As the High Museum’s curator of decorative arts and design, Sarah Schleuning oversees several centuries of multifarious objects — salt shakers, sofas, stained glass windows. Soon she will add automobiles to the list. Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas, an exhibition of concept cars — experiments that paved the way for future automotive design — opens May 21.
The common thread is a simple bottom line. As she puts it, “I want people to be as excited about design as I am.”
Schleuning evinces an infectious enthusiasm, first ignited by family trips during which her father, an Oregon architect, took the family to see great buildings. She earned a master’s in History of Design and Decorative Arts at Parsons School of Design in 2001. Ensuing curatorial experiences have shaped her perspective. Schleuning counts two years working at Cranbrook Art Museum in Michigan as a transformative experience.
“I had the unique pleasure of living in the maid’s quarters of [Cranbrook’s architect] Eliel Saarinen’s house. Being in the house and on that campus taught me so much about the subtlety and immersiveness of great design.”
During her nine years at the Wolfsonian-FIU in Miami, her view of the field was influenced by the museum’s expansive collection — from matchboxes to suites of furniture, she says — and its focus on how design impacts daily life became an abiding interest.
Most curators are passionate about their purview. Schleuning, however, is well positioned to proselytize. Her department has a $2.4 million endowment for acquisitions, the High’s largest, and she oversees the most prominent and highly respected of the museum’s collections, the Virginia Carroll Crawford Collection of 19th- and early-20th-century decorative arts. She is also fortunate that her predecessor, Ron Labaco, left a strong foundation on which to build the contemporary collection.
Since her arrival two years ago, the design historian has acquired 58 objects for the collection. Some are on view in Bangles to Benches:Contemporary Jewelry and Design, which features furniture, tableware and jewelry by such designers as Ron Arad, Johanna Grawunder, Zaha Hadid, Joris Laarman and Marcel Wanders. Comparing an artist’s work in multiple mediums offers insight about how an artist applies his vocabulary to different objects — or not.
Schleuning is making some experimental purchases as well. She is buying multiples of the same piece — one to display and one to sit on or use. Given that most design is functional, providing a way for visitors to actually experience how and whether it functions seems a terrific idea.
Her largest acquisition to date was just installed in an alcove in the Wieland Pavilion lobby. Physic Garden is a two-story installation, a grid of 456 ceramic plates on which artist Molly Hatch has painted abstracted floral designs based on two 18th-century plates in the High’s Frances and Emory Cocke Collection of English Ceramics.
This commission reflects one aspect of Schleuning’s mission: to bridge the gap between the historical and the contemporary. She hopes that Physic Garden will entice those who favor contemporary art to seek out Hatch’s source in the gallery devoted to the Cocke collection. Once they are there, they might find, as I did, the ceramics to be far more engaging than they expected.
She wants to foster movement in the other direction, too, and was pleased to note that the Atlanta Ceramics Circle, a group devoted to traditional ceramics, helped support the project.
Dream Cars: Innovative Design, Visionary Ideas, her most high-profile project to date, will be followed by solo shows of jewelry designers Art Smith and Earl Pardon and a major exhibition of an as yet unnamed fashion designer in 2015.
Jewelry. Fashion Cars. Hmm. Museums everywhere have turned to catnip subjects such as cars, jewelry and fashion because they increase the gate. The High mounted The Allure of the Automobile just four years ago, and though it was a fine show, you know what they say about sequels. Schleuning has a confident response: “It’s not the topic but what the curator makes of it.”
Good point. It’s the difference between the 2010 traveling exhibit Diana, a Celebration and the Metropolitan Museum’s 2011 Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. The former displayed a parade of mannequins. The latter was a retrospective marking McQueen’s evolving vocabulary and the autobiographical content that fed his work.
Schleuning describes how she arrived at Dream Cars‘ theme. “There was no point in just saying that cars are great design,” she says. “We’d done that already. My thinking was, ‘How do I make it intellectually interesting?’”
She decided to highlight the creative process. To that end 17 concept cars will be exhibited in the context of conceptual drawings, patents, renderings and scale models. “I want to show how an idea evolves from a drawing to a model to concept car. A designer might do 100 sketches of a headlamp . . . Many ideas may never come to fruition.”
Because the automobile is an object with which everyone is intimately familiar, Schleuning sees it is an excellent (forgive me) vehicle to foster awareness of design’s ubiquity and role in shaping our lives as well as aesthetics.
“I want my exhibitions to get people to look at everything in their lives,” she says, “to consider the meaning of the choices they’ve made in selecting their possessions.”
In other words, you are what you wear, how your furnish your home and what you drive. Think about it.