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How Should We Live? Propositions for the Modern Interior
Jim Sullivan

October 1, 2016-April 23, 2017
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Not too long ago, walking into the Museum of Modern Art was like visiting a cherished relic. After all, established in 1929, MoMA represents the cultural project of imagining a future unbound to a restrictive past—a future in which art and design, along with science and technology, are inevitable agents of new cultural and social practices intended to remediate regressive ones. Yet this cultural project is but a historical artifact—an outdated modern narrative, many academics and intellectuals would likely say. In this telling, MoMA is problematically tethered to this historical project. When writing in 2004 of the museum’s curatorial challenges, Hal Foster asked, “Can [MoMA] be both Modernist and contemporary?”1

In other words, can it be tethered to the modern cultural project yet move beyond this project too? Now, however, in 2017, Foster’s question seems less relevant. In light of the recent election and the cultural forces that brought about its results, MoMA and the project to which it has been dedicated suddenly seem pressing again. Perhaps this project is indeed incomplete, and if so, MoMA might not be a relic but instead an object lesson on the type of work that is necessary to animate a progressive future. In this light, the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit How Should We Live? Propositions for the Modern Interior might have been a timely opportunity for such a lesson. A chance to remind visitors of design’s capacity to animate—even to improve or challenge—interior lives through modest objects used on a daily basis, often absent-mindlessly. Unfortunately, while having several admirable aspects, the exhibit falls short as it lacks curatorial focus and is trapped by its own exhibit design conventions, despite an otherwise important collection of furniture, textiles, household objects, and interior rooms.

Not that MoMA faced an easy task in mounting this exhibit. An exhibition about interiors or, more precisely, an exhibition that includes mostly interior furnishings is a challenging affair. This challenge is due largely to a basic condition of furniture and other routine interior objects mentioned above: namely, they are not typically objects of our aesthetic or conceptual contemplation. Unlike paintings, drawings, models, and sculptures, we quietly encounters interior objects on the way to accomplishing other things: a table while enjoying a meal, a sofa while taking a nap, a chair while engaging in a conversation. In these situations, our backside and elbow contemplate the objects upon which they rest more than our mind or eye. In a museum setting, this situation begets an obvious yet difficult challenge: a curator must distance the interior object from its typical use while forwarding that object as a focus of appreciation of some other sort. This contradictory movement is made even more challenging by the fact that, most often, it is done with the intention of retaining a reading of the object’s original use. Put more simply, a curator must situate, say, a chair such that one recognizes that it should be admired rather than sat on, yet still recognize the chair as being originally intended for sitting.

Showing over 3,000 interior objects and designs of the late 1920s through the 1950s, How Should We Live? addresses this challenge through the employment of numerous curatorial frames that range from corporate to residential works, social to aesthetic programs, and women designers to designers from diverse geographic areas. Individually, many of these frames hold the potential for a focused, meaningful exhibit, yet together they create an uneven, episodic experience. At almost every turn, one encounters a new interpretive frame with no unifying narrative structure other than a thirty-year time frame. This fragmented quality is most unfortunate as it undermines the strength of what is perhaps the most potent frame: the work of women designers and the social program related to daily interior life. In this area, the exhibit highlights the work of many well-known women, such as Eileen Gray, Charlotte Perriand, Ray Eames, and Lilly Reich. Yet some women and work included here are less familiar, such as the beautiful textiles of Noemi Raymond or Grete Lihotzky’s Frankfurt Kitchen. Of all these works, Lihotzky’s kitchen design is perhaps the most effectively presented. This is due in part to the presence of the kitchen itself but also to the associated documentation that contextualizes the kitchen in a broader domestic social program, including a promotional film for the kitchen by Paul Wolf that depicts the liberative intentions of the kitchen’s design and technology. Also in this vein are a number of photographs of Reich and Mies’s work on the domestic interior for the Werkbund Exposition and several books, including The New Housekeeping: Efficiency Studies in Home Management and Der Neue Haushalt, that make, in combination with the Frankfurt Kitchen, a focused core of an exhibit that might have been.

This is not to say that How Should We Live? is not an enjoyable exhibit. Remarkable works are on display here, so much so that the exhibit has a “greatest hits” quality. Eames, Alto, Le Corbusier, Mies, and Breuer all have pieces in the exhibit. Predictable and conventional choices, certainly, but still quite nice to see in close walking distance of each other. There are less predictable choices, too. Children’s furniture and toys by various designers, for instance, and furniture by Frederick Kiesler. The Nested Coffee Tables and Standing Lamp by Kiesler are especially unexpected as their alluring weirdness contrasts with the rational pretenses of much of the exhibit’s other works. Unfortunately, these remarkable works are situated in an uninspired orthodox MoMA exhibit design. White walls and elevated platforms with ubiquitous blond wood flooring offer no opportunity for the exhibit design to support the curatorial ambitions of the exhibit. When one encounters a new section of the exhibit, which happens frequently, the exhibit design continues unaltered, as if nothing has changed. Worse, furniture and interior objects, when placed in MoMA’s interior palette, uncomfortably approach the appearance of high-end contemporary furniture and home goods stores.

There is one important exception to this otherwise staid exhibit design. MoMA created a partial reproduction of Reich’s Velvet-Silk Café with chairs and tables at which one may sit and enjoy coffee. Unlike the balance of How Should We Live? there is no formal or obvious curatorial frame, the lack of which makes this section of the exhibit unique and successful. Of course, the contradiction—and perhaps it is a wonderful contradiction—is that, as the exhibit does not attempt to redirect one’s attention away from what the everyday use of the work is, one does not contemplate the work in an intellectual or aesthetic dimension. Instead, one simply enjoys coffee and the view of MoMA’s sculpture garden, the unfocused curation and unsurprising exhibit design forgotten. Contemplation left only to elbows and backsides.

If one were to imagine an exhibit of furniture and interior objects that succeeds where How Should We Live? does not, then you might imagine the Pierre Chareau exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York (JMNY). Where MoMA’s exhibit meanders, JMNY’s focuses, and when the MoMA exhibit design sedates, the Jewish Museum’s invigorates. Admittedly, the Chareau exhibit benefits from being a solo artist show. Displaying solely Chareau’s furniture and interior and architectural designs (and several works he collected) focuses the exhibit. From the coat and hat rack for the Maison de Verre to La Religieuse Floor Lamp, to Bookcase with Swiveling Table, along with other lights, sconces, tables, chairs, and sofas, Chareau’s consistent palette of walnut or mahogany veneer, decorative fabric, ironwork, and alabaster unify the exhibit almost by themselves.

Still, the Chareau exhibit’s true advantage is not that it shows a single artist, but instead the exhibit design by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DSR), who address the challenge of displaying furniture and interior objects ingeniously through the projection of three types: shadows, virtual reality environments, and digital modeling with associated moving images. These projections correlate with three thematic and spatially separate galleries, each of which brilliantly isolates Chareau’s work from its daily context and then contextualizes the work through projection.

This double movement of isolation and contextualization is achieved in the first gallery through moving images of silhouetted figures that appear as shadows of people and furniture projected on a shade-like backdrop. On one side of this backdrop, these images depict the silhouetted activities of daily life as if one were looking through a window with its shade drawn, while on the other side is furniture and its shadows. The use of projection becomes unabashedly contemporary in the second gallery, where virtual reality headsets offer 360-degree views of the interiors of Maison de Verre, Farhi Apartment, and Chareau’s own residence. In this gallery, one first finds several works, such as a chair and table, arranged on a raised matte-black platform; then, while looking at these pieces, one puts on the headset to find the same pieces in the same positions but now in situ, virtually. The effect is stunning, as is the third (and final) gallery, which focuses on the Maison de Verre by projecting a digital model on a large central screen. This screen moves forward and back as it displays a sectional progression through the house. On each pass, the progression stops at several locations and highlights in section an aspect of the house. At the same time, a short film begins to play a demonstration of that particular aspect of the house, such as opening metal louvers in the living room.

Walking out of the Jewish Museum after viewing the Pierre Chareau exhibit, one feels like one might have felt walking out of the Museum of Modern Art years ago, when the terms modern and contemporary were synonymous. Wonder and exhilaration in the use of new technology toward a new experience. Certainly, Chareau’s work is now historical, rather than new, but nonetheless it offers a relevant reminder of the project of imagining a progressive future. Chareau’s work and the design work of DSR also demonstrate that the Jewish Museum of New York, for the duration of the exhibit at least, eclipses MoMA as the institution most capable of offering this important reminder.

Hal Foster, “It’s Modern but Is It Contemporary?” London Journal of Books 26, no. 24 (2004): 23–25.

How to Cite this Article: Sullivan, Jim. Review of How Should We Live? Propositions for the Modern Interior, curated by Juliet Kinchin. Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, October 1, 2016 – April 23, 2017. JAE Online. May 19, 2017. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/how-should-we-live-propositions-modern-interior/.

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