NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 41

Face to Face-I

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Ellen Lupton: Telling stories with objects and images

Roshanak Keyghobadi

An assortment of Iranian objects—a bronze bracelet from Lorestan (2000-1000 BC), a glazed earthenware bowl from Kashan (13th–14th century), silk and metallic Lailee and Majnoon textile design (16th–17th century), a wooden printing block (17th–18th century), and contemporary posters that were designed by Homa Delvaray1—are part of the collection of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum2. The Museum holds many objects from various parts of the globe; they frequently unravel their stories in thematic exhibitions for public viewing. 

Ellen Lupton3 is the Senior Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt museum and has been curating exhibitions for twenty years. As she explains: “each exhibition is a collaborative effort involving designers, architects, writers, curators, conservators, educators, and museum professionals. Curating is a critical and visual practice that uses research, writing, and design to tell stories with objects and images. Design is a key component of the curatorial process.”4 In the exhibitions that Lupton designs, she not only finds visual narratives and connections between objects, but also shows their relationship to people, time and space.  For example, in “Mechanical Brides: Women and Machines, from Home to Office” (1993), she studied the relationship between twentieth century women’s work and design of everyday objects they used, such as the telephone, typewriter, washing machine, and electric iron. In “Skin: Surface, Substance and Design” (2002), Lupton explored the natural and artificial surfaces of objects as well as the inside and outside materials of products, furniture, fashion and architecture. In “Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500–2005” (2006), she displayed the link between function of dining and the form of flatware.
Recently, in 2016, Ellen Lupton and Andrea Lipps curated an exhibition titled “Beauty” at Cooper Hewitt Museum. This displayed 334 objects which presented 63 designers and teams from around the world. They organized the show around seven themes (extravagant, intricate, ethereal, transgressive, emergent, elemental, and transformative) and explained that: “many conversations about design focus on function and problem solving. Yet designers do more than solve utilitarian problems. Designers tell stories and ask questions. They communicate ideas, stimulate the senses, and construct narratives about nature, culture, and making.” 
One goal of exhibitions such as “Beauty” is to display design narratives and stories and connect makers, objects and users/viewers and generate a meaningful discourse.  I asked Ellen Lupton: How do you discover the story behind design objects and make relationships between them in an exhibition? She explained:  Every exhibition is different. My exhibitions tend to be about themes and ideas rather than about individual designers. My first exhibition at Cooper Hewitt, "Mechanical Brides," opened in 1993. I looked at objects associated with women's work at home and in the office in twentieth-century America. It was fun to put a bunch of streamlined washing machines in the grand paneled dining room of Andrew Carnegie5. More recently, my exhibition "How Posters Work" (2015) was organized around principles of two-dimensional design. Thus a psychedelic rock poster could appear next to contemporary works that celebrate optical complexity. It's fun to show new work next to works from history. Museums should be able to do that.

How does a design work qualify as an art object that can be displayed? Cooper Hewitt collects objects for many reasons. An object might exemplify expertise in a making process, such as the many types of weaving found in our textile collection. Or an object might be instrumental in communicating design theories and practices, as is the case for many architectural and design drawings in our vast and important collection of drawings and prints. We also celebrate work by individual artists or work that speaks to the social and economic issues of its time. Some of my favorite posters are from our collection of Spanish Civil War graphics, donated to the museum by a journalist. As the Senior Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt, are you most interested in showing the past, present or the future of design? I am most interested in what is happening now. Exhibitions that rely solely on commissioning new projects from designers can feel rather empty. It is important to show what people are really doing and making. Pieces created solely for an exhibition sometimes lack a sense of authentic purpose. So I enjoy mixing special installations with examples of what is happening on the ground.
Why do you think there should be a “Design Museum”? What is the importance of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum? Design is a distinct human endeavor. People have always altered materials and their environment in order to insure survival, create prosperity, and celebrate beauty. Design has also been essential for activities like war and incarceration. In many universal museums, the most popular galleries are those devoted to arms and armor. Cooper Hewitt hasn't collected many weapons, but we do have objects representing many, many areas of purposeful and decorative form-making. 
How do you think that a design exhibition influences the “design world” culture of design and design thinking?  What is the relationship between a design exhibition and contemporary art design practices? Design museum both comments on trends that are going on and assert what issues should be considered important. Thus we seek to amplify trends, not just comment on them neutrally. My next exhibition, "The Senses: Design Beyond Vision," opens in April 2018. This exhibition is a manifesto for sensory design. We argue that designers should do more to accommodate all the senses, not just vision. To do this, we have selected works by many designers across disciplines as well as commissioning special installations.

 2 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum was founded in 1896 and is located in New York City.  It specializes in exhibiting contemporary and historic design and has 210,000 design objects in its collection.
 5 The museum is located in the former mansion of Scottish-American industrialist, Andrew Carnegie. 

Roshanak Keyghobadi

holds a doctoral degree in Art and Art Education from Columbia University, New York and her MFA and BFA are both in Graphic Design. She has taught visual communication at State University of New York for several years. Roshanak writes about Iranian contemporary art and artists with special focus on design and typography and her essays have appeared in a number of publications including AIGA’s VOICE as well as Design Observer and her artworks have been exhibited internationally. In addition you can read more of her wittings on the artCircle blog.

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