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?
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.