The role of design curator is slightly more recent than that of art curator, but it too suffers from opportunism by those who think that making an exhibition of objects is facile, disconnected or fleeting. A curator worth their salt is someone who devotedly does the research and sets out to present seminal works that affect people’s lives. Someone who considers the content and the larger context within the evolution of our time, and desires to introduce important or challenging developments to the general public, the very audience that is design’s best and most effective critic. DAMN° prods seven pros for their views on design curating.

Anybody is a curator today. After being an artist, DJ, designer or barista, a curator is the thing to be. We are curating our apartments, clothes, music, friends, social media profiles and client projects. “Picking something”, “making a selection” or “taking care” – all of that seems to be summed-up in one claim: “I curate therefore I am.” Originating from the Latin word curare (to care about), the position of curator came into existence in the world of museums and galleries, where it defines the person who chooses, edits, and mediates between art, artist, art history, and audience. It takes time, knowledge, and dedication to do this properly and, in most cases, it’s not a very glamorous job.

This all changed, however, with the likes of Harald Szeemann and Hans Ulrich Obrist. They represent a generation of independent art curators who became pop stars themselves, working on projects around the globe and opening up a discourse about the discipline and about a larger field of possibilities. A book edited by Beatrice von Bismarck, Jörn Schafaff and Thomas Weski, Cultures of the Curatorial, discusses those changes. The 'curatorial turn' that has emerged over the past two decades, they write:

“has developed as a field of overlapping and intertwining activities, tasks, and roles that were formerly divided and more clearly attributed to different professionals, institutions, and disciplines. (…) This development has affected the notion of curating (…) and widened its scope beyond showing or presenting, to include enabling, making public, educating, analysing, criticising, theorising, editing, and staging.”

© Paul Paetzel.
Thereby, curating turns into a meta-discipline, the curator into the Swiss army knife of cultural discourse. And this crossover of professions has also reached the sphere of design, with an impressive dynamic, as more and more design festivals, museums, fairs, and institutions are looking for those few experienced design curators to set their agenda.

Having what it takes

© Paul Paetzel.
© Paul Paetzel.
What does it take to be a curator in the design field? Who are the people taking on that challenge? DAMN° asked seven design curators about their experience, both newcomers and established professionals, from Europe, the US and Asia, some working for institutions, others on temporary projects.

Among those who have taken their first steps and already offered a fresh impulse, is Matylda Krzykowski. She found herself being called a curator after the ‘Achille is Watching us’ show during the Milan Salone in 2011 and is now among the collective behind Depot Basel, a project space in Switzerland. In her own words: "I work in contemporary design, with or for the creators. I am a maker, in general. I find it very pleasurable to initiate a context for others and to analyse each participant and his or her contribution. I am an exhibition maker, a communicator, and an initiator.”

A similar approach drives Maria Jeglinska. Her first two exhibitions, both well received, happened in 2012 (Ways of Seeing/ Sitting in Lodz, and Wonder Cabinets of Europe in London and then New York), but she still thinks of herself as an industrial designer rather than a curator. She does not start from an academic point of view; instead, her interest is in “creating a narrative that can be translated in space”.

Adam Štech shares the same passion for presenting objects and stories in “totally different ways” and likes “to find a lot of not-so-visible context”, but he also describes curating as a tool to (re)discover meaning in forgotten things. Light Sculptures was an exhibition he realised with his studio mates in the creative group OKOLO. In Lodz (2011), and Prague and Bratislava (2012), they presented 25 vintage Czech table lamps from a time when design was not a matter of culture and the designer was employed in the factory. Exploring the past, impressing the present, inspiring the future? Another line of action for curators. Štech and the Okolo team have already worked on several such thematic shows and are also open to transferring their creative and curatorial process to publishing, or to client projects – an area that others prefer to avoid.

Crossing the divide

Working on self-initiated projects is common practice among those who explore curating. Why wait for a job at an institution if you can start a project today? Dennis Elbers founded the Graphic Design Festival in Breda in 2007 and also worked as a curator for MOTI, the Museum of the Image. His recent show, Small Stories Bigger Picture, on visual storytelling, went from Breda to Belgrade and Chaumont, and received a silver European Design Award. About his experience with self-initiated projects, he remarks: “This often means that I not only work as a curator, but more as a project manager, also coordinating communications and funding, and guiding the team toward a desired destination.”

Jan Boelen, artistic director of Z33 contemporary design space in Belgium, would agree:

“To be a curator today means operating in more than one field, often transgressing the division between curation and creation itself. In effect, the curator has become a partner-in-crime in the design process. Moreover, curation is actually becoming a design process, with a crucial need to shape and create the form of an exhibition relative to its content. The subjects we try to explore, the relationship of societal developments to intersecting and inter-melting spheres of art and design, cannot be presented through an objective, neatly catalogued museum filter. The contemporary curator knows that such clear answers are impossible. The challenge is to bring these subjects into a material and spatial form that creates a powerful sensorial experience, one that opens itself to many related themes and that uses strong emotional, intellectual, and bodily impressions to render a powerful form of ambiguity.”

In the frame

Learning the skills of curating was achieved via doing for all seven professionals we spoke with. Starting from an art, design, architecture or journalism background, they took or created their own opportunities. Krzykowski worked with Boelen in 2012. “He has a very strong character and the ability to change the discourse of design, because he works very closely with designers and digs up opportunities to develop a project that makes a mark in design history.”

It is also notable that the framework in larger, well-established institutions is significantly different to that in other projects. In particular when, aside from creating temporary exhibitions, there is also an overall concept or a collection to build and maintain. Former journalist, writer and temporary curator Aric Chen is now working on the new Hong Kong based museum for visual culture, M+, a project in the making, with the new building scheduled to open in 2017:

“Starting from scratch, as we are, is both a challenge and an advantage. For me, given our museum’s mission of having a ‘global vision, from an Asian perspective’, it’s about rethinking the narratives, histories, and perspectives that I was trained in when growing up in the West. It’s a constant questioning process that many of us are accustomed to, but it is placed within an entirely different framework and thus requires the reconceptualisation of things once taken for granted. Does the same thing carry the same meaning in the West as it does now in my part of the world? Of course not. (Usually). At the same time, our aim at M+ is not just to reaffirm the local status quo, but to challenge it. This asks for flexibility and resoluteness, distance and engagement, focus and breadth, and perhaps a touch of schizophrenia.”

Feeling the power

With the larger institution also comes a different level of responsibility. As a senior curator, Paola Antonelli is very clear about the impact her work has:

“I work at MoMA, one of the most important modern and contemporary art museums in the world, and am specialised in contemporary design and architecture. Because of that, I have a lot of power. I have the power to make people understand, slowly but surely, that design is an important force, and that they need to be aware, educated, and literate about design because ultimately people are the voices and critics that designers listen to. [I have] the power to identify really great designers that are doing good work and to show them to the world so that they hopefully become better known and even more able to do good work. And the power to put forward issues that I think are important, so that people can actually look at them and take them into consideration. In a way, the power I have is the power to speak out loud and be heard. And that is something really important that MoMA gives me. People come to MoMA to take their Picasso and Matisse vitamins. And then they stumble upon my show and they don’t know what it is about, but all of a sudden I lure them like a mermaid. I sing the song and they stay there and learn about design.”

Using that power wisely earned Antonelli the extended role of senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design and also of director of Research and Development at MoMA. She made a point with her radically open-minded, at times provocative approach. Among her projects are four she considers her most important achievements “because they expanded – widely! – the definitions of design, acquisition, and collection.” Her show Design and the Elastic Mind (2008) pushed the boundary by exploring the relationship between design and science. Between 2010 and 2012 she enforced the acquisition of 23 digital fonts, 14 video games, and the @ symbol for the MoMA collection. Decisions that made a wider public shake their heads before they looked at design again – and saw it differently.

Reaching beyond

Extending the public perception is also what motivates Boelen:

“We observe what is going on around us in the larger context of people, culture, science, politics, economy, and so on, and try to trace an underlying network of changes and evolutions, and then react to that in real-time. We are not very concerned with fitting into the normative conversations going on in the design world, or with interpreting critical theory. I am much more interested in how contemporary culture forces critical theory to evolve.”

That is also why he does not want to limit his work through the format of the exhibition; that is, with it having an opening and an end:

“At the moment, we are looking into the particular question of archiving and into the timeline of curatorial practice. I have always found it a pity that many of the most interesting reactions and discoveries related to a particular exhibition happen after it has closed, meaning that opportunities for further collaboration are often limited. As a result, we are trying to move beyond the strict phases of separate exhibitions to a more research-oriented structure. We are putting together a series of research centres – including Studio Future, Studio Limburg, and Studio Meta – to build a platform for connecting with different partners and intersecting between themes in the longer term. Our programme has always been much bigger than just the exhibitions, with temporary projects in the public space, installations, debates, performances, and education, but this initiative would take us even further. (...) The greatest challenge is to identify and understand themes that are really contemporary, that reflect and explain what is happening in society. In the midst of our own time, it can be difficult to find a vantage point from which everything seems connected; and even if we do achieve this viewpoint, it can be even more difficult to communicate that idea to a larger public audience. It is very difficult to achieve the right balance between the power of an imaginative vision and the doubt that emerges from complexity."

When asked about the core of what it takes to come up with outstanding projects, the curators deliver a mix of answers, namely “exceptional curiosity” (Aric Chen), “a particular way of looking at the world” (Dennis Elbers, Maria Jeglinska), and “the ability to turn a thoroughly researched story into an eye-opening and mind-shifting experience” (Paola Antonelli, Matylda Krzykowski, Adam Štech, Jan Boelen).

Despite the fact that the term curating is all-over-the place at present, their attitudes clearly indicate that what they do is a craft and a profession. Or, as Elbers puts it:

“Curation is a far bigger process than picking out what you like. Often you have to show stuff you don’t like in order to present the right perspective. A long-term perspective regarding content, context, and medium is what separates the professional curator from the hipsters.”

This article appeared in DAM39. Order your personal copy.
© Paul Paetzel.
© Paul Paetzel.