SFMOMA’s Scrappy Chair Challenge breathes new life into museum waste

Trash to Treasure

SFMOMA’s Scrappy Chair Challenge breathes new life into museum waste

Winning design by Jeremiah Barber, Cnidarian Stool, Medusa Phase (Courtesy SFMOMA)

Scrappy Chair Challenge
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street
San Francisco
Through June 25

The Architecture and Design department (A+D) at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has a dedicated sixth-floor gallery space, but consistency within those four walls is not their goal. “We’re always trying to make it seem like it’s not the same gallery,” Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, the Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design, told AN. Transformative exhibitions have taken place there, including a full-scale architectural replica of a wooden home for The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism in 2018; stadium seating constructed for a Tatiana Bilbao Estudio retrospective in 2020; and even a mission control–esque layout for Far Out in 2019, which chronicled 50 years of design in space.

Despite the ambition of these displays, exhibitions are temporary and ultimately deconstructed. Over the pandemic, staff noticed leftover materials piling up: “We’ve been talking a lot about the environmental impact of exhibitions,” Dunlop Fletcher shared. Their alternative to not throwing things away? Invite the community to make designs for a new exhibition.

Winning designs: from left to right; Hewing Gum by Lauren DiCioccio; Pyrophyte by Yvonne Mouser; Chair in C Minor by Eddie Aye;  Dividido (“Divided“) by Sofia Galán, Cnidarian Stool, Medusa Phase by Jeremiah Barber (Courtesy SFMOMA)

The Scrappy Chair Challenge began in May as an open call for chairs, which stipulated each piece be composed of 75 percent post-exhibition materials. “Our exhibitions team inventoried everything they had and then created little bundles—enough for five chairs,“ Claire Bradley, the museum’s manager of learning and public programs, said. The material list in the open call even noted the exhibitions from which it was sourced: “Two pieces of 4-by-8-foot plywood from Diego Rivera’s America; six pieces of 24-inch, 2-by-4-foot pine from Tatiana Bilbao Estudio; and two pieces of 12-inch, 4-by-4-foot pine from The Sea Ranch.

Hewing Gum by Lauren DiCioccio (Courtesy SFMOMA)
Pyrophyte by Yvonne Mouser (Courtesy SFMOMA)

The response was astounding: “We gave people a little over a week to submit their proposals and we got 133 entries, which was insane! We thought we were going to get 20,” Bradley recalled. Proposals were due on May 8. A jury, including Dunlop Fletcher, chose five winners, who were announced on May 10. Recipients picked up their bundles and a $100 stipend on May 12. Winners were then tasked with delivering their chairs to the museum. The objects will be on view on the sixth floor, adjacent to the A+D gallery, until June 25.

Designs vary from a simple wooden stool with undulating legs inspired by jellyfish morphology by Jeremiah Barber to a fire-sculpted seat from Yvonne Mouser. “The folks who were chosen really displayed that they had looked closely at the materials list and had thought deeply about how they would use them,” Bradley said. This marriage of exhibition material and original design offered some surprises. Eddie Aye’s clean design interpreted the truncated roofs of Sea Ranch homes, yet the final chair is marked by another exhibition: “The pieces of plywood that he got had text from the Diego Rivera exhibition,” recalled Bradley. “So it’s really taking this idea of reuse and running with it.”

The proximity of the scrappy-chairs to the A+D galleries is particularly fitting, as they are presented alongside a yearlong exhibition about furnitureConversation Pieces, curated by Dunlop Fletcher. “The meaning of the title is from contemporary designers who want to push beyond function, taste, or style conversations and show how they are engaged with a lot of contemporary issues,” she explained, citing environmental concerns, cultural representation, and the history of industrial design relegating craft to the margins, as topics. On view since last August, Conversation Pieces gave scrappy chair contestants a jumping-off point for thinking creatively about their entries.

Winning design by Sofia Galán, Dividido (“Divided“) (Courtesy SFMOMA)

With the success of the challenge, Bradley hopes that “moving forward will think twice about throwing stuff away, knowing that there’s the potential for creative reuse.” She shared that other departments have begun approaching her, offering materials. “People are already thinking about the detritus of museum activity in a new way.” The excitement around the project also introduced a different kind of engagement with the museum, where artists and designers can access the rarefied opportunity to exhibit there. All of this resulted from a switch in thinking about museum processes and programs: “I hope that we can do more things like this in the future now that we’ve proven that it’s possible.”

Maddie Klett is an art writer and researcher living in the U.S.