Good things almost always happen when museums invite outsiders to host exhibitions from their permanent collections. This has certainly been the case with the annual “Selects” exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Recent guest curators on the series, now in its 20th edition, have included the architect David Adjaye, the artist Maira Kalman and the musician Esperanza Spalding.
This year’s guest is Duro Olowu, the Nigerian British lawyer turned fashion designer, self-taught curator and example of global cosmopolitanism. For his excellent, fine-grained “Duro Olowu Selects: Works From the Permanent Collection,” Olowu chose the theme of patterns and repetition — as best he could.
As a designer, Olowu prefers flowing dresses and gowns made from the contrasting patterns of different floral or geometric fabrics. His curatorial skills first emerged at his eponymous London store, which became known for its dense, seductive Cabinet-of-Wonder arrangements. These include not only his designs, but also contemporary art, as well as jewelry, ceramics, textiles and other furniture, and much more – old and new, European and African.
Olowu exercised his ecumenical taste in group exhibitions he staged at New York’s Salon 94 gallery, in 2012 and 2014. In early 2020, he orchestrated the ambitious “Seeing Chicago,” a lavish multimedia exhibition that filled that city’s Museum of Contemporary Art with drawn works. mainly from the collection, but also from others, both public and private, in the city.
At Cooper Hewitt, Olowu collaborated with curator Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, curator of contemporary design, assisted by Amanda Forment Hirsch and Claire Quong. a strong textile back. Everything is shoehorned into the special “Selects” gallery on the first floor of the museum. It helps that the exhibition design – led by Roger Diener of Diener and Diener Architekten – uses clear plastic partitions, although the labels printed on them in white are difficult to read.
Olowu’s selections emphasize the ubiquity of patterns, the way they flow and mutate through time and across cultures, as well as the way they are used – as decoration, as structure and in repetitive manufacturing methods that range from weaving, knitting and knotting to printing and bronze casting. “The built environment is shaped and embellished by patterns,” he says in a pithy wall text, calling his show a “gloriously whimsical selection of objects.”
Interestingly, online definitions of erratic include “random,” “unpredictable,” “no consistency,” and “disagree or regular pattern.” Pattern is too big a subject to explore in an orderly manner on this scale. Olowu’s selections proceed individually and in clusters, from here to there and sometimes back.
One of the most extraordinary objects in the show uses patterns at every level: decoration, structure, fabrication. This is the 1996 ‘Knotted Chair’ by Dutch designer Marcel Wanders: a kind of sling chair in braided cord around a carbon fiber core using traditional macramé techniques, the loops and knots of which run in a pattern of diamonds within ovals. (The pattern this leaves on the back is another issue.) The chair seems to stand on its own, until you come to a dress designed and made in 2009 by Argentine Lydia Novillo; it uses chaguar fibers in interconnected loops and hooks. The meat-to-garment ratio seems relatively understated compared to current standards for red carpet exposure.
Olowu kicks off the show by showing that pattern is far from benign, indicating that material culture often mirrors the histories of capitalism, colonialism, and racism. The point is made by “Cadastral Shaking (Chicago v1),” a new acquisition by the artist and architect Amanda Williams, which consists of a map of Chicago broken up into color-coded neighborhoods to indicate property values, as well as red lines (pink areas) and their absence (yellow, green and blue areas). Williams has basically shuffled the card until it resembles a messy pile of puzzle pieces. Disruption is an appropriate response to many patterns, even within the show itself.
For example, a group of beading accessories arranged on small tables in the center includes bead samples and accessories — a 20th century Zulu necklace, a 1970s Kenyan belt, and a 19th century China glasses case. In between is the small “The Middle Passage – African Holocaust Brooch” (1993-96), in cast silver, by Phyllis Bowdwin. Its shape is that of a slave ship; the patterns of small figures reflect the inhuman bustle of the human cargo of these ships.
If design is rarely purely decorative, a less sinister example is Ruth Asawa’s 1965 white-on-white lithograph, “The Chair.” Installed next to three small panels of Wiener Werkstätte lace, this large lace sculpture shows a wicker or rattan chair surrounded by a mosaic-like expanse of small squares as if by an aura.
Olowu makes points within points. He presents what appear to be examples of irregular patterns – alternately geometric, photographic and hand drawn – found on album covers designed by Josef Albers (“Provocative Percussion, Vol. III” by Enoch Light and the Light Brigade), Tibor Kalman ( “Remain in Light” by Talking Heads) and Laini Abernathy (“Sun Song” by Sun Ra). Relatively unknown Abernathy, who died in 2010, was a Chicago artist, graphic designer and activist who, the label notes, is considered the first black woman to design a cover for a jazz album.
Some of Olowu’s additional points, especially those related to cultural appropriation and re-appropriation, are discovered visually before the labels connect the dots, especially in the irresistible studies in comparative textile production that fill two corners of the gallery, with the non- Western examples usually emerge. Here you’ll find an Afghan war carpet, bushy tanks and other weaponry, and a 1964 hand-woven Ivory Coast textile that is among the show’s largest objects. The black and white checkerboard pattern is complicated with three or four secondary weft weaves in red, green, and orange, as well as black and white. It is something beautiful, sober and understated, yet down to the smallest detail.
Duro Olowu selects: works from the permanent collection
Until August 28 at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2 East 91st Street, Manhattan; 212-849-8400, cooperhewitt.org.