box

Donnie No moved to the United States in 1979. He was only three months old when his parents arrived in Cincinnati to start a new life. Neither of his parents spoke English, but they were ambitious, hard working and determined to make a better life for their young family. Mr. No purchased an old truck and roamed the industrial areas of Cincinnati for abandoned wood pallets, crates and other discarded building materials. He repaired and rebuilt these pallets and crates and resold them to a local shipping company. He named his company No Pallets and Crates but soon changed it to Navis Pallets and Crates, and later to Navis Pack and Ship. His company now owns a 50,000 square foot commercial building in Cincinnati and is one of the largest providers of pallets, crates and shipping services in North America.

It was not until Donnie No was five-years-old that he was diagnosed as a deaf-mute. His young parents had no experience in child rearing and directed the bulk of their attention towards the financial security of the family. But at some point they could not deny that Donnie could neither hear nor speak and with heavy hearts realized that their only son was not a normal child. Given the gravity of his impairment and the new country to which the No family was still adjusting, Donnie was never enrolled in kindergarten or elementary school and instead grew up amongst the broken pallets, handsaws and shipping crates.

Despite his inability to hear or speak, Donnie was a very bright child and spent his days watching his father work and absorbing the family trade. While some child prodigies learn Mozart or study Gödel, Donnie No became a master craftsperson at a very early age. But what separated Donnie from other craftspeople (and the other employees at Navis Pack and Ship) was that he constructed boxes as his primary form of communication. It was through his constructions that Donnie asked for more food, expressed his frustrations and displayed his deep understanding of math, physics and science. If Donnie was upset, his boxes would have violent angles and sharp edges. If Donnie was hungry, his boxes would be tall and empty with an open top. If he wanted to be left alone, his boxes would have no lid and one-hundred nails to a side.

Design quickly became Donnie No’s adopted language.

He made boxes out of cardboard and wood and disassembled pop cans. He taught himself to weld and cast and mastered origami by the time he was ten. But for all of the objects he fabricated, each box had a specific purpose—–it was a statement, and as his voice, his language, he never spent any more time than was necessary to communicate what his vocal cords would not accommodate.

When other people looked down in sympathy or made him feel stupid, he would create boxes of great scientific marvel. One small box could be thrown to the ground and unfold into a crate large enough for an elephant to walk into. Another could roll around a room as if it were a ball.

When he got a little bit older and wanted a girlfriend, he designed boxes that were decorative treasures inside of treasures. He would polish teak until it was as soft as a newborn baby. He created boxes that made girls’ hearts flutter and the palms of their hands sweat.

There were times when Donnie was at total peace and he would make no boxes at all.

But never was his voice tangled with useless words or flowered Victorian speak. If he wanted to kiss a girl, he would never construct a box that wandered in ambiguity—–his box would say, “I want to kiss you.” If he felt his father was making a bad business decision, he would not construct a box that pondered the weather—–he would construct a box that said, “You are making a bad business decision.” His mastery of language was complete and concise—–just not delivered with tongue and throat but with his hands and the materials available to him.

In June of 2007, Donnie’s parents passed away, and he took to the task of building their caskets. Though Mr. and Mrs. No rarely socialized outside of their tightly knit Korean family, everyone who witnessed the pair of matching caskets wept openly at their beauty and sentiment. Donnie had spoken without vowels or adjectives but through a perfect clarity and understanding of the language of design.

Donnie now runs the family business and is a young father with two young children of his own. He doesn’t have the time to build clever mechanical boxes or the interest to woo young women with objects of beauty, but every once in awhile he will surprise his wife and daughters with an imaginative toy or testament of his love. He has very little to prove and is comfortable with his place in life. Mainly, he just makes really good crates. Nothing too fancy, nothing excessive, just strong, well-constructed boxes. You can tell just by looking at them.