Amid the frenzied adoration of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing (AN‘s included), somewhat lost was news about its first galleries dedicated to architecture and design (A&D). To design watchers, the new permanent collection is proof of a growing interest around the design disciplines in the museum world. But greater visibility for A&D also demonstrates the bold aspirations of the Art Institute as a whole: Since James Cuno assumed the position of executive director in 2004, he’s been intent on solidifying the museum’s place in the top tier of encyclopedic institutions, and on extending the reach of A&D beyond Chicago.
COURTESY Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute established its architecture department in 1982 to consolidate its impressive holdings of architectural drawings, plans, and artifacts that had been previously contained within other departments. “Design” was added to its name in 2005.
Today, according to museum press materials, the 250,000 items in its collection represent the greatest number in all the museum’s curatorial departments. The museum points out that it is only one of four American art museums with an architecture department, and its 8,000 square feet of design galleries surpass MoMA in exhibition space.
During its first two decades, the architecture department made its reputation with work that spotlighted Chicago’s place as a mecca for architecture enthusiasts. With the arrival in 2005 of department director Joseph Rosa, previously at SFMOMA and the National Building Museum, the focus was no longer exposing Chicago to the world, but bringing the world to Chicago.
To achieve parity with other curatorial areas, Rosa and his staff had to sift through its collection to distinguish between art and archival items, a task that morphed into a treasure hunt. “We’d be going through the vault, and I’d see something,” said Rosa, “and I’d say ‘Wow! We have that?’”
The inaugural display of holdings, which will rotate every six months, offers a tantalizing glimpse into the department’s collection. Unlike the gallery spaces on the other side of the wing’s grand court, the A&D galleries do not redundantly circulate, so the visitor experiences the space through a single path. It begins with drawings and models that reflect the great legacy of Chicago—Sullivan, Wright, Mies—and continues with work from more local and international luminaries before segueing into the design section.
Since assuming the newly created post of design curator, British-born Zoë Ryan has overseen an acquisition spree, aiming to assemble a collection that she says reflects “new ways of making and thinking about design,” and that “speaks to us in emotive, conceptual ways.”
Among the acquisitions on view: furniture by the Campagna Brothers, Marcel Wanders, and Hella Jongerius; lighting from Ingo Maurer; tableware by architects Zaha Hadid and Greg Lynn; and graphic design from Bruce Mau. Included as well are industrial design objects like IDEO’s kidney transporter, and the One Laptop Per Child PC, from a collaborative including Yves Behar. Behar is also represented by Anima Terra, a LED light fixture/sculptural object commissioned by the department. Perhaps more than any item on display, it speaks to the nature of design object as art.
Rosa feels the department should offer exhibitions that give the visitor the elation of discovery that he felt looking through the department’s vault. “We want to map the culture,” he said, “showing pivotal works that illustrate the change in trajectory of design."