Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Dancing into the New Year: Inspirations

To start 2015 in a culture of appreciation, I want to share two recent New York City museum experiences that reinforced for me the importance of joy and creativity in our work.

First up, the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Much has been written about all the technology in play at the museum--but that's only part of the reason to go.  Not surprisingly for a museum of design, design for humans is at the center of the entire experience. What do I mean?

The technology is easy to access.   The very large touch tables in several locations draw you in; and they're easy to use--you never feel like a failure when something happens you don't expect, you feel like an explorer.  In the immersive wallpaper room, a couple turned to me and said, "how do you do this?"  I admitted I didn't know either, and then watched them easily create their own wallpaper designs that then filled the room.  The museum encourages creators--I would have assumed that more people were interested in seeing historic wallpaper on the walls of the space, but in fact, more people seemed to be interested in creating their own.

But the technology is not the reason but the tool. (If you want to know more about the technology, check out Seb Chan's post about what he's been doing when he hasn't been blogging over the past year.)  To me, the central part of all the exhibitions was an exploration of ways in which design is at the center of so much human activity.   Well-written clear labels encourage you to really consider design,  and in the Process Lab, plain old hands-on tools are combined with touch tables in interesting ways.   I watched a woman in her 20s spending a long time designing a shade for a lamp, encouraged by these simple prompts.

Museums are often sooooo serious.  This museum has a sense of humor.  I liked the categories for rating ideas on this touch table:

And I liked that the sense of humor encouraged others to approach work in the spirit of playfulness. Maira Kalman's exhibit exemplified a sense of humor--and of wonder-- that is throughout the whole museum.  Here's one of her labels:

And here's one visitor's idea for a combination object solving a problem:

Because it's in a historic mansion, the scale also seems very human.  The installations, often very beautiful, encouraged deep, sustained looking from all kinds of people.

But perhaps my favorite view was an unexpected reminder of the importance of design in our everyday lives.  As I came downstairs from the exhibit on tools, I heard a familiar noise in the stairway--the brisk whisking all of us know.  I looked down, and there was a member of the staff, sweeping away, with a straw broom, a tool that has existed, in virtually similar form, for thousands of years.

The second exhibit that inspired me?  Henry Matisse:  The Cutouts at the Museum of Modern Art.  The installation was great, giving you places both to look close-up at the work (and learning that he actually used pins because he was always changing them) and spaces to step back and get a big view (of, for instance, the work at the top of this post).  I appreciated that the curatorial voice was focused on the creation of the work--and in some places, by its preservation.  

Matisse's determination, experimentation and joy resounded in every room.  We've got a print of one of the cutouts in our bedroom and I'll never look at it quite the same way again.  The exhibit took something familiar and made it entirely new to me.  And, for those who think that looking at images online will discourage visitation (and there are still some who think that); seeing these works in person was so much more, so different, so much more moving, that looking at my screen.

I haven't made a list of resolutions for the new year, but this post coincides with two activities I've come across that I'm going to try and make a part of my process.  First, keeping a surprise journal  and second, thanks to my colleague and friend Anne Ackerson, keeping an accomplishments jar.  Matisse's surprise journal would have been full every day, I feel; and colleagues at the Cooper Hewitt must have their accomplishments jar overflowing as the new year starts.  May your and my new year be the same.

Matisse images from the very thoughtful and beautiful website for the exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

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