Heather Purcell Leja of Design OnScreen talks architecture and modernist preservation
Since 2007, Design OnScreen has worked to preserve modern architecture across America by producing and presenting films focusing on unheralded architects and designers, and also curating architecture-centered film festivals around the world. And it's fought this good fight from its headquarters in Denver, Colorado.
As Design OnScreen's Architecture + Design Film Series comes to a close this week, Executive Director Heather Purcell Leja took some time to speak to Westword about the foundation's origins and what's in store for the non-profit.
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Westword: Design OnScreen as a non-profit has been around for a while. Can you talk a little bit about go how it started, and your role in the organization?
Heather Purcell Leja: It was founded in 2007 by Kirk Brown and his wife, Jill Wiltse. They are terrific supporters of the arts in Denver -- as well as design and photography. They are all-around great people, who had the idea for a non-profit foundation that would just focus on making films about architecture and design. The idea was really to make films more on the "unsung heros" of architecture and design. Frank Lloyd Wright has a lot of films about him, but there are so many architects and designers who are making incredible contributions not just to their profession, but to their communities. Their ideas and designs really deserve a wider audience, and film is a terrific way to bring the experience of being an architect and their designs to people all over the world.
I am an attorney who specialized in entertainment and intellectual property law in the past, and I was working with [Brown and Wiltse] and heard about their idea and thought, wow, this sounds terrific, and I wanted to help. So we worked together to bring the organization into being and get the 501(c)3 status secured starting in 2008. I came on board in in August of 2008 and had that status granted in 2009. Since then, we have been making films -- we have produced six films since 2008 on both architects and designers.
We also began co-producing and participating in architecture and design film festivals and film series. First here in Denver, and then we started to spread to something we've done annually in Palm Springs, and then doing them around the world. We've been contacted by people in places like Moscow and Auckland, New Zealand and Venice, Italy, saying, "We see that you do this and we'd really like to do this in our local community." So that has become of tremendous part of fulfilling our mission, too.
And what is that mission?
We are a non-profit foundation dedicated to producing, promoting and preserving high-quality films on architecture and design. The promoting part is kind of the festival part. The preserving part -- we've also given grants to places like the Museum Of Modern Art in New York to digitize old design-related films so they can be preserved and featured in exhibitions. [Design OnScreen is also] using film to capture interviews with these great architects and designers, particularly from the mid-century period who they (themselves) are in their mid-eighties and -nineties -- so there's kind of an urgency about even getting certain people on film.
Did you have to step away from practicing law to become the Executive Director of Design OnScreen?
It's very helpful that I'm an attorney as well as executive director, because I end up doing the production legal work -- the image releases, production agreements, location releases, clearances for various images used in film and things like that. So I certainly use my law degree a lot in what I do, in addition to having a background in hotels -- which helps me put together events. It kind of brings together a lot of things that I enjoy doing. I'm very fortunate.
There is another organization in New York called Checkerboard Films, and they have been around for thirty years. They have a broader portfolio that includes films on art, architecture and design -- and have done several films on architecture and design as well. They have kind of been an encouraging older sibling for us -- they supported the idea of another foundation like us coming into the same space. They've given us a lot of advice and support along the way. Our mission is a bit more focused than what they are doing.