What design needs, says a museum director, is more of this sassy Italian term

Paris – Across the main entrance of , a retrospective exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs’s (MAD), are two sets of seductively zaftig pastel-coloured armchairs. To the left stand the angular D.151.4, the D.153.1 and the D.154.2, designed by polymath Gio Ponti; to the right, his award-winning D.156.3 is the standout piece. The pieces, which function as a ground wire between the late designer’s bespoke work and today’s market, are part of .

But seeing the chairs in action is eye-opening. On the left, the woman in a senior couple tentatively approaches the trio, deeming the items perhaps too precious to touch, until she finally succumbs to her curiosity, sitting down elegantly inside the nest of the 154 and turning her partner into an Instagram husband. On the right, a woman has proudly stationed herself at the regal-looking seat, a calm smile on her face.

To many users such as them, this is the type of designed object whose value needs no intricate explanation.

‘In the world of today, sprezzatura should be our motto — everyone [instead] is complaining and focusing on the effort and the money and the investment,’ said director Olivier Gabet, referring to the Italian term for the studied nonchalance behind the country’s revered way of dressing beautifully.

As many design museums are focused on pulling back the curtain on the sourcing, technology and process behind a finished object, the MAD is fiercely betting instead on the emotional role of this type of institution, on aiding the development of a sensibility for pleasure. Are they perhaps sensing an information saturation related to the conceptual aspect of production? Or is there something else behind this position?

Pieces from the Molteni&C Heritage Collection - Gio Ponti: from top to bottom, the 154.2, the 156.3, the 153.1 and the 151.4 armchairs.

What’s the strategy with the design exhibitions here at the museum?
OLIVIER GABET: For sure, there is a huge awareness now about design exhibitions, interior design and architecture. For us, it has been at the core of our mission since the mid 19th century — even back in the Universal Exhibition in 1900, the museum promoted young architects and designers! There are many elements playing together in this very eclectic kingdom, from toys to wallpaper, graphic design and craft, and it’s all very modern. But we are surrounded by museum exhibitions that are doing today what we started doing more than a century ago.

Nowadays the biggest challenge for us is to find a balance between the kind of exhibition that brings in money to sustain an ambitious programme that defends designers, graphic designers and young fashion designers. [Ed’s note: the blockbuster 2017 Dior exhibition, a record breaker for the institution, had four-hour average waiting times and brought in 700,000 visitors throughout its six-month run.]

Today, many people talk about design, but a wider audience is not so aware of its importance. So in 2018 it’s a strong policy of ours to tell them: ‘Hey! This is the kind of object that can change your life.’ For example, we had an exhibition on Roger Talon, the man who designed the TGV and thus shaped the landscape of France.

Design is everywhere today and it’s fashionable… but fashion changes, so design could disappear

Can Gio Ponti change lives today?
It’s not easy. Design is everywhere today and it’s fashionable… but fashion changes, so design could disappear. But my point of view as the director of this institution is that whatever happens, design has been at home here for one and a half centuries, and it will be at home a century and a half form here.

Everything here is terribly serious, but dealt in a funny, light manner — and that’s a very smart way to deal with big topics, from sustainability to economic growth and national identities. Design is at the core of these topics, but we can talk about it without overwhelming with concepts and boring texts. You raise awareness through pragmatic and precise details. For designers like Gio Ponti, it’s about joie de vivre. You can talk about very serious matters in a very smart way. A museum has to educate people, for sure, but museums are a place of pleasure. That is the principal mission of the museum today: to develop sensibility. You can sit down in these Gio Ponti chairs [points to the Molteni&C Heritage Collection items]. Design is an everyday experience and people need to appropriate this furniture. It’s nice to see it on a podium, but it’s nicer to experience it.

A museum has to educate people, for sure, but museums are a place of pleasure

You have a direct didactic competitor by way of the internet, which didn’t exist before. Is this why experience is so important to a design museum now?
Absolutely. We are very keen on digital, because it’s another form of access… but the museum should not try to compete with the world. We are not supplied with the right weapons to do so. This approach must be complementary. It’s difficult to escape the internet, but the museum is a place of freedom: you are free to not go inside one. They can like or dislike an exhibition, and that’s a fantastic place for freedom. We have no interest in challenging this.

Conversing alone with an artwork is a luxury. No cell phone. Luxury is about space, time and light — the right space to display a work of art, enough time to be alone with it and the right lighting to see it properly. With the rise of digital, the other side of the story is very important for museums. It’s an opportunity to reassess our mission as a place where people develop personal identity.

Luxury is about space, time and light — the right space to display a work of art, enough time to be alone with it and the right lighting to see it properly

After the terrorist attacks of 2016, the audience [dipped]. We are in the middle of Paris, not protected in any way. We didn’t have the tourists coming in, but the people of Paris still did. I believe that they didn’t come by chance. That speaks of the quality of this experience. There are global trends, but we don’t have to be blinded by them.

Views of the Tutto Ponti exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs

You planned the Gio Ponti exhibition three years ago. Why now?
Working on this project I was impressed by the fact that he’s a big influence on many designers, architects, graphic designers, interior decorators and design journalists. This man was never influenced by ideology nor big concepts: he was influenced by humanism, and that is totally meaningful today. This is not the Modulor, a very fascist way of dictating the way one should be. Gio Ponti thought everything had to be related to comfort, joy, light and poetry. At one moment he was very out of fashion, because the 20th century was a battlefield of ideologies and architectural debates, and even if Domus was crucial to many subjects, Ponti was always beyond this. His mission as an architect and designer was to make life beautiful and easier.

Today, this lesson is quite nice. We can go back to Gio Ponti and show achieved through playfulness and joy. In the world of today, sprezzatura should be our motto — everyone is complaining and focusing on the effort and the money and the investment. Everything now has to be transparent, which is boring at the end of the day. I don’t need to know everything! I need to see results.

Something is not interesting because it has a lot of craftsmanship or artificial intelligence behind it: it’s interesting because it’s beautiful

You’re living five years into the future, then, when we will all be overwhelmed by today’s cult of effort to the point of rejection.
Ponti is like Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo, because he had to do with engineering and poetry, with no barriers. That sense of sprezzatura is necessary.

We have some galleries above related to digital humanism, but at the end of the day what I love about those objects is the fact that there is a huge artistic sensitivity. In we don’t only see how it’s related to technology — it’s more about how it looks. When you see a wonderful dress by Chanel, you just see a wonderful dress and you don’t care about what’s behind it. It’s smarter to believe that there’s a lot behind them and that we respect them, but something is not interesting because it has a lot of craftsmanship or artificial intelligence behind it: it’s interesting because it’s beautiful.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Transportation to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs was provided by Molteni&C, the main sponsor of Tutto Ponti. The exhibition is on display until February 10, 2019.

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