Every once in a while, a museum exhibition comes along that’s a must-see for design enthusiasts. The Museum of Modern Art’s upcoming falls into this category.
For one, the exhibit, which runs from February 10 to June 15 in New York City, celebrates some of the design world’s most iconic pieces (think the Eames chair), along with some lesser-known items that are just as worthy of esteem due to their innovative use of materials. But beyond that, "The Value of Good Design" is a testament to the renowned museum's unwavering mission of documenting the very best that the industry has to offer—a commitment that dates back to the late 1930s.
We spoke with Juliet Kinchin, MoMA's Curator, for the Department of Architecture and Design, about what constitutes good design today and what visitors can expect from the exhibit.
Siweb: You joined MoMA in 2008 with the objective of focusing on the history of modern design. What was your goal in curating "The Value of Good Design" exhibit?
JULIET KINCHIN: It allows us to bring out, from our incredibly rich holdings of mid-century design, some really familiar objects that are still in production, or ones that people will instantly recognize like Tupperware, Eames furniture, or the Dieter Rams electronics.
But there are also some really weird and wonderful items in the mix, too. Perhaps they didn't stand the test of the time, but what you get overall is this incredible sense of exploration of new materials and techniques. Materials like plastics, plywood, and fiber glass have been pushed to their limit. We're also building off of a lot of research that took off in World War II and trying to think about new ways of living.
Roughly a half of the exhibition focuses on how MoMA addressed this whole international movement of good design. From the outset, MoMA was interested in ideas of how to extend art—in all of its forms—into everyday life. Through industrial design, if you combine functionality with eye appeal and affordability, then you really could extend this principle of art to enhance daily life. We want consumers to focus on the quality of objects with which we surround ourselves. It’s also not a nostalgic show. These objects are just consistently inspiring to look at, handle, and think about.
ED: It's clear that you've thoroughly researched a wide variety of items for this initiative. Can you share some of your favorites?
JK: The first thing you see when you walk into the show is this adorable FIAT. It almost looks like a pet. You want to take it home. It is really compact and has a very sculptural feel to it and is great for urban parking. That's the kind of object that captures the international spirit of innovation in design.
There's also this East German camera called the Werra. In some sense, it is redundant, because many people don’t take photos with film anymore. But it's such a beautiful piece of equipment. The controls are beautifully integrated in the design. It's really simple, compact, and easy to handle.
ED: What is your definition of good design, especially considering the research you just completed for this project?
JK: Good design means different things to different people. It is not a fixed, universal value system. What might have been good design in the 1940s is not necessarily good design today. For instance, we now have to think very differently about plastic and how we use and abuse it.
ED: How has this upcoming exhibit inspired you as a curator?
JK: It is such a luxury to be able to rummage through a collection that is so deep and varied. Each time I do a show, I find unexpected things when putting objects in the same room together. For me, just seeing the kind of international synergy—people thinking along parallel lines as far apart as Brazil, Tokyo, or New York—to see how design ideas both have a commonality and yet a quite distinct, regional character, was inspiring. There are some things I hadn’t expected to talk to each other in such a friendly or engaged way. It is sort of like setting up conversations between objects.
Another real eye-opener for me was bringing out these textiles from 1940, which are in variations of rusty browns. They have a quite muted, earthy palette, but they are so beautiful and seem so fresh. I could imagine them being produced today.
ED: How does the exhibit compare to past shows?
JK: I had the luxury of being able to explore our collection over time. I had a clear vision in mind of what groups of things might work together, and it also helped that I'm familiar with the space at MoMA. As a curator, you need to know how the space works, and you have to vary the tempo a bit as you move through the exhibition. There needs to be little vignettes, a highlight of a single item here, and a grouping there. You're choreographing a narrative of groupings. You could say that this show has taken me a lifetime of thinking.