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10 Questions With… MoMA Curator Juliet Kinchin

Juliet Kinchin, curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA. Photography by Robert Gerhardt, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Juliet Kinchin, dressed in black accented by pops of color from her necklace (a find at the MoMA Design Store) and ruby-red square bracelet, walked through The Value of Good Design exhibition at theMuseum of Modern Art in New York, pausing at an armchair designed by Hans Wegner in the 1940s as if seeing it for the first time. But this was hardly Kinchin’s introduction to the object in front of her—she curated the exhibition.  

As Curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA since 2008, Kinchin has organized design retrospectives ranging fromCounter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen (2010-11) to Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900-2000 (2012) and held faculty positions at The Glasgow School of Art and at The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in Design in New York. Positioning objects in ways that create new dialogue is her forte.  

The Value of Good Design runs through June 15, 2019 and features household objects, furniture, and appliances from the late 1930s through the 1950s when the U.S. emerged as what Kinchin calls a “design superpower.” It also spotlights MoMA’s Good Design Initiatives, which served as an incubator for innovation at the time. After the walk-through, Kinchin shared some insights into her curatorial process with Interior Design, including her earliest design influences, addressing inclusivity in exhibitions, and the joy of re-purposing vintage curtains.

The Anywhere Lamp by Greta Von Nessen (1951), made of aluminum and enameled steel. Photography courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Interior Design: What does ‘good design’ mean today?

Juliet Kinchin: The words ‘good design’ are always going to conjure up different things for different people. And something that was considered good design in the 1950s doesn’t necessarily hold up nowadays. Good design should reflect technological advances and the social conditions or aspirations of each generation. It goes without saying that most people don’t want to live in the past or dress like our parents and grandparents. Having said that, some objects and core values do seem to have stood the test of time—generally those which combine eye appeal, functionality, and affordability. This was a combination of values that MoMA curators, like Edgar Kaufmann Jr., were trying to seek out at mid-century. What’s perhaps different is the way we are now thinking more about sustainability and the ethical dimension of the way things are made and sold.

ID: Why choose to explore the value of good design through mid-century pieces?  

JK: The second world war and its aftermath brought design into focus as a tool for engineering change, whether social, technological, or economic. It was a time of tremendous experimentation, innovation, and idealism in the design of everyday objects and, from 1945 at least, a time of optimism about creating a different, more egalitarian future. I think we are all hungry for that kind of optimism and innovation right now. ‘Good Design’ at mid-century was an international phenomenon and in our exhibition at MoMA we wanted to show the commonality of approaches and thinking in different parts of the world, and the networks through which so many designers and manufacturers moved freely.

Read more: 10 Questions With… Lisa White

Prototype for Chaise Lounge (La Chaise) by Charles Eames and Ray Eames (1948), made of hard rubber foam, plastic, wood, and metal. Photography by Jonathan Muzikar, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

ID: What’s the greatest challenge when curating an exhibition like this? 

JK: The exhibition includes objects of such different scales and media, which is also half the fun, from a Tupperware popsicle to printed textiles, a Fiat Cinquecento, and a film made by Charles and Ray Eames for the 1959 American National Exhibition held in Moscow. It’s about trying to arrange them in meaningful and visually coherent groups, bringing designed objects into friendly dialogue, or argument, with each other. It is also a challenge to put developments in the U.S. in a broad international context. We have included stunning and familiar design from Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, and the U.K. but also wanted to move beyond them to countries like Czechoslovakia, Mexico, Japan. It was interesting to see how good design was coopted into a framework of Cold War politics. One only has to think of the face-off in 1959 between Nixon and Kruschev in front of a fitted American kitchen on view in Moscow. It is a timely reminder about the power of design as an ideological weapon.

ID: How do you address inclusivity, especially when revisiting work from the 1930s through 1950s?

JK: There is no doubt that in those decades the design professions were far from inclusive in terms of gender and ethnicity, and that often credit was not always publicly given where it was due. We don’t want to whitewash the past, but through research into the collections and staging exhibitions that pose sometimes difficult questions about whose values we represent, we can often throw light upon objects and individuals from the past that reflect current concerns with inclusivity. To give a couple of examples, in the Organic Design competition of 1940 organized by MoMA, prize-winning designs by Ray Eames, Noémi Raymond and Clara Porset were all credited to their respective husbands. We have little representation of African American designers working at mid-century, but we now know a little more about Joel Robinson whose textiles were featured in magazines like Ebony and were highly lauded at the 1951 Good Design exhibitions held in MoMA and the Chicago Merchandise Mart. It is also true to say that the Good Design program was a lifeline for many women at mid-century who were perhaps working in relative isolation and found it difficult to make headway in larger corporate firms of the period.

Butterfly Stools by Sori Yanagi (1956) made of molded plywood and metal. Photography courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

ID: You’ve lived and worked in Europe and the U.S.—what most distinguishes the design appetite in these areas? 

JK: Each city, region, country has its own design culture and material feel, even if many of the actual products are actually the same in different parts of the world, and our high streets are increasingly homogenized by global corporations. New York has a different pace and energy from anywhere else I’ve lived, but I don’t feel design is given as much priority in government-led initiatives and agendas as in many other parts of Europe.

ID: What is your earliest memory of being impacted by design?

JK: As a young child, I remember being mesmerized by the version of Ray Eames’s Hang-It-All coatrack finished with colored plastic balls, and the colorful abstract patterns of curtains my mother had bought in the 1950s—I have patched and relined these over the years and still use them in my own home.

Mitsubishi Sewing Machine Silkscreen by Hiroshi Ohchi (c. 1950s). Image courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

ID: Back in 2012, you organized ‘Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900-2000’ at MoMA; did any of your favorite childhood toys make it into the exhibition?  

JK: Like many children (and adults) the world over I played for hours with a Slinky. As we speak, I can remember the transfer of its weight from hand-to-hand, and the clinking whirring sound of the spring as it unfurled and sprang back. And the smell of the metal in tiny hot hands! I was delighted to feature this mainstay of MoMA’s Good Design exhibitions in both ‘Century of the Child’ and the current show.

ID: What’s your process when it comes to curating spaces, either for exhibitions or in your home? Where do you start?

JK: I love stuff—not only the way it looks and feels, but sounds, smells, perhaps even tastes … I find the things that ‘call out’ to me often reflect the issues or things I am thinking about in the present. Whether we are looking at design from the past, or future-oriented design, we are always filtering perceptions through the present. Curation is about exploring relationships between artworks. I like to think of it in terms of creating a new social life for things, introducing them to new friends, making up with one-time enemies, having a civilized conversation with strangers. And it’s about trying to pace the experience, creating contemplative as well as abrasive moments, and about mixing familiar favorites with less well-known pieces. Exhibiting everyday objects like an axe, a shrimp deveiner, a cookie cutter in the context of an art museum forces people to look twice at such things and to see them in a different light.

The 500f city car by Dante Giacosa (designed 1957; example pictured from 1968) made of steel with fabric top. Photography by Jonathan Muzikar, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

ID: What most surprises you about the way people interact with exhibitions through social media?

JK: I think people are often using their phones as a means of looking in detail at design rather than recording and saving images for posterity. Taking and posting photos on social media has become an incredibly important way of consuming design without having to actually purchase it or possess it physically.

ID: What’s your ‘go to’ source of inspiration?

JK: Flea markets, old magazines, libraries and archives, artists’ studios, podcasts, street signs and sounds, factories … design is everywhere you care to look.

Low Chair by Charlotte Perriand (designed 1940), made of bamboo. Photography by Jonathan Muzikar, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Read more: 10 Questions With… Caroline Till

Continue reading 10 Questions With… MoMA Curator Juliet Kinchin

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