Arts / Museums

MFAH Curator Tells All on Houston Museum’s Most Radical Exhibit Yet

The Birth of a Movement That Changed Design

BY // 03.03.20

The MFAH is mounting a jewel box of a show seen from the eye of top collector Dennis Freedman, the Parsons-educated former creative director for W magazine and later Barneys New York.

A phalanx of new disciples of design confidently strode through the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Their stance was smart, independent, guerrilla and anti-materialism as they experimented with — and enthusiastically embraced — new materials.

There were so many designers architects, and collectives percolating through Florence, Milan, Turin, Naples and Padua, that a movement christened Radical Italian design was birthed. And Dennis Freedman was obsessed.

Over two decades, he assembled one of the most prized troves of Radical Italian design in the United States. Thanks to a 2015 Manhattan dinner party where MFAH design curator Cindi Strauss met Freedman, this exhibition came to be — and now this collector’s Radical holdings have landed in Houston as a museum gift/purchase.

The first American museum exhibition to focus upon this movement since MoMA’s landmark 1972 show, the MFAH’s presentation taps Brooklyn architects Almost Studio for a dramatic installation in Cullinan Hall that is as engaging as the inventive works it showcases.

Featured are nearly 70 pieces of furniture, lighting, and objects by 42 designers and collectives, few of which are widely known except Ettore Sottsass and Gaetano Pesce.

Introducing Pêche

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Below follows PaperCity‘s exclusive conversation with Strauss on the making of this very avant-garde exhibition.

A Curatorial Q&A:

Cindi Strauss serves as the MFAH’s Sara and Bill Morgan Curator, Decorative Arts, Craft, and Design.

How long has Dennis been collecting?
The Q&A in the catalogue mentions the first piece he acquired was in 1998.

When did Dennis Freedman’s collection first enter the MFAH?
Gifts were in 2018, purchases were in 2019.

Confirming the Freedman Collection is 1/2 a gift and 1/2 MFAH acquisition?
Of the 67 works in the exhibition, 21 are gifts and 25 are purchases. The rest remain in Freedman’s collection. Together, they establish a foundational collection for the MFAH and the leading collection of Radical Italian Design in the United States.

How and why did Dennis Freedman single out the MFAH to receive his collection?
In September 2015, I had the pleasure of meeting Dennis Freedman at a dinner in honor of an Ettore Sottsass exhibition at Friedman Benda Gallery in New York.

Finding ourselves to be kindred spirits in terms of our appreciation and passion for Italian Radical design, the conversation that night was wide-ranging and engaging. As we continued to converse over the next two years, it became clear that the time was right for a major exhibition and catalogue on the period, and thus the Museum’s collaboration with Dennis on Radical: Italian Design 1965–1985, the Dennis Freedman Collection was born.

Gaetano Pesce, manufactured by C & B Italia, “UP7” Chair, designed 1969, made 1969–73. (© 1969 Gaetano Pesce, photo by Kent Pell)
Gaetano Pesce, manufactured by C & B Italia, “UP7” Chair, designed 1969, made 1969–73. (© 1969 Gaetano Pesce, photo by Kent Pell)

How long have you been working on this exhibition and the accompanying catalog?
We commenced in earnest in 2017. It’s been quick!

Please single out your personal favorite work(s) in the exhibition—  and why?
I really don’t have a favorite.

I would say that so many of the designs are fascinating because of their materials, their forms inspired by Pop Art, Arte Povera, and Minimalism, and their ability to communicate messages.

The fact that so many are prototypes or were made in small numbers adds to their rare status as artifacts of the movement. Also, to see the ideas expressed across furniture, lighting, objects, sculpture, and architectural models is pretty special.

Are we correct to say this period and these designers paved the way for Memphis and later movement’s and Italy’s prime role today in design?
The designers affiliated with the collective Studio Alchimia were the pre-cursor to Memphis in terms of their development of a new language of design that included new forms, patterns and laminates, and a bold use of color. Some of the Studio Alchimia designers went on to form and work with Memphis.

That being said, there is an entire decade of radical design that had nothing to do with Memphis. The work of the 1960s to mid-1970s came out of a different ethos. I would also say that Italy’s prime role in design was from the 1940s to 1980s, not necessarily today when designers in other European countries such as the Netherlands, France and Scandinavia have taken a more prominent role.

On the installation at Cullinan Hall.
The exhibition design was conceived by Almost Studio, an architectural firm in Brooklyn, New York in consultation with MFAH exhibition designers Jack Eby and William Cochrane. The inspiration for the pavilion is an unrealized model from Archizoom Associati’s “No-Stop City” project of 1969.

“Radical: Italian Design 1965-1985, The Dennis Freedman Collection,” at MFAH’s Law Building, runs through April 26.

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