Fuse Visual Arts Commentary: Design Museum Boston — Celebrating 21st Century Design

The establishment of Design Museum Boston through the hard work, enthusiasm, and energetic vision of several individuals, led by the efforts of industrial designer/professor Sam Aquillano, is long overdue.

Photo: Design Image Boston

Photo: Design Museum Boston

By Mark Favermann

The mantra for Design Museum Boston is Design is everywhere.

It is a good slogan. We tend to take design for granted. Just a few superior companies, like Apple (personal technology), Knoll (furniture), Alessi (housewares), and Ferrari (high-end cars), use it as a multifaceted tool for commerce in ways that make us take notice. Iconic architecture can be thrown into the mix as well. A number of corporations claim a strong allegiance to design, but they don’t always achieve the attention they seek. Functional beauty is difficult to pull off. Why? The bar is set high. At its best, design is truth and beauty in physical form — simplicity and elegance are its inevitable adjectives.

Over the past last half-century or so, mainstream culture has slowly begun to celebrate successful design. This awareness has come late to Boston, even though the city and its environs host around 60,000 designers. Thus the establishment of Design Museum Boston through the hard work, enthusiasm, and energetic vision of several individuals, led by the untiring and articulate efforts of industrial designer/professor Sam Aquillano, is long overdue. DMB is an essential 21st century institution.

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has collected decorative arts and furniture since its founding, but exhibitions dedicated to design have only been intermittent. A handful of the institution’s scholarly curators focus on design history. The Institute of Contemporary Art has only had a couple of exhibits featuring design over the last two decades. It has no curatorial staff dedicated to design.

Currently, the best space in the Boston area for showcasing design is at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. Though the school is academically oriented, the huge lobby regularly showcases a stunning array of exhibitions dedicated to displaying architecture, urban design, and new building materials and forms. MIT often has traveling design and architecture exhibits at its museum and in the School of Architecture+Planning.

Regarding public exhibitions dedicated to design, the Boston scene does not compare well with other cities around the United Stages and Europe. The first design museum that I ever visited was in London. Founded in 1989 by furniture guru/retailer Sir Terence Conran, the Design Museum in London is one of the world’s leading institutions devoted to exploring contemporary design in every form, from furniture and graphics to architecture and industrial design. The museum welcomes 275,000 visitors each year.

There are also major collections and departments at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which boasts the world’s first curatorial department devoted to architecture and design. Other heavyweight outlets for appreciating design are The Metropolitan Museum, The Art institute of Chicago (with 250,000 objects including Frank Lloyd Wright architectural drawings), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Each collection has its own specialty or distinctive strength.

The Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s Design Museum, is the only US museum devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design. A branch of the Smithsonian since 1967, its collection includes more than 217,000 design objects.

Design museums come in a number of different forms. The Boston Society of Architects (BSA) has a full exhibition schedule and dedicated storefront gallery space at the city’s Russia Wharf. Unfortunately, many of its recent exhibits have been too technical and overly detailed, to the point of the esoteric. New York’s AIA Center for Design does a better job of creating exhibits that are attractive to the general public. The Washington, D.C. based National Building Museum is devoted to the history and public impact of the built environment, architecture, engineering, and design. Smaller design collections dot the US.

Photo: Design Museum Boston

City Hall Exhibit for the Design Museum Boston. Photo: Design Museum Boston.

Design Museum Boston was founded as a public, nonprofit institution with a mission to educate the world about the role of design in our lives and to unite the community in ways that enrich collective work, make businesses more competitive, and solve real-world problems more creatively. The major effort of the museum is to inspire individuals to appreciate and demand good design.

This Boston museum has no permanent address. DMB is a decentralized network of physical and virtual exhibits. Whether in a gallery, retail environment, public space, or on the web, its programming seeks to give visitors new insights into the design process and the greater social, economic, and environmental contexts that both effect and are effected by design. It has staged pop-up exhibitions as well as tours and lectures around the city at various venues, from Boston City Hall to Logan Airport.

Along with Design Museum Boston, Mr. Aquillano has also created a new museum structural model. DMB is part of what will become a national network of design museums, united by a common mission to educate the public about the positive values of good design, often by showing how it can be a catalyst for improving our society, economy, and environment. Design Museum Boston and Design Museum Portland (Oregon) are the first member institutions. Each museum is supported by the Design Museum Foundation, which sets standards regarding educational outreach and design consistency among those in the network. Exhibits will be exchanged and re-cycled between distant cities.

This moveable feast concept, while admirable, has its obvious limitations: not having a major permanent home means there will be scant institutional brand identity and there is no ability to acquire and store objects. The ICA did not collect art for almost 75 years, missing out on works of greatness. Still, new museum forms should be tried and tested.

Photo: Design Museum Boston

“Wa” Chair Finalist in Street Seats Design Challenge Competition. Photo: Design Museum Boston

Since Aquillano founded the museum in 2009, with friend and industrial designer Derek Cascio, their focus has been to highlight design’s vital role in people’s everyday lives. “Design,” Aquillano proselytizes, “is one of Boston’s major exports, along with technology, financial services, and health care.”

DMB has found a more permanent location near the waterfront. The museum’s new headquarters is a former bank space on Atlantic Avenue that has sat empty for years. It is a donation from a real estate developer, The Chiofaro Company. The location houses the offices of the Design Museum and a small and inviting museum shop.

Perhaps DMB’s most noticed project so far has been Street Seats: Reimagining the Public Bench, a contest that attracted over 170 international entries. 20 finalists were invited to build benches around Boston’s Fort Point Channel area. The public could test out the results, which ranged from the just useable to the beautiful and from the awkward to the not-so-beautiful

DMB’s latest competition invites designers to offer ways to decorate the columns outside its space. Its current exhibit, Better Business by Design, is on display at the Innovation and Design Building.

Design is everywhere, and Design Museum Boston is helping us all to see it.

An urban designer, Mark Favermann has been deeply involved in branding, enhancing, and making more accessible parts of cities, sports venues, and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Mark created the Looks of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, the 1999 Ryder Cup Matches in Brookline, MA, and the 2000 NCAA Final Four in Indianapolis. The designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he has been a design consultant to the Red Sox since 2002.

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