Features

Northern Exposure: Michael Sheridan

March 12, 2009

Michael Sheridan discussing the influence of Scandinavian architecture and design and its contribution to contemporary culture.

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FW: Much of your architectural career to date has been working within the residential and art gallery/museum sector. What do you feel are the qualities and challenges in working with artists and art-related spaces?
MS: When you’re working with an artist – whether it’s their home, workspace or a place for exhibiting art – they usually have a very clear idea of what defines architecture and what defines art and they see distinct differences between the two. They don’t think of architecture as ‘entertainment’ or ‘lifestyle’ – although, increasingly, this is the way architecture is viewed by many people in western culture. Artists don’t expect the building or space to provide a ‘thrill’ – instead they want the space to provide a background and foundation for experiencing their work.

FW: Do you feel that many artists have an intuitive understanding of the architectural process and, therefore, share concerns and reference points?
MS: Artists are very utilitarian and practical and, therefore, comfortable with the constraints of function – for example, they are often less concerned with having a fashionable kitchen than one that really works and I think that comes out of their day-to-day experience working with materials and tools. Also, in my experience, many of the best artists are also craftspeople and have a fantastic craft relationship with materials and processes through their work so there’s a level of understanding of practicality, durability and an understanding of quality that is paramount.

FW: I would imagine that many of the artists you have worked with have strong conceptual ideas about the way a space might look, feel and function. How then do you negotiate your own conceptual ideology and that of the artists?
MS: I haven’t – so far – encountered conflict between my own architectural intentions and ideology and working with artists who have strong points of view. I’ve been lucky in that the artists I’ve worked with so far have been those whose work I have felt a natural synergy with. In terms of negotiating their ideas and my intentions, I have found that generally they are not looking for a ‘style’ and I’m not looking to create a signature so we tend to connect more on a conceptual level, learn things from each other and share certain reference points through the process.

FW: In resisting the capriciousness of the ‘architect’s signature’, what drives your work from project to project?
MS: Well, I was educated through the late eighties and early nineties during the so-called ‘style war’ when post-modernism and historicism was at its height and then supplemented by various other ‘isms’ such as deconstructivism etc. By the time I started my career in the mid nineties I realised that chasing style wasn’t appealing to me at all and I found it much more meaningful to pursue quality through material and construction. In fact, I feel that’s why the work of Danish architect Poul Kjærholm resonated so much with me.

FW You’ve accumulated an impressive body of research of significant Nordic modernist architects and, in particular, the work of Arne Jacobsen and Poul Kjærholm – what prompted you to research this particular era?
MS: I was awarded a travelling fellowship to go to Sweden, Finland and Denmark and visit 20 of the buildings that I had long admired, but only experienced through photos and books. Towards the end of the trip, I saw a simple, black and white photo of these very beautiful cabinets in the [now renowned] Room 606 at the SAS Royal Hotel, so I felt I had to stay there and experience Jacobsen’s work. As a result, I wrote a book entitled Room 606. I enjoyed the experience so much that I decided to return to Denmark once or twice a year and research a selection of significant, single family houses from the 50s and 60s. Through that process I became very familiar with the work of Poul Kjærholm and, as a result, I was approached by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, north of Copenhagen, to contribute my expertise to the Kjærholm exhibition.

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FW: One could draw an interesting parallel between Scandinavian and Australian design culture – both are arguably practising on the periphery of the world and, as a result, much of the work produced is often embedded in an understanding of landscape, scale, space and distance. Would you agree?
MS: I think it’s a very good point about being on the edges, so to speak, which can help insulate both cultures from the wide swings of style. Demark didn’t become a fully industrialised economy until well after World War II, so when modernism was developing in France and Germany, the love affair with the idea of the ‘machine for living’ didn’t hold as much resonance in Scandinavia. In fact, when the first pieces of furniture from the Bauhaus arrived, Scandinavians were appalled by this shiny, cold, metallic, fetishised language that was being developed. However, because they were somewhat remote from central Europe and still had a broad-based, working craft tradition, the Scandinavian designers were able to build on the ideas inherent in modernism and develop their own values. That’s why I think Scandinavian modernism is one of the most important chapters in modern architecture and design. It’s now seen as part of our global heritage and still has resonance today.

FW: There have been some very important ‘retrospective’ architecture and design exhibitions in the past few years such as the Alvar Aalto exhibition curated by Shigeru Ban at the Barbican in 2006 in London and your own exhibition of Poul Kjærholm’s furniture at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art also in 2006. I’m interested in your thoughts about the process of curating design exhibitions – how did you begin this task?
MS: The curatorial process began with a fairly intensive research period where we went through all the archives and drawings to collect what was available and to try and reconstruct the story and develop an understanding of how Kjærholm developed his furniture. When it came to the exhibition design, I had seen a lot of furniture exhibitions in the past and most were terrible. Most treat the furniture like it’s some kind of sculpture and that was absolutely what I wanted to avoid. Furniture is not art and I believe that functional objects are, by definition, something other than art. So I didn’t want to confuse chair and tables with sculpture and, at the same time, I wanted people who saw the exhibition to be able to relate to the furniture. I wanted it to be accessible and to allow the viewer to have an intuitive understanding of the work. I wanted to present the furniture in the same way that we experience furniture in our own homes – sitting on the floor or close to the floor and within groups, so there’s a relationship between objects. I realised that the basis of the exhibition should be a series of tableaux, vignettes or furniture groups. So we developed a system of podiums, very low to the ground, so that people could walk through the exhibition, through these freestanding groups and understand the relationship between them.

FW: Were you able to tell the story of the process of creating these objects and move beyond their iconic façades?
MS: Well, one of the first questions I asked myself when I started to research Poul Kjærholm’s work was: ‘Why does it have this power of attraction after 50 years and why is it timeless – what does that mean?’ So within the process of piecing together the development of each of his designs, I started to understand that the reason that the furniture is so powerful is that it has its own inherent contradictions. His working method was a combination of industrial materials and traditional craftsmanship and he really bounced back and forth between the workshop and the factory and between craft and technique. So the exhibition was divided into sections to reflect this. So, as a viewer, you walked through the workshop section that described his early training as a cabinetmaker and then on the opposite side of the gallery was the factory, which described his experiments designing for mass production with cast aluminium etc. Then as you move through the exhibition you experience his growing maturity as a designer where he merges these two very different ways of working together and develops his own method and language that combines craft and technique.

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