Art of the In-Between at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Every May, regular visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art know that one of the best exhibitions of the year is about to open –  the Costume Institute’s Spring Exhibition. The exhibition begins with a grand, star-studded gala. Famous musicians, actors, and public figures dress in festive attire inspired by that year’s exhibition theme, and then throughout the summer visitors flock to the museum to explore it. This year’s exhibition is a real treat, a fashion-based art exhibition that requires visitors to interrogate their own assumptions as their ideas of fashion are challenged. Titled Comme des Garçons – Art of the In-Between, the exhibition focuses on the avant-garde work of designer Rei Kawakubo.

Here’s the museum’s overview description of the exhibition (you can find the full exhibition guide here on the museum’s website.):

The galleries illustrate the designer’s revolutionary experiments in “in-betweenness”—the space between boundaries. Objects are organized into nine aesthetic expressions of interstitiality in Kawakubo’s work: Absence/Presence, Design/Not Design, Fashion/Anti-Fashion, Model/Multiple, Then/Now, High/Low, Self/Other, Object/Subject, and Clothes/Not Clothes. Kawakubo breaks down the imaginary walls between these dualisms, exposing their artificiality and arbitrariness.

There are approximately 140 designs in the exhibition, making it a feast for the eyes. I’ve included photos of some of the designs below, with notes about what aesthetic themes they are associated with. As you can see, there is a real range of ideas represented in Kawakubo’s work.

First, we have Object/Subject:

This one is Good Taste/Bad Taste:

Here, we have Elite Culture/Popular Culture:

Now, Male/Female:

This striking piece is an example of Fact/Fiction:

And this one is War/Peace:

I love the contrasts between these next two, labeled Beautiful/Grotesque:

And finally, ending with my favorite gallery in the exhibition, Order/Chaos:

Comme des Garçons – Art of the In-Between is open to the public through September 4, 2017, so there is still plenty of time to see the full exhibition in person.

Cooper Hewitt Design Museum’s Interactive Experience

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Although most people associate Smithsonian museums with Washington, DC, New York City is host to two very special Smithsonian museums: the National Museum of the American Indian, which we’ve previously explored here and here, and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. Located in what was once the mansion of successful businessman Andrew Carnegie, Cooper Hewitt’s surroundings and ever-changing exhibitions are fascinating and inspiring.

What makes Cooper Hewitt particularly fun to visit is its interactive features. When visitors step up to the ticket counter, they are given an pen that holds all kinds of possibilities. As you tour the museum, you can “collect” information about individual exhibits that interest you. Each exhibit has a special symbol on the sign describing the exhibit and, by pressing your pen to that symbol, it saves that information in a digital file. You are given a unique identifier for your pen and visit that allows you to later go onto the museum’s website and “retrieve” your visit. All saved descriptions are on your own private page, along with photos of the items you were interested in. (Your personal website even allows you to type in notes about what you thought about each exhibit!) At the end of the visit, you return the pen to be reprogrammed for the next guest.

As you go through the museum, there are other places to use your interactive pen. For example, at some stations, guests can design their own furniture or decor, and then save that design to the same private page with the pen.

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Here’s a futuristic lamp I designed:

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In the Immersion Room, guests can use the pen to choose wallpaper patterns from an electronic library or design their own patterns, which are then projected on the room’s walls. (I didn’t design a pattern myself, but here are photos showing what another visitor designed.)

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There are a variety of exhibitions focusing on both historical and modern design, broadly defined. One of my favorite exhibitions is part of an ongoing exhibition series titled Selects. The current exhibition, titled Thom Browne Selects, consists of a room wallpapered in holographic foil, nickel-plated shoes, 50 mirrors chosen by the fashion designer from the museum’s collection, along with a number of other shiny objects. The room makes a real visual impact, and the composition makes it fun to photograph. Thom Browne Selects is the 13th exhibition in the Selects series, and I am interested in seeing what follows it when the exhibition ends on October 23, 2016.

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Here are some of the things that really caught my attention in the other exhibitions during my last visit. They are an eclectic mix – interesting, beautiful, though-provoking, unique. I’ve identified the designer in the caption for each photograph. Many of the museum’s exhibitions change regularly – some of these pieces may not be on display much longer, but they will be replaced with other equally intriguing objects.

Snail Brooch designed by Gebrüder Hemmerle and Hemmerle, 2014
Snail Brooch designed by Gebrüder Hemmerle and Hemmerle, 2014
Photograph, Hairstyle 2, 2011, designed by Guido Palau and photographed by Fabien Baron
Photograph, Hairstyle 2, 2011, designed by Guido Palau and photographed by Fabien Baron
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Pieces from Atmospheric Reentry Collection, 2013-2014, designed by Maiko Takeda
Wallpaper, 2014, designed by Studio Job, Dutch, founded 1998, Job Smeets and Nynke Tynagel and manufactured by NLXL
Wallpaper, 2014, designed by Studio Job, Dutch, founded 1998, Job Smeets and Nynke Tynagel and manufactured by NLXL
Chanin Building Pair Of Gates, designed by René Paul Chambellan
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Clock Prototype, A Million Times, 288 H, 2013, designed by Humans since 1982, Per Emanuelsson, and Bastian Bischoff
Bubbles Chaise Lounge, ca. 1988, designed by Frank O. Gehry and manufactured by New City Editions
Bubbles Chaise Lounge, ca. 1988, designed by Frank O. Gehry and manufactured by New City Editions
Horseman Bench, from Kassena Town series, 2015, designed by Dokter and Misses, Adriaan Hugo and Katy Taplin
Horseman Bench, from Kassena Town series, 2015, designed by Dokter and Misses, Adriaan Hugo and Katy Taplin

This exhibit designed by Jenny E. Sabin, the Polythread Knitted Textile Pavilion, was beautiful – almost magical to walk under, with its soft tones and delicate textures.

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I particularly loved these imaginative beaded creatures that are part of the Azeaks series. As the museum’s description of these sculptures explains:

“The beads are assembled by women from the Khayelitsha settlement outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Known as The Haas Sisters, they collaborate with The Haas Brothers on the realization of these remarkable pieces.”

Sculpture, Fartin Odeur, from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculpture, Fartin Odeur, from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculpture, Evelyn, from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculpture, Evelyn, from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculpture, Nangamso, from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculpture, Nangamso, from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculpture, Bill Nyeland, from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculptures, Bill Nyeland (yellow and orange) and Nonzaliseko #1 (pink), from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculptures, Gomer Pyeland (left) and Theodora (right), from the Afreaks series, 2015
Sculptures, Gomer Pyeland (left) and Theodora (right), from the Afreaks series, 2015

Of course, the museum’s past history as Andrew Carnegie’s mansion makes the building itself very interesting. The mansion, built between 1899 and 1902, is on the National Register of Historic Places, both because of its history and its architectural significance. (The mansion’s steel frame construction was the first of its kind for an American residential building, and it also boasted one of the first Otis elevators and earliest central heating systems in a private home.)  If you pay close attention, you will see many fine details illustrating the building’s past use. (Lighting creates some challenging for photographing those details, as you can see!)

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Ceiling and wood paneling in the Entrance Hall
Plasterwork and stained glass transom windows in first floor room
Plasterwork and stained glass transom windows in first floor room
Interactive design lab in room with wall and ceiling details
Interactive design lab in room with wall and ceiling details
Upstairs landing, main staircase
Upstairs landing, main staircase

Want to visit Cooper Hewitt yourself? The museum is located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 91st Street. If traveling by subway, take the 4, 5, or 6 train to the 86th Street Station. You can also take the 6 train to the 96th Street Station. When you come up from the subway, you will want to walk west three blocks from Lexington Avenue to Fifth Avenue, and then along Fifth Avenue to the museum. You can also reach Cooper Hewitt by MTA bus. If traveling north (uptown), take the M1, M2, M3, or M4 along Madison Avenue to the 91st Street stop. You will walk west one block to get to the museum. If traveling south (downtown), take the M1, M2, M3, or M4 along Fifth Avenue to either the 90th Street or 92 Street stop.

Note: If you are used to the free entrance policy for most Smithsonian museums, it is worth noting that Cooper Hewitt charges an entry fee. Visitors save $2.00 per ticket by purchasing tickets in advance online.

Fashion at the Met Museum: Manus x Machina

Every May the Costume Institute at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art sponsors a special fashion exhibition. This year’s exhibition, titled Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology, is on view through August 14, 2016. [Update: The exhibition has now been extended through September 5, 2016!] The exhibition explores the evolution of hand-made and machine-made haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear fashion from the 20th and 21st centuries.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is this stunning wedding dress by designer Karl Lagerfeld, part of Chanel’s Autumn/Winter 2014-2015 collection. The dress is constructed of hand-sculpted scuba knit, and the magnificent 20-foot train is embellished with gold hand-painting, machine-attached rhinestones, and hand-embroidered pearls and gemstones. The people in the photos below give you some idea of the scale of the train. As the first thing visitors see when they enter the exhibition, it raises expectations of what’s to come.

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Much of the exhibition was divided up into techniques used to add details to designs. One section explored flower-making techniques, and included numerous dresses from the past 100 years to illustrate the evolution of those techniques. I found these two dresses, by British designer Alexander McQueen, very interesting. The flower petals were made of metal and had synthetic pearl centers. The dresses were part of his Spring/Summer 2009 collection.

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There was also this striking dress by Christian Dior, part of Dior’s Autumn/Winter 1949-1950 collection. Although the dress itself was machine-sewn, the 45 petals that make up the skirt were hand-embroidered with sequins.

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This next dress, Yves Saint Laurent’s 1983 “sardine” dress, has a machine-constructed foundation but required approximately 1500 hours of handwork to create the appearance of fish scales.

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Another section of the exhibition demonstrated the use of feathers in design. There were some amazing dresses in this part of the exhibition, but because they were behind glass it was difficult to photograph. I did get a good shot of this evening dress by Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga, part of his Autumn/Winter 1965-1966 collection. The dress is trimmed in pink-dyed ostrich feathers.

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As visitors continue to explore, there is another section focusing on pleating. Here, technological innovations really contrast with more traditional forms of embellishment. One display shows three dresses from two designers and three different time periods, from left to right: Madame Gres (Alix Barton), from 1968; Madame Gres, from 1950-1955, and Iris van Herpen, from her Spring/Summer 2010 collection.

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Here’s a close of view of van Herpen’s design, with its 3-D printed details.

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These 2014 designs by Israeli designer Noa Raviv, which also contain 3-D printed details, captured my attention.

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These hand-pleated, hand-sewn, and hand-embroidered dresses from the 1920s and 1930s were gorgeous – the designer was Mariano Fortuny, from Spain.

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There were also several elegant dresses like this one from 1980, by American-born designer Mary McFadden. Unlike the Mariano Fortuny dresses, the McFadden dresses were machine-sewn and pleated, but then hand-embroidered and finished. I loved the McFadden’s choices of jewel tones, and the designs looked like they would not have been out-of-place in the English royal court centuries past.

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Those more traditional designs are contrasted with those of Japanese designer Issey Miyake. Here are a couple of my favorites, from the Spring/Summer 1990 and 1993 collections.

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The contrast between innovation and traditional techniques continues in the section of the exhibition that focuses on lace. Visitors will find beautiful examples of traditional lacework, such as this Spring/Summer 1963 suit by Yves Saint Lauren.

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But there are again numerous designs incorporating 3-D printing technology, such as the “Bahai” Dress by American designer Threeasfour, from the Spring/Summer 2014 collection. This dress is an interesting example of the exhibition’s overall theme, as the 3-D printed “lace” has been hand-embroidered onto a machine-sewn dress.

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Here is a detailed look at the “lace” from this dress.

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And here is another incredible example of a technologically-inspired design. This one is from Iris van Herpen’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection and is hand-embroidered with thermoformed laser-cut acrylic.

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There are so many more designs to see in the exhibition, but I thought I would end with this one last dress by Iris van Herpen, from her Autumn 2012 collection. On the surface, this dress may seem like it only represents the “machina” part of the exhibition theme, as it is obviously 3-D printed. But from the exhibit description I learned that the dress was hand-sanded and hand-sprayed with a special resin, so it actually represents both aspects after all. This dress really captures the imagination, even if it doesn’t fit our expectations of traditional fashion.

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If you are in New York City before the exhibition ends in August, I encourage you to see Manus x Machina for yourself. What I’ve included in this post is just a small sample of what you will see during your visit, and my photographs can’t fully capture how striking these designs really are. (Note: all special exhibitions are included in the Met Museum’s recommended ticket price of $25.00, so you can see both Manus x Machina and the many other incredible works on display at the museum.)

The best way to get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art is by public transportation. If traveling by subway, take the 4, 5, or 6 train to 86th Street, and then walk west to Fifth Avenue. You can also reach the museum by bus on the M1, M2, M3, or M4 routes. If taking one of these routes going north, you will travel up Madison Avenue to the 83rd Street stop. If coming from points further north, take one of these bus routes south along Fifth Avenue to the 82nd Street stop, right next to the museum. There is a parking garage for those who prefer to drive themselves, but the rates are pretty expensive.

Fashion at the Jewish Museum: Isaac Mizrahi Exhibition

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute has some pretty amazing exhibitions, and as a result most people who decide to go to a museum to explore fashion design immediately think of the Met. But there are other great options in the city as well, including the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum and a wonderful temporary exhibition at the Jewish Museum. The Jewish Museum’s exhibition, on view through August 7, 2016, is titled Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History, and includes numerous beautiful designs, as well as some behind-the-scenes exhibits about his design process.

Here are a few photos showing some of the designs in the exhibition.

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I particularly liked this dress from 1994, made of hand-created aluminum “sequins” cut from Coca-Cola cans. I thought the design was innovative and resourceful. The dress has an interesting story behind it as well. According to the exhibition description next to this dress, a charity called “We Can” paid homeless New Yorkers to collect and flatten the Coca-Cola cans, before the cans were then sent to Paris to be turned into sequins for the dress.

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I also enjoyed these costumes designed for opera and theater productions.

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And here’s one shot of a few of Mizhari’s design sketches. I found this part of the exhibition very interesting.

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How can you get to the Jewish Museum? The museum is located at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The closest subway stop is the 96th Street station, accessible from the 6 train. You can also take the M1, M2, M3, or M4 bus to the Madison Ave./E. 91st St. stop if heading uptown, or the 5th Ave./E. 92nd St. stop if heading downtown. Note: The Jewish Museum is free to the public on Saturdays, although its cafe is closed on Saturdays in observation of the Jewish Sabbath.