “design idol,” who was considered to be one of the best industrial designers in the world, with several products in the Museum of Modern Art. Amazingly, I was accepted in May, but agonized about leaving my comfortable life. Unable to dismiss such an incredible opportunity, that August I got on a plane bound for Milan embarking on what would become one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Milan is a vibrant, international city. A Mecca for designers from all over the world and my classmates at Domus reflected this international quality. We studied with the best; Bonetto, Branzi, Bellini—extraordinary! I paid for my expenses by teaching aerobics at the premiere studio (American instructors were sought after) and by photographing models for the ubiquitous fashion industry of Milan. My thesis project, William, was published in Domus Magazine and is one of the first notebook computers ever designed.  The product had a large, touch flat screen (same size and similar functions as the ipad), no keyboard, and on the opposite leaf four, modular, removable components. One of the modules is almost identical to today’s iphone and was designed to also have similar functions, although I had to wait for Al Gore to invent the internet! I created a twenty-minute video that illustrated “a day in the life” of someone using William; getting the weather and news in the morning, using William as a design tablet at work, removing the portable “iphone-like” module and playing music while walking in the park. When the presentation was finished Bellini’s response was, “perfecto!” That September, William and several other futuristic products designed at Domus were exhibited at the prestigious Salona di Mobili in Milan.

When I returned home to the states in January of 1986, I sent the documentation for William to Steve Jobs at Apple. I never heard back from Mr. Jobs. I had the pleasure of running into Steven at the Aspen Design Conference in 1989. I asked him if he remembered my design for William. He did not and requested I send it again. This time, I sent the design and video to NEXT, his new company. I never did hear back from Mr. Jobs.  I have often wondered if William had any part in the conception of the iphone some 20 years later. With Steven gone, I will never know. In his biography, one of his favorite quotes, attributed to Picasso, was “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” Telling perhaps.

Looking for the “next” thing, I met with Dean Conrad, an industrial design classmate and friend from Syracuse University. In 1979, our 5th and final year at Syracuse, I had designed an innovative bed for sick children for my thesis project in conjunction with a gastroenterologist. The project was selected and represented Syracuse University at an international design competition in Mexico City. After Mexico, I shelved the project and went off to Oregon. Dean had been intrigued by the product’s potential and was interested in starting a company to manufacture and sell the product. I patented the Reflux Bed and we started COZCON. I designed an exhibit booth and we traveled to trade shows on both coasts collecting orders. In the ensuing years, although the product was clinically successful, COZCON was never profitable and we reluctantly closed the business in 1989.

The 90’s saw the creation of CDG, The Cozzi Design Group. My sister Paula, my brother Philip and I combined our design talents and opened an office at 99 Maiden Lane in NYC. I had a satellite office in Madison, CT. Philip’s expertise was in environmental/architectural design, Paula’s in fashion design and I handled the industrial and graphic design part of the business. We successfully collaborated on various design projects in the U.S. and in Italy throughout most of the decade as CDG. By the mid 90’s I began growing tired of the hurried pace and the lack of “soul” in the design business and gradually went back to my roots as a sculptural stonemason. This was an art that came to me naturally and that I had practiced thru high school and college. I found the outdoor, hands-on-work with stone rewarding. By 1997, I was making most of my income designing and building with stone and CDG was a minor character in my life.

By the end of the decade I began to look for another career. I had been an exercise instructor since 1980 and loved motivating my students. In 1998 I took the advice of Bonnie Reese, former Director of Fitness at In-Shape and a 30-year public school teaching veteran, and applied for the Accelerated Route to Teaching Certification. I was accepted and I completed the enriching program in the summer of 1999. I was teaching that September at Conte West Hills K-8. What I realized my first day, when a class of 27 first graders entered my trailer, was that I had no control. I had petitioned the principal to let me convert a double-wide mobile home trailer, previously used as storage rooms and parked on the playground, into an art studio—art cannot be taught well on a cart. Forget teaching art, I could not get the rambunctious children to even sit down. After a harrowing day, I was resigned that teaching urban children was not for me. I spent a sleepless night wondering how I would inform my principal, Mr. Drago, that I was leaving. That morning I had an epiphany; I would take my dog, Alex, to school with me. He was extremely well trained, obedient and the best retriever I had ever seen.  Alex was a rescue dog and had been my constant companion for four years. Alex became my teaching assistant. The students would take any direction from me as long as there was the possibility to pet Alex or to throw his ball as a reward.  I did not tell my principal I was bringing my dog to school, but he found out soon enough. “You can’t bring your dog to school” he declared. I asked him, “Please, watch me teach with Alex and then decide”. After observing my class he relented by saying, “All right, but it’s completely your responsibility, you are on your own”.  Over the next ten years, Alex would come to school with me everyday. In his career, Alex was scrutinized and in the end accepted by five different principals. None of them could deny his positive impact on students and even though he was not legally supposed to be there, Alex became an institution. Without Alex, I would not be teaching today.          

In 2002 I began a major project; the complete renovation of a dilapidated house on a hill overlooking the West River in Guilford. The project included the building of an adjacent art studio and the transformation of the surrounding landscape. To accomplish this I enlisted my friend Dean Conrad. After COZCON, Dean focused on architecture and has become an executive with CB Ellis Richard supervising the construction of hotels, office buildings and schools. On weekends, the two of us designed and constructed the house and studio over an eight-year period. During this time, I also built hundreds of feet of dry wall that redefine and accentuate the hilly landscape. I documented the renovation in film and photographs and used the project to inspire my students. In October of 2010, I exhibited the project in the Open Studios Exhibition in New Haven. Camp Cozzi is across the river from Bitner Park, a well-appointed recreational area with trails and ball fields. It even has a skateboard park! My vision is for the house and grounds to someday expand into the park and become a school for the arts where urban kids from New Haven can come to create art and experience nature.

“The teacher teaches what he needs to learn.” Teaching was a rebirth for me as an artist. I teach by example and I relished rediscovering the joy of creating art for art’s sake with crayons and paint. In 2009 it was time for me to leave Conte–West Hills and my k-8 students. I had accomplished my goal; taking a kindergarten class thru 8th grade, nine years of art with Mr. Cozzi and Alex. Alex’s health was waning and coming to school was becoming difficult for him. I interviewed and was hired as the Lead Visual Arts teacher at Co-Op high school. Co-Op is New Haven’s flagship school for the arts. The irony is that I was hired to teach sculpture and ceramics. These subjects had been my passion all through high school. Thirty-five years later I have come full circle.  I love working with clay again. I am inspired to create and I create, in this wonderful medium, to inspire.  It feels like I have come home.