Q&A with Design Curator Zoë Ryan

Zoë Ryan is the John H. Bryan Curator of Architecture and Design and Chair of the Department of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2014 she curated the second Istanbul Design Biennial. She also teaches art history at SAIC and University of Illinois Chicago. She has written several books, including Bertrand Goldberg: Architecture of Invention, published in 2011. 

CGN: You came to the Art Institute of Chicago in 2006 and regularly travel extensively for your job. Please decribe your fall schedule.


ZR: What I love most about my job is that no two months are the same. The fall is always particularly busy, with new exhibition openings, and this fall is exciting as we open our major mid-career survey of work by architect David Adjaye. We installed the exhibition here at the museum for most of August, and then I was off to Istanbul for a quick trip, since I am on the advisory board of the Istanbul Design Biennial, which I curated in 2014; I try to attend board meetings, as the biennial is an institution that I am particularly fond of. I have also been invited to give a lecture in Warsaw in September, which I am looking forward to, as I have never been. Travel is always a pleasure, but I like to keep a balance between my time in Chicago and my time away.


What are highlights of the Adjaye exhibition opening in September, for design aficionados as well as the layperson?


This is a really important moment in David’s career. He now has more than 50 built projects and many more in development or under construction all over the world. Next year, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Washington Mall, designed by David opens to the public. This is a project of immense national and international significance and has become the lynchpin of our exhibition at the Art Institute. The exhibition provides a moment to reflect on David’s career and understand the past 15-years worth of work within the context of his projects in development, such as larger scale public buildings and urban master plans across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. 

In addition to models, drawings, sketches, and photographs, the exhibition includes a specially commissioned series of short films featuring David’s buildings and commentary from an international coterie of art world luminaries such as Thelma Golden, Lorna Simpson, Chris Ofili, and Taiye Selasi. These help bring David’s projects alive. In addition, visitors will be able to experience many of his projects at a one-to-one scale through full-scale mock-ups of façades of his buildings, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC and Sugar Hill in Harlem. We are also installing a wooden pavilion in the galleries that visitors can walk through, giving them a first-hand experience of one of David’s projects and enabling them to experience for themselves David’s interest in material, spatial and compositional explorations.

Adjaye is known for designing architectural projects that in part address social issues.  This is also a theme of the upcoming inaugural Chicago Architectural Biennial.  What do you think design can offer society? 


The fields of architecture and design are inextricably linked to every aspect of our daily lives. From our buildings, streets, education, food, and health care to our communications, political, and economic systems, the types of work that architects and designers are tackling has grown exponentially. Architects and designers play an important role in identifying points of urgency and posing questions, as well as formulating and materializing solutions. They have an incredible capacity to take urgent challenges and create outcomes that raise the quality of life and help make the world a more sustainable place, all while delighting and amazing us.


How do you see Chicago as a base for all that you do?  What does Chicago have to offer the rest of the design world? 


Wandering the streets of Chicago is a lesson in modern and contemporary architecture. This is an inspiring city to live and work in, and the city is a frame for my work. Chicagoans are very proud of the rich cultural and artistic traditions that have been born and cultivated here and the many talented individuals who have made their mark here, from architects such as Louis Sullivan to Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, to contemporary practitioners such as Jeanne Gang and John Ronan. It’s incredible to live in a city where everyone has a point of view about the built environment.


In design, there continues to be a rich tradition of graphic, furniture, and product designers based here following in the footsteps of modern designers, such as Charles Harrison and John Massey, Marcia Lausen at SudioLab, James Goggin, Helen Maria Nugent and Ronald Kirkpatrick of Haelo Design, Scott Wilson of MNML, and emerging practitioners such as Parsons & Charlesworth and Plural. It’s a rich, creative environment in which to live and work.


Many people think of design, and objects first come to mind. How can we see design as conceptual rather than physical?


The wonderful thing about working in the fields of architecture and design is that we all can have an opinion about these fields of practice, based on our own experiences of living and working in buildings and cities and using design daily, whether it is our smart phones, tea kettles, or the street signs that help us get to where we are going. 

Designers are master communicators - able to frame and explore intellectual, cultural, and social questions through their work. A burgeoning area of study is speculative design, in which the processes of design ask questions about everyday life as a means to find solutions to challenges as varied as the impact of new technologies on our health and wellbeing or our increasingly aging populations. 


You’ve been building AIC’s first contemporary design collection - what are one or two of your favorite acquisitions to date? 


We are currently preparing for a new installation of work from our 20th and 21st century architecture and design collections. This will be the first time that the museum has dedicated galleries for these periods, and in preparation, we have been acquiring new work. Recently we acquired a pre-fabricated kitchen and bathroom unit by French architect and designer Charlotte Perriand. They are fantastic, 1970s units, inspired by Pop Art in their vibrant colors and shapes. They help us expand on the history of pre-fabrication that has played such an important role in the history of America and elsewhere in the 20th century. Visitors to our new galleries will get to experience a design element meant for architectural interiors at a one-to-one scale and fully appreciate what they might have been like when they were originally installed in the ski chalet for which they were designed in France.