- BEST SHOW: Vicky Richardson on GEGO. LINE as Object at The Henry Moore Foundation Leeds, 2014
- Best Show: BRENDAN CORMIER on RAGNAR KJARTANSSON AT BARBICAN, LONDON, 2016
Best Show: Sam Jacob on Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago
Workshop for Potential Design
WFPD: What is the nature of this exhibition?
Sam Jacob: It is a permanent show, or at least it is now, and it’s in the basement of a museum, in a specially built room. In this room, there’s a series of 65 windows that are kind of like picture frames, but they’re actually windows, and you look through each of them. They all vary in size, and inside each is an incredibly detailed recreation of a room. So something like a dolls’ house, but also a little bit like a theatre set. And the subject is essentially the interior and it ranges through history. It starts I think from about 1600. There is a medieval church as one room, but mainly it’s domestic interiors, and it takes you through European history, so you have a whole series of the development of the English living room, the French living room, and then it has a whole series of American rooms, which are the later ones in the series. You have some from the 19th century, and I think the last one is from about 1940. It’s just one room and inside that big room are 65 other rooms, which range in subject across time in space.
WFPD: So these windows are lining all the walls in the room?
SJ: The room is more like a kind of labyrinth. There are routes through it. You walk through the doors of the gallery and then there’s one vista ahead of you. There’s two routes around you and I think there’s some cubbyholes where they introduce the collection. So obviously the room’s been made smaller, because they built out the walls to contain these little rooms. You have this weird sensation where you are in a room, but you are looking at other rooms, so you’re kind of, in a sense, in two scales spontaneously. You’re both normal size and a giant, and it’s got a very strange effect on people. Most of the time people behave in galleries in a kind of reverential way. They are quite quiet and contemplate the work either in a studied way, or sometimes in a bored way, but definitely not noisily. I’ve been to the room a few times and often when people come into this room, it sends them a bit nuts. I mean it’s probably true that there are a lot of kids there. With school trips and parents who’d take their kids there, because it has this dolls’ house appeal. The kids walk into the room and then they start running towards the displays. And even the adults are like, “Oh my God, wow!” There is something about it. Obviously it does in some sense have a kind of historical content, tracing the history of the interior. But on the other hand it feels almost like a toy or a dolls’ house and people react weirdly to that kind of scale. It kind of delights people and makes them a bit over-excited.
It’s also about the detail. When you look into each room, it’s not just a room, it’s the furniture, it’s the rugs, the tiny musical instruments, and very very small glass lamps. So there’s an incredible level of detail to it, which completely draws you in. It has that kind of tiny, fairy-scaled quality to it.
WFPD: Are there similarities between what you are describing and tableaus where a scene is presented, framed and filled with details?
SJ: Yeah, they definitely work like tableaus, and are very much about the rooms and not exactly the people who lived in the rooms, so they are titled, for example, California Dining Room 1910 or something like this. They are not usually really about the history of the actual place, or there’s not that much information about it. But the way the rooms are furnished in the way they are set up, you look into the room, but you see out through this tiny window into a tiny landscape beyond. All of that detail is so suggestive like, “Oh my God. I could step into it and I can pick up that knife and fork and can I can sit in that chair and I could eat a meal!” It’s got that sort of magnetic draw that you want to imagine yourself in it, even though, obviously, you are way too big to get inside it.
WFPD: Is there any narrative connection between the windows?
SJ: No, it’s more of a survey or a historical document. In some sense, I suppose, it’s a miniature version of the Geffrye Museum where you walk from room to room to room to room through history. So the narrative is more about seeing how the design of interiors changed and the ways of living changed. There’s an overall human narrative to how we live now vs 400 or 500 hundred years ago, but not so much an explicit narrative of each scene in a theatrical sense, yet that’s all suggested by the furnishing of it. So it’s got an openness to it. It’s quite ambiguous so that you could imagine into that scene, without it being so didactic or prescriptive as to what might occur in it, in the same way that any domestic interior is capable of being where you’re incredibly happy, or very sad, or sociable, or alone. The exhibit has the same sort of quality the actual interiors do, which is that they are a kind of frame for life.
WFPD: Would you call this an architectural exhibition?
SJ: It’s an architectural exhibition in some ways. It’s definitely about interiors. You can see the changes in the nature of space and the changes in the formality of how people choose to live. What happens in the living room when it moves from being somewhere public to something that is more relaxed and more about lifestyle.
I suppose you can also see differences because some of the subjects depicted are much grander, like a palace, while some of them are much more domestic and ordinary. So you also see the differences between those. In some senses its attention to detail is very much about design and
interior space. It’s also very anthropological. It’s really a study of human habitats in some ways. You know when you go to a zoo and you look into the gorilla cage and it’s made to look like a place which gorillas would be happy to be in and you look in the penguin pool and it’s got some penguin theme to it? So this is a kind of description of the habitats of humans throughout recent history.
WFPD: Do you think the fact that they’re miniatures and not full scale representations of architectural spaces was a big part of why this was so interesting?
SJ: Scale is such an important thing. I would say it’s got a very magical quality to it. When you see something that is the world as you know it but made smaller, you have a very specific relationship to it. Maybe it has to do with the way children play with toys and it’s kind of strange. Toys are often shrunken versions of things which are big in the adult world and maybe for children they’re playing with tiny people and tiny cars and tiny bits of furniture, and they are able to experiment with how they make the world, or how they exist in the world by moving their Playmobil person around or driving a car around or whatever it is. When the world becomes smaller and essentially you become bigger, that changes your relationship. You become a bit God-like when you can see what you can’t see in normal life. You have a slightly elevated view, it’s slightly separate. You’re not in it but you’re looking at it. And you feel as if you’re observing a world rather than you are subject to that world. So I think scale has a weird effect on us. It’s very different from walking through actual room sets.
WFPD: Is it right to say it gives you a more objective view of the situation?
SJ: Whether it’s objective or not it’s definitely different. In the same way that all forms of representation change your relationship to the subject. In this case it’s funny, because it’s obviously representation, but the mode of that representation is to try to be as realistic as possible as if the world has shrunken. Of course it also looks a little bit theatrical as well. In architecture it happens a lot, you’re always working at scale, you very rarely work at 1:1. So you make drawings which are very small and the building that gets built is very big. Or you make a model which, even if it’s a very big model, is a lot smaller than the building that it is a model of. So you are always working through these different layers of scale and different layers of size.
So it’s interesting to see, especially with models, how people respond to them, and I think almost every architectural model always has a very interesting reception by the public. People are fascinated by even the dullest of architectural models when there’s a little tiny tree and little tiny car on a little tiny street. It has this weird effect on us. It’s not quite being objective because I think it has this magical quality to it. So it’s not dispassionate. It’s just a different viewpoint. You’re slightly elevated and separated but also feel a little bit in control of the world. It’s like playing The Sims, controlling the people to walk around their houses and do the stuff you want them to do.
WFPD: What are the biggest differences between these miniature models and architectural models?
SJ: These models have a lot more information in them than you would normally find in an architectural model, which usually kind of abstracts the world and accentuates the things which architects are interested in or a part of the architect’s remit. These are more like scenes in that the level of detail within them is about the suggestion of inhabitation, and that’s often not a thing which is really part of the architect’s remit, that’s something which happens afterwards. But at the same time there’s something interesting when you look at these miniature worlds. On the one hand you are being taken in by a kind of realism. On the other hand it’s by how they create that sense of realism. So you’re looking at a floor, for example, and it looks like floorboards, and you are looking at it and thinking “Did they make that like you would make floorboards with tiny nails?”, and thinking about what kind of trick they used because not everything scales — like wood doesn’t scale, wood grain stays the same size. How do you fix things when you can’t use the same kind of fixes you use in the real world? Well, at least I am, and I assume many people are also looking, because it’s got this magical quality of like, well, what’s the trick? How is it making me feel like this? How is it managing to create this spell like when you see a magician?
At the same time you’re like, “Oh my God, that’s amazing how he pulled the dove out of the hat.” You’re thinking, “How did he pull that dove out of that hat? Where was it? Was it in his trouser leg?” I think a lot of people are looking at it in two ways at the same time.
WFPD: I agree, I would be the same. It already creates some kind of interaction in a way, because you’re thinking of two different things whilst looking at it and I think that makes it almost interactive in a way. You have a dialogue or a discussion with the piece.
SJ: Yeah, but it is very un-interactive in a way. It presents itself like a painting with a frame as if it was two dimensional. Even if you look at a photograph of the space, you could think “Oh hold on, these are two-dimensional pictures of rooms.” It’s only when you go up close to them, then you start to see the depth within them. There’s a lot of artifice and a lot of things occurring in order to make it work. At the same time you know that you’re not being tricked, you know that this artifice is being played out, so it’s an absolutely and completely normal human reaction to be like, “How is this doing this to me? And why is it doing this to me?” I’m also very interested in the relationship of scale in architecture, especially when it comes to representation. Like I was explaining before, you normally think of large scale work, like architecture, as having a certain kind of process. You begin with a sketch then the sketch becomes more detailed, and it turns into a model and the model gets work out and then it gets built. It’s a process that’s linear from the sketch with the beginning and ends with the final product. But I’ve got this feeling that actually, there might be much more equivalence between a building and the drawing of the building and the model of the building. In fact, you could say they all coexist. They are all the same thing in a sense. They are just made using different media and different kinds of representational rules. So in this way of thinking, I often try to think perhaps the building is not the real thing or the model is the representation of the real thing. Maybe the building is also a model. It’s just a model that’s 1:1 with incredible amount of details. And if you begin to think that way maybe it allows us a much more fluid relationship between the process and the actual artifacts you produce. I guess that’s also why I’m interested in this kind of stuff and especially this room of rooms is because, sure they are small, but they are also real. Their imaginary world is also very very real. Rather than thinking of them as scaled down versions of something else, what if we scale them back up to the real size, what would happen then? Maybe it’s a giant-size toy but what’s the difference between the two? Perhaps they are just different versions of each other. Maybe if we thought about the world not exactly as a real thing but as a model, it might actually help us to recognize that we actually can make the world and in fact we do. And if we make the world, we can make choices about it rather than having to accept the fate of the world as it is. So these utopias, these little rooms in a frame and behind glass, perhaps they suggest a way of thinking about the real world, the 1:1 world, where we could have as much control and be careful in the way that we construct it and create as much delight and interest and make the world as good and as enchanting as we can. I think that’s something about the power of the model, which is not only about the theatrical and magical effects of itself, but also about the possibility of a better world, a kind of utopia in a sense.
WFPD: That’s very nice. Very optimistic.
SJ: Very optimistic!
WFPD: Going back to the miniatures, I recently read an interview of a Japanese miniature artist where he explains because his work is so detail heavy, having a human figure in it tips it over the edge to something that’s too obvious or prescribed. Do you think if would have been a terrible mistake if there were figures in the miniature rooms at the museum?
SJ: It’s interesting. I think space and architecture and design is full of narrative and stories. We are so used to words like narrative and stories being framed by other forms of media, for example cinema or novels. And if you look at these forms of media, then you see they most often have people in them. Not having actual figures in space means it’s not theatrical, we are not relying on the person to tell the story through their gesture, their dialogue or their dress. You rely on the space and the objects in it to explain or set a scene and to carry with them a whole set of meanings. I think that’s definitely how design works.
For us to understand the possibilities of how design can be a narrative or have meaning, or to have other storytelling attributes of character or whatever, it demands us to think of what narrative and story mean when you take out the human figure who is narrating the story but it’s the objects that are carrying and narrating whatever it is we are doing. I think that’s really interesting, the question of the how does narrative exist when it’s not held by the human figure which we are so familiar with in other forms of media.
WFPD: What’s your feeling towards so called narrative based design, where the narrative is the work and the physical object is more of a prop to supplement the narrative?
SJ: There’s been a lot of work in and around the idea of design and fiction in the last 15, 20 years or even longer if you think about Nigel Coates and NATO (Narrative Architecture Today). I think it can be a useful device especially when it’s using the mode of science fiction where you invent a story, which is not part of the current moment, in order to shed light on the world a little bit better. On the other hand, maybe the problem with explicitly fiction, explicitly narrative design is that its idea of narrative is taken from other media, like storytelling. I’d rather think of design itself as a medium which already tells stories and actually, there’s no distinction between the fictional world and the real world. Design is already fiction in a sense that we invented it. It came from our imagination. But it doesn’t have a narrative in the same sense as other media. It doesn’t have a beginning, a middle and an end. It works in a much looser, less prescribed way. Even the way that you arrange a series of objects on a tabletop immediately creates a certain meaning. The way you arrange some furniture in a room already creates a relationship that has a certain kind of politics to them.
I would argue for understanding those qualities within design as stories rather than a more conventional idea of narrative.
WFPD: Going back to the idea of the scale. Do you think the idea of scale itself is a kind of medium in a sense?
SJ: I think scale definitely carries meaning. If you think of Italian paintings before perspective really took hold where the normal rules of scale aren’t followed, scale is showing other kinds of significance. For example a very big person is more important than a small person, and the very big person might be carrying a city. So scale in these instances are used more like those in infographics where bigger is more important. So scale definitely has a role in creating meaning. I think that’s true if you begin to scale objects smaller or bigger, it completely changes meaning.
WFPD: Can you tell me a bit about the woman who donated the collection of miniature interiors to the museum?
SJ: Yeah, she was a heiress to a furniture fortune which is kind of funny. Maybe because of that she got into making miniatures or collecting miniature furniture as a child. And it sort of spiraled out of her own childish hobby into something more. There are 65 miniature interiors in this museum but there are some others in other places as well. So it moved from one person’s obsession to actually having museological significance. It’s kind of outsider art in a way. It’s not made by an expert or someone with a PhD in European interiors from 1600 or something. It’s just made by someone who really loved miniature furniture. It’s funny to think of her as a little girl with her family making full-size furniture and her making tiny furniture. That in itself is like a scale model. The big people making the big furniture and the small person making the small furniture.
WFPD: Yes 🙂
Sam Jacob is the principal of Sam Jacob Studio for Architecture and Design.