When designers curate themselves

Design objects are produced to make a profit, so why is this being ignored in design exhibitions?

Curators are very important people. They decide who is in and who is not. They select and evaluate what is offered to the public. They determine the way their choice is presented. And in doing so, they eventually explain complex backgrounds or bring us on the way to extraordinary experiences. Curators can influence our personal opinion and the public view – sometimes their selection is also a stimulus to the market. No wonder that nowadays everybody wants to be a curator. When looking around in my everyday routine, I discovered many unexpected curators – or at least those who claimed themselves to be such. The concept store round the corner states his offer of shoes, books and fashion to be curated. The programme of a recent congress on refugee architecture was curated. There are curated maps and parties, festivals and architecture or design awards. Curating is finally a magic word for everything – no doubt the selection of sausages at a takeaway can also be curated, and I bet those sausages will be much more expensive than ordinary ones.

The objective behind calling something “curated” is easily exposed: curating brings a highly esteemed academic background to simple selections. Curated contents pretend to show an independent view after an extended period of study or research, and sometimes they certainly do. In general, our expectations are much higher for a museum exhibition than for a shop window. Curating for a design museum is a notably demanding job; it must find the right balance whilst catching the attention of a wide public on the one side and communicating a thrilling, exciting view – one that can add a new perspective to the mainstream – on the other side. The curator is the moderator between these two poles, and his/her specific perspective on design is crucial to this challenge.

Turning design into art
A recent exhibition at the International Design Museum in Munich was drafted as a Konstantin Grcic solo show, and surely the work of the designer has the potential to attract many visitors, especially in Munich, where his studio is based. “He dedicates his first show in Munich to the Chair_One, an icon of design that everybody knows,” the museum’s director, Angelika Nollert, said at the opening, as if the designer and not herself were the curator. It’s understandable why Grcic chose his Chair_One, produced since 2003 by the Italian company Magis, as the focus of the exhibition: Twenty-seven models and prototypes of the chair’s variations are part of the Design Museum’s huge collection. Displaying parts of it is a legitimate opportunity for the museum to show its own treasures that are most of the time hidden in the archive. Indeed, the models of Chair_One could open a new perspective on the iconic piece of furniture and make visitors look behind the completed product by explaining the process of design – from the designers’ studies of construction to their experiments with different materials. But even if the exhibition’s intention was promoted exactly this way, its execution went in the opposite direction. The models made of cardboard or wire, steel or 3-D printing technology were showcased in bulky neon-coloured shelves made out of profiles and glass sheets that Grcic himself had designed for this purpose. In this way, they became self-sufficient objects. Instead of telling a process, the models became art sculptures on a platform, frozen and aestheticized in a museum.

When designers curate themselves
The context of a museum can easily change industrial design into art, which is a clear misunderstanding. In contrast to art, design is not independent but has a close relation to commerce. In the end, design objects are produced to make a profit. The museum is not the right place to ignore this aspect – on the contrary, it could be a critical institution to explain this aspect. All in all, the curating balance for Konstantin Grcic: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly failed. There was no critical mindset and no good, bad or ugly example for anything, but only ennobled art sculptures without explaining any approach.

Some designers may be ambitious curators. But normally their task is not in the first line to curate exhibitions. Hence, dedicating an exhibition to a design star, making him the secret curator while linking to all the manufacturers the designer is cooperating with, is an alluring and quite popular temptation. The strategy was in evidence also at the Marcel Wanders exhibition in Amsterdam in 2014. The Stedelijk Museum “proudly” presented Marcel Wanders: Pinned Up At The Stedelijk, officially announced as the “largest-ever survey of one of the Netherlands’ most distinguished designers.” The precondition and the purpose of the exhibition was to show the “distinguished designer” and make him an even more known superstar, by celebrating him with a shower of butterflies, a cocktail personally designed for the exhibition and a guest list that read like a who’s who in international design. As a consequence of this intention, museums have become platforms for the star attraction and self-manifestations of designers instead of places to discover and understand the design world.

Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby chose another way for their exhibition at the London Design Museum in 2014. In the Making was a collection of twenty-four uncompleted, mid-manufacture objects. They were displayed in the exhibition architecture of Universal Design Studio, providing a black box that clearly focused on the objects themselves and their sculptural qualities. Edward Barber explained the driving force of this principle: “Some of the items are more beautiful and sculptural than the finished pieces.” Instead of restricting themselves to their own work, the designers curated a show where their attraction to uncompleted objects was displayed. And with their curators’ view, they explained indirectly what their understanding of beauty and their approach to industrial or crafted design is all about. One might accept their idea of beauty or not – but in any case, the exhibition told a lot about Barber and Osgerby’s design thinking.
There are designers who are pretty good at creating exhibition designs – for example, both Nendo and Sou Fujimoto have created surprising spatial atmospheres for exhibitions. Others are able to combine interesting perspectives for communicating the work of other designers and architects. Their view as a curator might not always be persuasive. But as long as they keep a critical distance, their offer can be taken as the basis for an argument. What counts in curating, in the end, is to find the right angle for an independent viewpoint that opens new questions and shows their relevance even in a wider field. Shouldn’t we give more credit to independent design curators who are able to provide an external view on the work of designers? I refuse to believe that there aren’t enough around.

Text: Sandra Hofmeister




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