Thinking Inside the Box
Thinking Inside the Box
Among the myriad recent trends in design and architecture — from the rage for limited-edition “art furniture” and the proliferation of ambitious museum and condominium buildings — one thing has slipped by with hardly any notice: In the past year or two, a flurry of high-profile museum appointments, especially in the U.S., has been altering the field’s curatorial landscape. This development reflects broader shifts in the way museums are engaging design — how it is being collected, exhibited and, more generally, thought about and discussed.
With their diverse backgrounds and approaches, the new and relocated curators are indicative of a discipline in flux. In some cases, they signal the field’s rising stature, helming new departments — witness R. Craig Miller at the Indianapolis Museum of Art — or building contemporary concentrations within established historical collections, as Zoë Ryan, at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Ronald Labaco, at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, are doing. Some are veterans—such as Cara McCarty, who left the St. Louis Art Museum last year to become the curatorial director at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, in New York—while others are relative outsiders, coming from academia (Barry Bergdoll, the chief architecture and design curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), journalism (Deyan Sudjic, the director of London’s Design Museum) or commercial galleries (Henry Urbach at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).
Their appointments come at a crucial moment for the field. Many skeptics have become increasingly wary of design’s ongoing dalliance with the art market—say, Marc Newsons furniture being shown at the Gagosian gallery amid a swirl of rising prices—as well as its flirtation with what some consider gimmickry: How many ironic teacups and clever vases does the world really need? In this environment, the clarifying role of the museum is more important than ever. To be sure, the booming market has presented predictable obstacles to the performance of this role. “It’s certainly made some things very expensive,” says sfmoma’s Urbach, who acquired a mirror-finished Ron Arad A.Y.O.R. (At Your Own Risk) chair for the museum for an undisclosed sum. But it has also provided an opportunity for the institutions to assert a more sober viewpoint. “It’s important to keep trends in perspective,” states Urbach. The Art Institute’s Ryan adds: “The market is not of great interest to us.”
Instead, museums are bringing a renewed focus to design as an agent of social good, as demonstrated in projects as diverse as sustainable architecture and portable water filters for use in the developing world. Meanwhile, new technologies and materials are opening up once unheard-of possibilities in the field just as institutions are discovering of a growing imperative to educate audiences about design and its impact on everything from consumer choices to how people both perceive and organize the world. And as design’s definition and reach continue to expand beyond the familiar terrain of consumer products, the very concept of “object” is becoming both more captivating and more elusive.
“I was laughing about this the other day, but basically, my newest show has hardly any products in it,” says Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s curator of design since 1994. Although Antonelli is not among the new wave of curators, the exhibition she’s referring to, “Design and the Elastic Mind” (through May 12), is a good place to start a conversation about the shift away from things toward ideas. Positioned at the confluence of technology and design, the show presents abstract scientific concepts as they are visualized and translated into understandable and usable forms, whether with nano- and microscopic technology (micron-thin conductors and human-tissue generation), through new modes of grasping the world (mapping programs, sensory devices) or with freehand “sketching” in a motion graphics studio, like that used to create chairs by the Swedish design group Front.
The show “deals more with the process of design than with the end product,” says Bergdoll, who, shortly after joining Antonelli at MoMA last year, brought in German curator Andres Lepik as a contemporary-architecture specialist. Bergdoll’s own show, “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling,” will have a similar slant when it opens at MoMA in July. “We are going to take on really big issues with real contemporary resonance,” he says, referring to the array of social and environmental concerns that will be addressed in his exhibition. “That, I think, is both discourse capturing and discourse leading.”
Of course, MoMA will not be abandoning historical shows and more-straightforward retrospectives. But it is evolving from its canonical, and often formalistic, origins—in the 1950s, for example, it acted as the arbiter of Good Design, wielding its own kind of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. The museum is now joining other institutions in presenting the subject with more immediacy. Consider the Cooper-Hewitt and its National Design Triennial, which, since its inauguration in 2000, has cut a broad swath, combining new furniture and fashion with handheld devices and digital interfaces. “We want to focus on the range of designs that address human needs and solve problems in good ways,” says McCarty.
Other museums have also been blurring boundaries between disciplines. Such strategies, however, come with risks. As design became conflated with lifestyle in the early 2000s — call it the Wallpaper magazine effect — Manolo Blahnik shoes and Constance Spry flower arrangements began appearing on the exhibition schedule at the Design Museum in London. Whether one found them bold and innovative or frivolous and off topic, these shows marked a change in direction that opened well-publicized rifts at the museum. Before long, its dynamic director, Alice Rawsthorn, was out, and Deyan Sudjic was in, restoring a measure of gravitas to the programming.
Since Sudjic took over, in 2006, the museum has hosted a number of well-done, if somewhat safe, exhibitions. Still, last winter, it also mounted a midcareer retrospective of Matthew Williamson, the British fashion designer best known for dressing Sienna Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna. But such cross-disciplinary forays have also yielded some intriguing topical shows, such as Brooke Hodges “Skin + Bones: Parallel Practices in Fashion and Architecture” last year at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
The intersections among the art, design and architecture fields have long been explored in inventive (and, yes, sometimes contrived) ways. But sfmoma’s appointment in 2006 of Urbach, a onetime New York gallerist, marked something of a turning point. “What I’m hoping to do here is very much an extension of what I aspired to do with the gallery,” says Urbach, who operated his influential space from 1998 to 2005.
Back then, Urbach’s architecture shows were often more like art installations: a moss-covered, climate-controlled landscape by the design collective Freecell or a cement mixer–turned–media cocoon by the architecture firm Lot-Ek. It is this high-concept sensibility that Urbach is bringing to sfmoma. For example, “Cut: Revealing the Section,” on view there through June 8, investigates the implications of the architectural-section drawing, not only in pen and pencil but through film—as in Gordon Matta-Clarks Splitting, 1974—while placing sculptural pieces alongside a specially commissioned installation by Peter Wegner composed of more than a million sheets of paper that bisect the gallery. Like many of his peers, Urbach acknowledges that design, despite its pervasiveness, is still a subject not well understood by the public. So, he says, he’s emphasizing “experimental projects that will offer our audience an embodied, visceral experience of space.” In other words, by reframing design as something that is encountered as well as explained, Urbach is employing the critical faculties more commonly applied to art to convey, extract and expand on underlying meanings.
Given that many design stores are now displaying their wares in museumlike settings, with the reciprocal effect of making museums look more like showrooms, Urbach’s beyond-the-pedestal strategy seems almost a prerequisite for differentiation. At the same time, this approach reinforces the notion that design and architecture in many ways exist outside the physical artifact. The curator and Cincinnati Art Museum director Aaron Betsky is charting a similar course as organizer of the upcoming Venice Architecture Biennale. “The theme is going to be architecture beyond buildings—how architecture achieves its aims without buildings, around buildings, through buildings,” says Betsky, adding that when the 10th Biennale opens, in September, it will include “films, site-specific installations, collected images and manifestos”—anything, it seems, but buildings as conventionally represented in models and photographs.
It’s worth noting, however, that just as Betsky, the former director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute and a predecessor of Urbach’s at sfmoma, was being appointed director of the Cincinnati museum in 2006, Terence Riley, who previously held Bergdoll’s position at MoMA, was settling into the same post at the Miami Art Museum. That both came from architecture and are now heading art institutions that are in the midst of constructing dramatic new facilities may speak to just how important real buildings are to museums nowadays.
Of course, the acquisition and preservation of real objects remains the core mission of museums. “We’re trying to identify key designers and really exciting work that shows a story of the current state of design and where it’s heading,” says Ryan, who joined the Art Institute of Chicago in 2006 with a mandate to develop its contemporary-design collection. Under the architecture and design curator Joe Rosa, her department already has significant 20th-century holdings. Yet as Ryan prepares to move into expanded quarters next spring, she and her peers are confronting questions about how to acquire the latest work.
For one thing, how do you collect interactive media? Or software that requires obsolete hardware that’s prone to breaking down, if it’s available at all? How do you sift through and consider the dizzying array of prototypes, maquettes and process renderings, both digital and physical? And when you acquire an object made by rapid prototyping—a way of “printing” three-dimensional objects that has had a huge impact on design—do you also acquire the computer code it’s based on? For MoMA, the answer is yes.
Then there’s the rising market for limited-editions like Zaha Hadid benches and Bouroullec brothers beds. At its best, most curators say, the current climate creates a platform for experimentation and a way for designers to fund new ideas while generating heightened interest in design. At its worst, it’s an overhyped distraction that saps talent that could be put to better use, while inflating prices to the detriment of both museums and the designers whose work institutions now can’t afford. Still, “we’ll weather it,” says Antonelli. “But honestly, of the 400,000 people who see a show at MoMA, only a small fraction [will ever have any experience with] this kind of furniture.” The debate may continue in the field, but the wider world focuses on the practical. Even museums have bigger issues to contend with—“like storage,” Antonelli says.
"Thinking Inside the Box" originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's April 2008 Table of Contents.