GLENN ADAMSON The curator and author speaks about his favorite chair, and the first time he held a Tang Dynasty pot What drew you in the first place to looking – and writing about – design objects? Where did it all begin for you? The moment for me was when I was in college and I had the good fortune to be in a class held in a museum where we were able to handle historic objects. I had very randomly taken a course on the history of Chinese ceramics, and this professor put a Tang Dynasty pot in my hands. It was the first time I’d ever held anything like that, and it’s like the lights went on – I just thought, “My God, this is so powerful, this historical ceramic, compared to all the slides I’d been looking at.” Since then you’ve written extensively on quite a broad spectrum of design history. Why do you think it’s such an important subject for society? You scarcely need to frame the argument for why design is important socially, because everything around us is designed. Fine art, although it is wonderful, can be quite rarefied, and I think a lot of people don’t actually encounter it on a day-to-day basis except maybe in reproduction. Whereas design, from the minute you get up, you wake up in a designed object, you put on designed clothes, you eat from a designed plate. It touches every single thing. And so I think of it really as the imprint of human intention on the built environment.
Is there a piece that you own that you are particularly proud of? The most important thing for me, which I actually mentioned in my first book, is my Art Carpenter chair. It sounds like a joke, but Arthur Carpenter was a California-based, kind of counterculture woodworker. And I have this wishbone chair that he made in 1969, which I got for like $500 when I was in grad school. And I have sat in it to write every book I’ve ever written and work in it all day, every day. So it’s almost like a piece of clothing at this point. When it comes to curating an exhibition on design, is there anything, in particular, you need to keep in mind? I maybe have a little bit of an unusual position on this, which is that I think design curators have all the fun. Because fine art objects, you have to treat them very carefully: there’s a reason that the white gallery has been so enduring as a way of showing fine art. Whereas design actually doesn’t want to be treated like that. Design lives in our spaces. Design objects are quite comparable in a rough and tumble visual atmosphere and they really respond to it well and benefit from that, which means that you have a much freer hand as a curator. What draws you to Salon Art + Design every year? I think the international mix is great, so I feel it’s a good alternative to traveling to France, Germany, and England and seeing all the galleries. And the Salons that I’ve attended have been pretty ambitious in terms of their scenography and presentation as well. I think the galleries tend to do justice by the work that they’re showing – they do just that thing that I was talking about earlier: they use the objects in conjunction with the design of the booth to create a real sense of atmosphere.
(Opposite) Glenn Adamson in his Art Carpenter wishbone chair. Courtesy: Glenn Adamson (Left) Glenn Adamson, Fewer, Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Objects, 2018 (Bloomsbury Publishing); Glenn Adamson, Objects: USA 2020, 2020 (The Monacelli Press). Courtesy: Glenn Adamson