A quiet installation of loud objects at SFMOMA sets the scene for discussion and discovery

Party Line

The sixth floor of SFMOMA’s vertical campus in downtown San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood is the ideal context for Conversation Pieces: Contemporary Furniture in Dialogue, an exhibition on view until June 25, 2023. Architecturally, Mario Botta’s Ticinese stepped-brick hulk is balanced in back by Snøhetta’s taller, fog-inspired addition. Both possess strong personalities (building-alities?) that are strengthened through dialectical pairing.

Similarly, the show, curated by Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, SFMOMA’s Helen Hilton Raiser Curator of Architecture and Design, features over 40 strong chairs and light fixtures. (All were selected from the museum’s collection.) The point is to mingle eye-catching “conversation starters” and see what happens when their aesthetic collisions are appreciated altogether.

Jay Sae Jung “Oh, Savage” series armchair, 2020; collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund purchase; © Jay Sae Jung Oh; image courtesy of the artist and Salon 94 Design. (Amanda Ringstad)

Inevitably, pieces by architects are featured, including an intense Memphis patterned chaise from Nathalie du Pasquier, a “seaweed” seat by Gaetano Pesce, a sober bench from Studio Mumbai’s Bijoy Jain, a fluffy all-black work by Ania Jaworska, and a symbolic comb-chair from Germane Barnes, titled Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown, from 2020. Other veritable bangers are supplied by creatives like Maarten Baas, Martino Gamper, Dozie Kanu, Rei Kawakubo, Shiro Kuramata, Max Lamb, and Isamu Noguchi, among others.

But rather than a mishmash of clashing, the setting, assisted by Los Angeles–based creative director and interior designer Alexandra Loew, is fluid and calm. Crimson carpet lines the gallery’s floors and walls, and the pieces are staged in “islands” delineated by flowy white blobs. The lights are dimmed, and books are stacked at the perimeter, suggesting a more domestic space. Benches are provided for viewers to sit, observe, linger.

Nathalie du Pasquier, “Royal Chaise,” 1983; collection SFMOMA, gift of Miranda Leonard; © Nathalie du Pasquier. (Katherine Du Tiel)

In the room, speakers play spoken exchanges between designers Stephen Burks, Kanu, Fernando Laposse, Jay Sae Jung Oh, Liliana Ovalle, and Bethan Laura Wood; these discussions informed the installation. (Transcripts are available via QR code for the hearing-impaired.) The point is not an authoritative display of design history but a moody atmosphere of intrigue that defines the best dinner parties.