Pressed Flowers: Collections and Their Keepers, SFMOMA Architecture and Design

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Diller + Scofidio, Bad Press: Dissident Housework Series, 1993-1998, Collection SFMOMA,  Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Diller + Scofidio; photo: Ian Reeves

Pressed Flowers: Collections and Their Keepers
SFMOMA Architecture and Design & Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher

Interview by Amanda Roscoe Mayo
August 2013

The public often considers museum collections as static—works (of painting, drawing, sculpture, and photography) are rarely on view, spending most of their time inside of warehouses safely tucked away in crates. Much like a precious flower pressed between two pages in a book. These items are not only precious but are the living and breathing stories and intellect of their makers. Once an item enters the collection, the museum takes on the responsibility to care for it both in terms of where it sits in the collection and its place in history. However, what does it mean to collect Architecture and Design? Additionally, why is it important to look at each collection in terms of its collectors and its own moment? 

The Department of Architecture and Design was officially established at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) in 1983, but thanks to the museum’s founding director, Grace McCann Morely, SFMOMA had previously held an array of architecture and design shows. Under the direction of its curators, the collection has steadily grown over the last 30 years. The department collects historical and contemporary works of architecture, furniture design, product design, and graphic design, as well as works of art that address these design disciplines. SFMOMA continues to dig deep into the collection to inspire new exhibitions, and in turn adds valuable research to the field. San Francisco-based curator Amanda Roscoe Mayo speaks with Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, SFMOMA’s Associate Curator of Architecture and Design, about the personality of the Architecture and Design Collection and what to look forward to during SFMOMA’s exciting period outside of its usual walls, which are currently being greatly expanded into a new space.

Amanda Roscoe Mayo: What is your position here at the museum?

Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher: I’m the Helen Hilton Raiser Associate Curator of Architecture and Design, and Head of the A+D department at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. My background is in Art History and Curatorial Studies in Contemporary Art, and later I returned to graduate school to study Architecture History and Theory.

AM: How did you become interested in architecture and design coming from Art History and Curatorial?

JDF: I’ve always had an interest in architecture, and through my studies on curating, I thought curating architecture and design would be a very interesting challenge. I noticed that historically, architecture exhibitions had followed a display format that was established through the display of art; treating architecture models as sculpture and installing framed drawings on the wall.

AM: Was that a focus a lot of people were taking during the time you were thinking about this, or was it a new direction for the field?

JDF: Well, architecture and design exhibitions are not new, but they were not discussed in my curatorial studies program. Many of the curators of architecture and design are trained architects, and that brings another approach. A few of my fellow students in the MDes program in Architecture History and Theory were interested in curating, but I was the first person in the program without a prior design degree.

AM: Often times when we think about museum collections we think about paintings, sculpture, drawings, photography, etc. It seems difficult to imagine a museum collecting a building. Could you explain what exactly is collectable in terms of architecture and design?

JDF: This is actually what has been of most interest to me because it’s true; you are often collecting a representation of a building. This idea was of great interest because of my background in contemporary art, which, at the time, was leaning away from formal concerns and emphasizing conceptual pursuits. One can display a documentation of a building, such as a photograph or a scale model, but one can further consider approaching the issues about the building’s context and impact, or the architect’s intention, program, and process, through artists and designers whose work addresses those specific issues. For example, the architect Lebbeus Woods, whose works are in SFMOMA’s collection, the structures he represented in his drawings were never intended to be built, but he tapped into so many issues surrounding the complexity of architecture; namely, the relationship that architecture has, of all the arts, to a client, and to governance; a building has to be upheld to building codes and standards. Many interesting discussions that pertain to the role of architecture are drawn out by exhibiting his work.

AM: Is that how design makes its way into the conversation too, because it is such a large part of architecture?

JDF: Right, why is it called ‘Architecture and Design’?

AM: Yes, let’s address that question more directly.

JDF: I’ve noticed that there are the two different camps on this nomenclature; one sees architecture and design as an object, and the other sees design as a practice. I probably I fall into the latter, but I can also appreciate a beautiful object.

I saw a quote recently related to this discussion: “Design is a behavior, not a department,” which captures a contemporary attitude towards design that is against categorization.

AM: Does SFMOMA have a certain focus or perspective in their architecture and design [or design] collection?

JDF: SFMOMA’s A+D department was started in the late 1980s, which was a fantastic moment in architecture–a little like today– with an interest on the immaterial and suspicion about corporate/government involvement within the arts. SFMOMA has a very strong collection of conceptual architecture from this period; works by Diller & Scofidio, Lebbeus Woods, and Neil Denari, to name a few. The museum also has a significant collection of 20th century chairs–very iconic chairs from every design movement, which was initiated by a significant gift from Gabrielle and Michael Boyd. We’ve continued to collect chairs that capture significant moments in design history. For example, the museum doesn’t have architecture from the Bauhaus, but we can represent this moment—and responses to it–– through a Bauhaus chair. And then the third strand, which is probably the most obvious, is the collection of Bay Area Design. We have to understand and represent the local design movements in graphic design, architecture, and product design, particularly products that are designed with equal attention to hardware and software.

AM: While most of the time a collection is safely stored away, one of the exciting things to me about the works in the collection is that they get out into the world. Where are some unusual places items from this collection have been displayed?

JDF: That’s an interesting question. This is actually one of the efforts we are undergoing right now. Let’s see, right now we have 6 chairs on view in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan Museum of Art; we have a work by Jack Stauffacher in the California Design exhibition organized by LACMA that is traveling to different locations, so it is in New Zealand right now. The Lebbeus Woods, Architect exhibition—which has a large number of works from the collection– is about to travel to the Broad Art Museum in Michigan, and the Drawing Center in New York. Nothing too exotic yet but the collection is only 25 years old and we’ve been working on establishing its identity, and now we’re ready to get it out there.

AM: When SFMOMA is thinking about exhibitions for the Architecture and Design department, does the creative inspiration come from the collection. or is an idea born first and then flushed out with objects in the collection?

JDF: Both, but I’d say more often it comes out of the collection. There’s a gazillion shows that can emerge from the current collection. It makes sense to start with the collection as you want to learn more about works in the collection, particularly from a contemporary perspective.

AM: Is that something you guys have to navigate then, in terms of wanting to do more shows out of the collection, but having to host shows from elsewhere?

JDF: No, we haven’t hosted too many shows from elsewhere, but actually you bring up a very good point. We were interested in the work of Dieter Rams, and we only had one or two pieces in our collection. My colleague, Joseph Becker, had seen a very good Rams exhibit in Germany. We decided to bring the exhibition here, which helped jump-start the collection in 20th century product design, so you are right, sometimes bringing in an exhibition on a designer of interest can stimulate the collection.

Dieter Rams, T 1000, 1936, Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase

Dieter Rams, T 1000, 1936, Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase

AM: Why did SFMOMA feel it was important to have this collection as part of the curatorial departments at SFMOMA?

JDF: The founding director of SFMOMA, Grace McCann Morley, brought a lot of design exhibitions from MOMA to SFMOMA and she was active in Telesis—a group interested in Bay Area design and planning––so she clearly had an interest in the field. She was the first person to do a landscape architecture exhibition, actually. However, the A+D department was not established until 1983 by then-Director, Henry Hopkins, perhaps because some collectors were starting to donate works in that field––pieces of furniture, and obviously there were designers around. I’m not sure why he chose to incorporate Architecture and Design into SFMOMA at that exact moment; it is something I’d like to research.

AM: Well, it’s interesting because not all Modern Art museums have it: they have items that can be classified as Architecture and Design but don’t necessarily have a whole department dedicated to making exhibitions and doing research surrounding those disciplines.

JDF: I think it makes sense given the context of the area. There’s a lot of design here, there’s a lot of appreciation for design, not in the typical collector sense but in the recognition that so much of our interface with technology is through design. Design just seems to permeate in a more subtle way here, but everyone talks about it being a pretty design-savvy city despite San Francisco’s painted ladies iconography.

Your question brings up a good point. Design is collected and exhibited by several museums but it can be categorized in different—perhaps confusing–ways. For example, LACMA in Los Angeles has a department called Decorative Arts and Design. And then at the Met, architecture drawings have been in the Drawings department, until recently. The field is still finding its way within museums.

AM: I have to ask about the new building because we’re in the midst of that. What was your role? Was the entire museum involved in helping decide the architect and the plan?

JDF: [I think I said I would answer that offline but prefer that it is not published] I am excited about Neal Benezra’s (SFMOMA’s current director) goal to have 50% of the collection on view at all times in the expanded museum building. No other museum is doing that, it’s usually a much lower amount like 20%. Plus he really wants the curators to use the collection and curate from it, and not just install the permanent collection separately. It’s exciting; I’m on board with his interest in working with the collection.

AM: So what are you most excited about from your SFMOMA On the Go upcoming exhibitions?

JDF: Coming up, we have Project Los Altos. At least one curator from each department was asked to invite an artist to address the context of Silicon Valley. I invited Mike Mills who is a filmmaker and graphic designer from L.A. I had seen some of his earlier short films on how suburbia contributes to an individual’s identity, and so I was interested in his perspective on Silicon Valley. Los Altos is a classic American town with the intersection of State and Main streets as its center. This is also where the Project Los Altos exhibition will be located—either in different storefronts or along the street. So Mike is doing a three part project that is going to be at the Costume Bank, a really interesting place, run by the Assistance League that collects vintage fashion and rents handmade costumes.

Mike’s three part installation is addressing the recent past, present and future through the lens of Los Altos residents. For the Past, he is preparing a broadsheet take-away, which will look at significant events from the 1970s when Los Altos really shifted from agriculture towards a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. The Present will be seen in handmade costumes from outfits supplied by current residents. He’s already noticed that the outfit of someone high up at Facebook is similar to that of an 8-year-old skateboarder. And what does that say? For the third part, he is interviewing kids whose parents work in technology and asking them about the future. There is this perception that technology is the future, so do they have a unique perspective on where we are heading by living in the heart of Silicon Valley?

AM: So how are people going to interact with this exhibition? Will it be a walking and looking experience or will people be able to go into these spaces?

JDF: There will be maps of the installation available at the storefront exhibits. The exhibition will be the length of the new SFMOMA, a block long. Visitors will walk in and out of the storefronts and to exterior spots nearby.

AM: Lastly, I have to ask what your favorite pieces in the collection are?

JDF: Well, there are many, and the recent exhibition I co-curated with Joseph, on the work of Lebbeus Woods is a highlight. The past three A+D curators collected his work, and meeting and working with him with this institutional history was one of the reasons it is so special.

Another favorite––and again it’s in the forefront of my memory because of working on a recent exhibition––is a work by Tobias Wong. He made this quilt of bulletproof material. It’s crafted in a very traditional quilting technique but with this high-tech ominous material. The subtle way it addresses the vacillation between fear and comfort is very profound. There are so many stunning works in the collection, and a few new pieces in the pipeline that I can’t talk about yet but are very exciting!

Tobias Wong, Bulletproof Quilted Duvet, 2004; Collection SFMOMA, gift of Josée Lepage; © Tobias Wong; photo: Don Ross

Tobias Wong, Bulletproof Quilted Duvet, 2004; Collection SFMOMA, gift of Josée Lepage; © Tobias Wong; photo: Don Ross

Amanda Roscoe Mayo is a curator based in San Francisco, she received her MA in Curatorial Practice from CCA and currently curates for Needles & Pens in the Mission. Pressed Flowers: Collections and Their Keepers is a series for mosshouse in which Mayo visits Bay Area collections and interviews the collectors or those who manage the collections in depth.

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