Welcome to Learning from Things

a conversation with Prof. Paul Stirton...

posted on 30 Nov 2012 20:36 by Elena Pinto Simon

EPS: Your connection to the BGC goes back a number of years before you were appointed as Professor and Editor of West 86th Street. Can you tell us a little about that?


PS: Yes, I was senior lecturer in the History of Art at the University of Glasgow when I was invited to come to the BGC as a visiting professor in 1999. I was doing research on the Anglo-American artist and designer James McNeill Whistler, while my partner was working on the furniture and designs of E.W. Godwin, his friend and associate in the Aesthetic Movement. It was my partner, Juliet Kinchin, who made the first contact; she was invited to contribute to the BGC’s exhibition catalog E.W. Godwin Aesthetic Movement Architect and Designer (1999). By that time, we had begun working on a book together on Godwin’s writings, so we were both invited to come to the BGC as visiting professors for a year. It was something of a revelation because, although we had heard of the BGC, we did not know much about teaching and higher education in the US. It was a fantastic year, and we were delighted to be invited back two years later for another year. Perhaps because we were teaching mostly design history in Glasgow, the BGC did not seem unusual to us; in fact, it seemed like the most natural place in the world to pursue our interests.

EPS: Now that there has been a couple of years worth of West 86th, can you tell us how you think the Journal is evolving? What do you have planned for upcoming issues?
PS: The first two years have been fairly tough since I felt we had to start, almost from scratch, to re-launch the journal. Our previous journal (Studies in the Decorative Arts) had a great reputation but I was keen to establish a new identity, and a new editorial policy. Some of this was achieved just by changing the look of the journal, and beginning to publish with University of Chicago Press, but I would like to think that West 86th now has a broader range and attracts contributors employing more diverse approaches. My aim has always been to make West 86th reflect what we do in the BGC, so I am keen to include the finest scholarship on artifacts from all periods and cultures. I think we have achieved some of these aims already, since we have published articles on topics as wide ranging as 10th Century ivories to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and from Pre-Columbian Mexico to modern Persian ceramics. I was very pleased with the series of articles by Deborah Silverman on Belgian Art Nouveau and the colonial experience of the Congo because it went back over quite familiar ground but did so in a way that drew on a range of new sources to re-interpret some important designs by Henry van de Velde and Victor Horta. A curator at the V&A in London told me recently that he thought it had been worth re-launching the journal for that article alone. I would like to think we have achieved more than that alone, but it is a measure of where we are with the whole project. In forthcoming issues we plan to publish articles on American furniture at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, the ancient knowledge systems of Chinese craftsmen, and translations of texts by the architect-designer Lina Bo Bardi on the folk arts, Modernism, and national identity in Brazil.

EPS: What are some of your current research interests? What are you working on now?
PS: The main focus of my research is Central European design with a particular interest in Hungary. I have recently published articles on the diaspora of Hungarian artists, designers and intellectuals after the First World War, which has drawn me into the field now known loosely as “cultural transfer.” I am currently writing a chapter for a book on this subject, using the Hungarians Laszlo Peri, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and Frederick Antal, as my examples.

EPS: You’ve spent many years teaching in your native Scotland. Tell us a little about what you like about teaching here at the BGC?
PS: The university sectors in Britain and the US are very similar but they differ in several key ways. As a professor in Scotland I had to teach across a wide range of periods and levels. This can be stimulating but it draws you away from the core issues of your research. Perhaps the greatest advantage of teaching here at the BGC is that we are able to teach courses that grow directly out of our research. For example, this semester I have been teaching a course entitled “Other Europes,” about architecture and design in Central Europe between 1880 and 1956, with a particular emphasis on Hungary and Romania. We also teach in small groups that allow us to explore quite complex and subtle topics in detail. I always find that I learn a lot from my students, especially on topics that I thought I knew well. Just the process of explaining certain problems and discussing issues with the students makes me think again about objects, designers or periods that I had previously thought were quite clear in my mind. That is what makes teaching such a lively and creative activity – it forces you to examine your own ideas.

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playing around....

posted on 26 Nov 2012 20:12 by Elena Pinto Simon


The BGC hosted a symposium on November 16th with MoMA entitled “Playing with Modernism: Historical Perspectives on Children and Design,” . The symposium was in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art’s recent exhibition, Century of the Child: Growing by Design, 1900-2000.

Architecture and Design Curator Juliet Kinchin opened the event with a discussion of three leaders in Art Education : Franz Cizek, Francesco Randone and Marion Richardson. Other guests included Assistant Professor Jeffrey Saletnik from Amherst College, who spoke about Josf Albers and his work at the Bauhaus. And BGC’s own Prof. Amy Ogata presented on the place of toys and playing spaces pre and post war. The group ended the day with a panel led by the co-curator of the exhibition, Aidan O’Connor.

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good fortune and prosperity...

posted on 26 Nov 2012 14:49 by Elena Pinto Simon

Just before the Thanksgiving break, members of the BGC community gathered in the Seminar Room to hear a wonderful presentation from our Postdoctoral Fellow in Islamic Arts and Material Culture, Abigail Balbale.


Prof. Balbale spoke in our monthly WIP series (Works-in-Progress), a lunchtime seminar series that allows current faculty to talk to students, faculty and staff about a current project they are thinking about and working

Prof. Balbale spoke to us about “The Travels and Transformations of an Arabic Inscription in Medieval Spain” — focusing on a particular Arabic inscription from a decorative motif used on Islamic portable objects into the unifying epigraphic thread tying together several late medieval Iberian buildings. The inscription, al-yumn wa ’l-iqbāl (good fortune and prosperity), is written in a very abstract style that it is often difficult to decipher.
The buildings on which they are found date from the late 13th through early 14th centuries. The buildings themselves were made for both the Christian and the Jewish community. Prof. Balbale theorized about how this short secular phrase found itself imbedded into the walls of churches and synagogues.


The WIP series has been ongoing for a number of years now at the BGC, and provides an informal discussion opportunity for both the presenter, and the community. Dean Peter Miller and Professor Ken Ames will be leading sessions in the late winter and early spring.

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coffee, anyone?

posted on 14 Nov 2012 19:09 by Elena Pinto Simon

Faculty, students, and staff gathered yesterday for our once-a-term coffee hour to talk about spring term course offerings. Students met informally with faculty to ask about the work for each of the courses, and to exchange notes with each other on what classes they were thinking about taking for Spring, 2013.


Official advisement and registration started this morning, and runs for a week. All of the faculty came to the coffee hour directly from the Graduate Committee Meeting (the monthly BGC faculty meeting). These informal sessions, with everyone available to answer questions about what the courses will involve, have proven to be very helpful as a pre-advisor meeting .


Students this term are choosing from an array of some twenty courses for their spring schedule — from Courtly Culture in the Medieval Mediterranean ( Barbale) to Weaving through the Past and into the Present: 10,000 Years of Andean Textiles (Sharratt) , and from The Exhibition Experience: Desgin and Interpretation (Leben/Krohn) to Craft and Design in the USA, 1945 to the Present.(Whalen). Students will have an opportunity to explore Topics in Ancient Furniture (Simpson), The Early Modern Book Cookbook as Case Study (Krohn), American Furniture of the 17th and 18th Century (Ames), The Monument (Collins), Chinese Ceramics (Louis), Damage, Decay, Conservation (Gaskell) among other courses..

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talking to BGC's head of education...

posted on 12 Nov 2012 14:18 by Elena Pinto Simon

EPS: Hello, Rebecca, and welcome to the Learning From Things Blog! Can we start by your telling us about the mission of the Education Department at the BGC ?


RA: I see Gallery Education at the BGC as the portal to a more comprehensive appreciation of our stellar exhibitions. The work that we do in education programming brings together the views and voices of scholars, curators, designers, artists, and other specialists to enrich the dialogue that begins on the gallery walls. Through our programs we cultivate a unique community of thinkers who look to our exhibitions for a deeper understanding of the world as it is manifested in all forms of material culture, design, and the decorative arts.

EPS: How have the events and activities of the department changed since your arrival?

RA: Since I arrived in 2006 we have established a vibrant program for schools and educators that comprises the Outreach Suitcase Program, professional development opportunities for teachers, and of course exhibition tours led by BGC graduate student docents. In addition to a full spectrum of lectures, study days, panels, and gallery talks, we have added music and performance programming that provide a broader context for the objects and histories within each exhibition.

EPS: You are an accomplished artist in addition to being our Head of Education. How does your other work feed what you do at the BGC?

RA: Painting and its accompanying research have been the organizing principles of my life for 25 years. My work centers primarily on issues of landscape and the diminishment of the natural environment, and the studio practice allows me to approach exhibitions and program development at BGC from a unique perspective—as a generative artist. I am deeply interested in the social, political, and cultural, and geographic forces that surround works of art and design, and in the transformation of both ordinary and precious materials into objects that “live” lives and embody meaning. The disciplines of making, writing about, and exhibiting work for me have always found a parallel in the pursuit of ideas and research conducted by curators, faculty, and students here.

EPS: BGC Students now play a vital role in the activities of Education. Tell us about the opportunities that students now have within Gallery Education?

RA: BGC students are essential to Education in that they serve as docents within and beyond the Gallery. Student docents go through extensive training and mentoring to learn best practices in museum education while studying the core ideas of each exhibition in great depth. It gives me enormous pleasure to observe tours given by graduate student docents because I am witnessing how their complementary training in academic research and museum education shape their teaching and I’m enjoying the unpredictable conversations that unfold as they interact with visitors across all ages and backgrounds.

EPS: In the spirit of the title of this blog, can you talk about an object or thing that has particular significance for you?


RA: I’ve been collecting hanakago (Japanese Bamboo baskets) and drawing them for about thirteen years, ever since I saw Lloyd Cotsen’s remarkable collection at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. These remarkable woven sculptures embody the most refined economy of material in creating space. They have played an integral part in the tea ceremony and flower arranging for hundreds of years and their makers—including Rokansai and Chikunsai—are highly regarded. The early twentieth-century ones were easier to come by when I lived in Seattle I and used these baskets to teach drawing. Following a line of bamboo as it undulates and twists within and through a basket is my way of keeping the eye and hand in tune.

EPS: What is upcoming for the rest of this academic year in Education?

RA: Lots of really interesting programs including “Practical Fractals: Chaos Theory in Architecture and Design” with Paola Antonelli and Jimena Canales; “Suspended in Thin Air: The Future of Circus in America with Dominique Jando, Keith Nelson, Matt Wittmann and Amy Cohen; as well as a whole range of programs connected with the upcoming exhibitions Salvaging the Past: Georges Hoentschel and French Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Confluences: An American Expedition to Northern Burma, 1935

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