Time and a Chair: Teaching Design Theory

Article excerpt

Seated on a Mission-style Napoleon chair, a gray-haired African American woman faces the camera. Well dressed, with an ease of bearing and a forthright gaze, she is not an image of turn-of-the-century American womanhood familiar to most college students. This real photograph postcard, fashioned in an unidentified photographer's studio between 1907 and 1914, is one of 150 compelling images recently brought to public view by Cornell students. The image is the favorite of Jan Jennings, professor in the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, who teaches the seminar Design Theory and Criticism.

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TIME AND A CHAIR: An Exhibition of Photographs of Ordinary Americans Posed with Chairs, 1840-1940 was first installed in the college's east-wing Martha Van Rensselaer gallery in spring 2003 by a mixed class of graduate students and seniors in interior design. In the process of conceiving and designing the installation, the students mastered museum design theory and, to their surprise, became enthralled with American cultural history. Jennings's class used the photograph collection to develop a new exhibit for Cornell's Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. The images had been purchased by Jennings as part of a larger cultural diversity project, "Ideal Interiors, Practical Realities: Dimensions of Living in Remote Parts of the Country," funded by a USDA Hatch grant.

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Jennings, a specialist in the history, theory, and criticism of contemporary interior architecture and design, began the seminar course about the contemporary design of museums and display aesthetics a year ago. In the first half of the semester, the students read a dozen books and other resources on museum architecture, the design of gallery spaces, exhibition aesthetics, and exhibition design systems. Then they made site visits to five of New York City's most notable museums. In the Museum of Arts and Design they analyzed a classic example of the twentieth century's predominant typology of museum architecture: the white cube. A rectangular room with white walls, the white cube is sizeable enough to showcase large modern paintings with their great splashes of color. "The space itself does not work very hard; it stays out of the picture," Jennings explains.

For a sharp contrast, she and her students visited the American Folk Art Museum. It is tiny--the entryway a mere 40 feet wide--and brand new. The interior, conceived only three years ago by the New York City architectural firm of Tod Williams Billie Tsien and Associates, demonstrates one of the newest approaches to gallery design. "Instead of large rooms, the space here is organized using multiple and sometimes redundant paths of circulation," Jennings says. "As visitors walk along the pathways they cannot see the work fully; it comes into view only when they step off the path, and then they are startled by how close it is."

This type of gallery design establishes a domestic scale that is appropriate for exhibiting a collection of very small pieces. Jennings points out. For their intricate details to be appreciated, the works must be displayed in spaces that encourage viewers to stand close. "Museums that offer an arrangement like this, providing a sequence of more intimate experiences for viewers as they move through, are gaining in popularity," Jennings says.

As a result of the field trip, Jennings's students had a variety of typologies to consider. For the exhibit project, they needed to determine what typology best suited a study of historic photographs. Jennings was concerned at first about the difficulty of contrasting time periods, in presenting old, dusty photographs through the medium of the newest theory about museum design. In the resulting exhibit, the modern idiom enhanced the compelling quality of the images and their diversity.

First the students needed to find an internal order inherent among the photographs that Jennings had previously collected as part of her larger cultural diversity project. …