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Conversation Pieces at the SFMoma: the Pitfalls of Exhibiting Design in Arts Museums
When exhibiting design, what choices do we make and how do they frame the role of design (and textiles) in our lives and arts?
Per the exhibition description, “Conversation Pieces features 45 works of furniture that prioritize meaning and material choice over function and practicality” and “spark dialogue.” The questions here are: what kind of dialogue, and who can participate? Towards which goals?
On one visit, I overheard a visitor complaining aloud to her companion: “What’s this, a furniture store?” On another, a man badgered me for carrying my newborn. His monologue went something like this “babies need freedom of movement! Especially boys! He should be in a stroller.” By the end of the tirade he specified he never had children (as if it was not already obvious). My friend, a more experienced mom, waved him away. Not the dialogue the curators hoped for, but the longest impromptu interaction I’ve observed in this gallery.
The mansplainer did help me understand why this exhibition felt off. The chairs incontestably draw attention to materials and the crafting process. But I expected more from an exhibition aiming to spark conversations. Know which chairs are talked about, generate debates about “sustainability, identity and history”, to quote the museum’s description? Wheelchairs and strollers and the space that should be dedicated to them. Parents carrying babies. Public benches in parks and stations. Patios encroaching on what used to be parking space.
“Interspersed throughout, interviews with six designers, including Jay Sae Jung Oh and Fernando Laposse, speak to issues designers face today. In the spirit of dialogue, you are invited to join ongoing in-person and online conversations that draw connections between these collection works that touch upon sustainability, identity, and history.” - exhibition description
Now there’s nothing wrong in curating an exhibition of pieces by designers pushing the boundaries of what’s considered design or craft, where form follows technique rather than function. But framing them as design prioritizing meaning over function makes me cringe. Meaning for whom? Our everyday chairs have meaning. They tell rich stories about our identities. They are adorned, chosen under different types of constraints. And speaking of babies: strollers (or push chairs!) denote social class and style of parenting.
If this is about the chair as a motif in artistic practices, why are they not exhibited as pieces of art?
Now I don’t particularly want to replay the art and craft debates, though it is hard to ignore them in this case. Showcasing only high end pieces, without any context on the roles of chairs, and overall very little context on contemporary design professionals practices just seems like a waste of an opportunity. Maybe especially since Professor Galen Cranz, the design historian who’s written extensively about the history of chairs, the role of chairs in the development of design practice and the cultures of sitting, teaches nearby in Berkeley.
It is however a good example of the uneasy place of design in modern and contemporary arts museums.
Design and crafts were long ignored by art museums or the domain of museums focused on crafts or applied arts. You’ll now find them, sometimes squeezed in separate rooms next to art focused display, sometimes as temporary exhibitions, often in museum stores funnelling visitors into buying the kind of design museum goers appreciate. More rarely, they’re exhibited alongside artworks, echoing themes, periods, or testifying to artists’ excursion into that realm.
I was struck recently by a chair exhibited at the Quai Branly, in Paris. Their Songlines exhibition, aiming to preserve and transmit the Aborigen Songline of the Seven Sisters, closes on an adorned wheelchair wrapped in yarn and vegetable fibres, testifying to the lifelong work of art making in their culture. There’s much to say about the design of this wheelchair - the “only chair design that changed the world”. Here’s to hoping for design exhibition moving the needle on how to talk about design.
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