Dezeen Magazine

"Taste is not what a museum is about"

Opinion: in choosing to stage a major exhibition of work by Marcel Wanders, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam has mistaken commercial success for cultural importance, says Louise Schouwenberg.

Pinned Up, the Marcel Wanders retrospective exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam (SMA), elicits all clichés on design as a shallow field of expertise: devoid of deeper meanings, focussed on styling and the production of gadgets and kitsch items.

The presentation, which will last until mid-June 2014, contains plenty of gold and baroque decorations, a host of glamorous everyday items as well as objects devoid of practical use, blown up to enormous proportions. The opening event was a visual spectacle that closely resembled a millionaire's fair, where the luxury items and pedestaled pieces of furniture were displayed in a nightclub ambiance with women of flesh and blood serving as lamp posts. For those who failed to grasp the significance of all this, snippets of seemingly philosophical insights on the walls tried to offer answers.

Why a prestigious art institute like the SMA chose to stage an exhibition that appears to serve the marketing strategy of a design brand, which is known for its commercial success but not for its cultural importance, is puzzling. Good reasons are needed to lift designs out of their natural, functional habitats, and expose them to a museum audience that searches for cultural value.

Those reasons can be found in many exemplary design exhibitions, which evidence the wider scope of design. To name a few, designer Martino Gamper recently guest-curated Design is a State of Mind for the Serpentine Gallery in London, presenting a wide variety of products in such a way that not only the underlying inspirations but also their inherent narrative meanings come to the fore.

Retrospective exhibitions that focus on a single designer's oeuvre can likewise offer evidence of a larger significance, such as the recently opened exhibition Panorama in the Vitra Design Museum, in Weil am Rhein, which presents the work of Konstantin Grcic. Apart from the inherent value of the industrial objects themselves, the special scenography and composition cast new light on reality and offer visionary views on the future of living and working conditions, as new communication technologies will drastically change the notions of public and private spaces.

The flamboyant Wanders possesses a business instinct, some very strong marketing qualities and a flair for the sweeping gesture, which have brought him many lucrative commissions worldwide, helped him establish a solid business empire and turn his name into a highly successful brand. For these accomplishments the designer naturally deserves praise. The latest instalment in his series of successes – the much-coveted recognition from the cultural elite and serious media – has been well prepared and staged by Wanders. He has, for instance, been supporting the SMA with substantial donations since 2012.

But do his designs really mean so much to the world that they merit a retrospective at a cultural institute? Some of Wanders' products may be comfortable and an incidental early design (Knotted Chair) at the time of its conception indicated an innovative take on technology. But he can hardly be called a pioneer who has offered new perspectives on the world of everyday functional objects or new views on the future of design. He's not known for a critical take on the design profession, a sustainable approach, nor does he belong to the group of designers who are opening up new horizons by instigating multi-disciplinary collaborations. So does the strength of his work lie in breaking down the boundaries between visual art and design? What views on art do his items reveal? What views on design?

Obviously the glamorous products on display in Pinned Up can be viewed as witnesses to the taste of the nouveau riche of our times. What about the oversized items, devoid of practical use value. Should they be considered autonomous artworks?

For the sake of argument, one may compare Wanders’ exhibition with the show Ushering in Banality, which took place in 1988 at the very same SMA, headed by director Wim Beeren at the time. Artist Jeff Koons presented a number of dramatically magnified replicas of decorative porcelain figurines, which led to some heated and interesting debate within the art world. Pretty soon, however, indignation turned to admiration. Koons had had the genius to raise, within the context of a museum, some highly topical questions about the relationship between art and commercial objects, a novelty in those days.

Twenty five years on, Wanders has also blown-up trivial objects to huge proportions, and placed them on pedestals in an attempt to raise their stature to that of visual art. Aside from questioning if such a strategy can lead to any new insights so many years down the road, there’s one major contrast: Wanders did not create enlargements of existing objects, but of his own creations. Where Koons’ sculptures raised interesting questions as they carried numerous references to the unusual contexts from which they were taken and the context in which they landed, the images created by Wanders refer to nothing but themselves. When devoid of inherent meanings and references, we can hardly consider them artworks. At most they might be considered late specimens of the Design-Art phenomenon that suddenly bloomed up at the turn of the century.

What started with prototypes of iconic historical designs and experimental designs by contemporary designers, soon led to objects being designed on purpose as costly one-offs, crafted from special materials. These were widely exposed in the media because of their extravagant forms and the reputation of the designers, thus gaining the aura of rare valuables. They competed with artworks, claiming eternal value and thus economic profit, and eventually lost even a slightest link to functionality. Neither art, nor design, most of them were also devoid of higher cultural significance, only aiming at a gradually decreasing market of collectors. It proved to be a dead end path for design.

Like many other specimens of the Design-Art phenomenon Wanders' theatrical settings, living lights and richly decorated products are just kitsch: objects without too much significance nor use, appreciated by the newly monied and thus supplied by the designer with the knack for business. The only question these objects raise is why they are being presented in this museum.

The opening of Pinned Up drew quite a crowd, and the show will probably continue to do so over the coming months when a larger audience is allowed in to gawk at the luxury goods and gadgets. And then, when 2014 comes to a close, the museum will be able to report that this was one of its most successful exhibitions.

In an era in which populism is on the up and up, and large visitor numbers are increasingly becoming the main driver in the way cultural institutions are run, the overwhelming interest in Wanders' exhibition may be deemed a triumph. But it also painfully reveals something else; when the exhibition was initiated and prepared the SMA was in need of a director who could manage the collecting and curating policies of this key institution – a director with the wherewithal to pull a timely plug on any whimsical plans and point the curator to more suitable locations for this kind of design experience.

SMA's collection of applied art and design was once among the best in the world, but for a number of decades it has lacked a clear concept. Most of the acquisitions and exhibitions betray personal whim and a tendency to be swayed by the issues of the day. It is this context that has allowed commercial success to be mistaken for cultural importance. Design is about taste, and taste can be disputed. But taste, which will always be transitory and personal, is not what a museum is about.

Apart from the surprise that the SMA chose to create this show, it was also surprising in the first weeks after the opening how many media let themselves be directed by Wanders, indiscriminately copied his press release and failed to badger him when he set aside critics of his work as cranky modernists, design fundamentalists, with no eye for innovation. Blown-up pretentions call for critical questions, but they were barely asked. Almost all Dutch media mentioned for instance that Wanders’ oeuvre is part of the prestigious design collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). A simple inquiry would have shown that only a single early piece, the Knotted Chair from 1996, is part of the collection and the museum has made no further purchases from the Wanders brand.

Many developments in design are worthy of exposure in a museum context, where their deeper layers of meaning don’t evaporate in thin air but are acknowledged for what they are. The MoMA has always well understood that design should only find a natural habitat in a museum when it represents those layers of meaning, challenging concepts, or visionary narratives that reach beyond luxurious comfort or commercial success.

The Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam appointed a new director, Beatrix Ruf, in April 2014. Let's hope that under her leadership, the museum remembers again how to discern commercial gadgets from designs that are valuable testimonies to our time, worthy of an exhibition in an institution of this stature.

Louise Schouwenberg is head of the masters programme in contextual design and co-head of the masters programme in design curating and writing at Design Academy Eindhoven. She is course director of the fine arts and design masters programme Material Utopias at the Sandberg Instituut / Gerrit Rietveld Academy Amsterdam.