An interview with the Museum of Modern Art’s chief curator of architecture and design, Martino Stierli.
Alexandra Lange There have been a lot of recent articles about whether museums should start buying famous houses. What do you think about that, given that you’ve done a lot of work on Robert Venturi and one of the houses that particularly gets mentioned in this context is the Vanna Venturi House?
Martino Stierli There are two answers. My personal answer is that I would be thrilled if we had houses in the collection; a place like MoMA has a historic responsibility towards preserving. John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein House in Los Angeles was just given to LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art], so I’m a bit jealous. At the same time, the idea is very problematic. Firstly, by putting houses in this context you’re taking away their original function as a home for a family or whatever and transforming them into a mere display space. They lose something. Another problem is that if a museum enforces collecting something like this, then you create a market. That’s problematic.
In January 1960, my grandfather, a graphic designer and special assistant for Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center, wrote to Restaurant Associates, requesting samples of the printed matter created by Emil Antonucci for their recently-opened Four Seasons restaurant at the Seagram Building.
Cleaning out his studio more than 50 years later, my mother discovered the long envelope RA sent back, chock-full of graphic goodies featuring Antonucci’s elegant hand-drawn line of trees: round pink buds for spring, fat green leaves for summer, spiky red boughs for fall, and stark brown branches for winter. Below, in Chisel capitals, THE FOUR SEASONS, like the stone plaza beneath a line of Dan Kiley saplings.
Because my grandfather wrote to them in winter, the oversize lunch and dinner menus inside feature the winter tree, printed hand-size and looking as if it was painted on the rice-paper cover with a broad, flat Japanese brush. Anontucci’s graphics combine the rough with the smooth, serving, as the potted plants and the Richard Lippold sculpture and Fortuny-clad powder room did, to soften the hard edges of Philip Johnson and William Pahlmann’s modernist interior.
I mention the matchbooks and coat check, menus and place card, stationery and cocktail napkins not to tell you that my career as design historian often feels like a research project into the lives my grandparents lived, but to point out that this ephemera was seen as worth writing away for in 1960, and seen as worth saving for 50 years. And it is perhaps the least famous element of the Four Seasons restaurant design. What will be sold in Wright’s July 26 auction are many more famous items, from custom brass-topped Eero Saarinen tables to the silver-plated footed bread bowls designed by L. Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable, each as considered as Antonucci’s trees.
Ray Eames also understood housewifery as part, though far from all, of her and Charles’s design practice, as historian Pat Kirkham argues in an essay in a new book on the famous design couple. “Ray enjoyed nurturing through hospitality, and her ‘at home’ performances blurred the boundaries between her roles as wife, friend, and artist, designer and filmmaker with Charles,” Kirkham writes in The World of Charles and Ray Eames (Rizzoli), a catalog which accompanies a recent retrospective at the Barbican in London. Other essays in the lushly illustrated tome cover their films, their dress, their multi-media exhibitions, and, in architect Sam Jacob’s contribution, their “California-ness.”
Ray was luckier than many working women of her day, in that she could call upon her workplace for help. “Before the arrival of friends for an ‘informal’ evening at home, Ray, like a stage manager, art director, or production designer, would oversee a small Eames Office team assigned to preparing the house for the coming performance of hospitality.”
She would orchestrate the arrangement of objects, the plumping of pillows, and the burning of candles to specific lengths. Food was generally simply prepared but of high quality, with a focus on arrangement of fruit, cheese, breads, and chocolate on dishes selected by Ray.
Frank Lloyd Wright, level designer? That’s what artist William Chyr was thinking, from the moment he crossed the threshold at the Robie House, not far from Chyr’s own Chicago home. “The way he was using space and guiding people through the building, I think there are a lot of really good lessons,” says Chyr.
It was a rare IRL architectural excursion, as Chyr has been immersed in building the digital levels of Manifold Garden, his first-person 3D exploration game in which you defy gravity in order to walk up walls, fall through windows, and launch yourself from one side to the other of an infinite stepwell, all in the service of solving increasingly difficult puzzles. As the game’s development process draws to a close, Chyr has been taking it on the road, including an appearance at the 2016 Kill Screen Festival earlier this month in Brooklyn.
Chyr studied physics and economics as an undergraduate, while also working as a juggler and balloon artist. His dream at the time was to join Cirque du Soleil, but “no one wanted juggling,” he told the Kill Screen audience. Days after he graduated from the University of Chicago in 2009, he was commissioned to do a balloon installation in Millennium Park, launching an accidental career. After four years, “I felt stuck doing that. No one is really a balloon art connoisseur. But I could show up in a space like this“—he waved around the Art Deco auditorium in which the festival was held —“with a suitcase and, in a week, fill it with art.”
It began, as adventures often do, with a trip: a family holiday in Norway, parents and their teen-agers, that seemed entirely straightforward at the time. “My imagination was really going for it on that trip—the landscape of the place stuck with me,” Luke Pearson, the British author of the Hildafolk series of graphic novels, told me. “At the time, I was reading about trolls and daydreaming, knowing I wanted to do something with that one day.”
Next, there was a map. “When I was at university, everyone who studied illustration was given a project to do an illustrated map of a country, and I was given Iceland,” he said. “I made a map of Icelandic folktales—you can still play it.” Move the digital clouds on Pearson’s “Hidden Iceland” and see, in their shadows, the giants and sprites and Viking ships just beneath that country’s peaks and fjords.
Finally, there was a girl: Hilda, now the star of four (soon to be five) comics. Netflix is planning a twelve-episode animated series, based on the first four books, for early 2018. The fifth book, “Hilda and the Stone Forest,” comes out in September.
There’s something wonderfully uncontroversial about a park. A park can’t be bad. We love trees. We love water. We love sunshine and flowers. Cities need open space, right? That built-in pleasure response means people are less likely to think of the cost of a park, to see only the leaves and grasses rather than the concrete and steel beneath them. They are also less likely to think of a park as precluding other, future uses. We do call it “open” space, after all.
This mindset was the background for the parallel proposals, in London and New York, of two projects by designer Thomas Heatherwick: the Garden Bridge in London and Pier 55 in New York (with landscape consultants Mathews Nielsen). Both were offered as gifts to the city, privately funded with a small public contribution. Both were backed by celebrities and mayors. Both proposed parks as they had never been seen before: floating over their respective cities’ signature rivers, and ostensibly creating “new” land for circumscribed metropolises.