Kulapat Yantrasast has designed his share of exhibition spaces—from Perry Rubenstein’s Los Angeles gallery to an under-construction expansion of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville—but a show at New York’s R 20th Century gallery marks his first turn as a curator. To navigate this new territory, he approached the project through the lens of a more familiar discipline: not architecture, but cooking.
“Sometimes I think questions about design can best be answered by food,” said Yantrasast on a recent visit to the show. “In architecture and design, ideas frequently overwhelm material, but with cooking, if the idea is strong, the individual ingredients can stand out but also be transformed into something completely beyond what they are. When I started to put the exhibition together, I liked the idea of highlighting ingredients and process.”
To that end, Yantrasast titled the show, which runs through November 2, What’s the Matter? and included some 55 objects that each embody an elemental quality of their materials and bear legible traces of how they were fabricated. The architect selected the work from the gallery’s inventory and its permanent collection and organized them around four processes: blow, cut, bend, and pour. The show is heavy on Brazilian designers—Lina Bo Bardi, Humberto & Fernando Campana, Hugo Franca, Oscar Niemeyer, Joaquim Tenreiro, and Jose Zanine Caldas all make appearances—but is otherwise geographically diverse, and it spans the mid 20th century through contemporary work.
Yantrasast clearly had fun with the installation, playing objects off of one another in distinct clusters along the narrow gallery’s perimeter walls. A group of 1970s chests carved from single trunks of tropical hardwood by Zanine (once a model maker for Niemeyer) pick up the rough-hewn vernacular style of Franca’s canoe-like Sirinhaem chaise lounge (2006) in one section, while craggy pendant lamps by Thaddeus Wolfe (2011-12) anchor a cluster of similarly wind-blown objects. A thin concrete chair by Poul Kjaerholm, designed in 1954 and originally attached to a Danish highway rest stop, and a metal 1971 Verner Panton chair hung high on the wall offer industrial materials and abstracted lines. The graphic impact of all the work is heightened by walls painted slate gray and striped by a white grid pattern—it sounds like a hokey reference to drafting paper, but it works. And cute (but not overly) hand illustrations call attention to the attributes of each section and certain objects.
Work by Yantrasast and his firm, Why Design (formerly wHY Architecture), find its way into the mix as well, including a model for a porous concrete folly and his Rock Chair (2012), a constellation of stones held together by metal pins. The chair appears next to a restrained set of shelves by Franca, made with a few clean slices through otherwise unrefined lengths of wood. “Work in that section uses very little seasoning and heat,” says Yantrasast. “It has a sashimi aspect of design.” Why Design came up with a smaller edition of the chair to include in the show, along with a low horizontal piece that looks like a shiny metal rug raised a few inches off the ground and a table lamp made from stacked glass blocks based on the firm’s design for the Speed Museum.
While each section of the show has its own organizing principal, viewed as an ensemble from the gallery’s storefront, kinships emerge among the different groupings. Taken as a whole, the exhibition doesn’t quite coalesce into a single dish, so much as a tasting menu that follows a chef’s varied inspirations, and the result is altogether satisfying.