Good things almost always happen when museums invite outsiders to organize exhibitions from their permanent collections. This has certainly been true with the annual “Selects” exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Recent guest curators in the series, now in its 20th iteration, have included the architect David Adjaye, the artist Maira Kalman and the musician Esperanza Spalding.
This year’s guest is Duro Olowu, the Nigerian British lawyer-turned-fashion designer, self-taught curator and exemplar of global cosmopolitanism. For his excellent, fine-grained “Duro Olowu Selects: Works From the Permanent Collection,” Olowu chose the theme of patterns and repetition — as well he might.
As a designer Olowu favors flowing dresses and gowns made from the contrasting patterns of variously floral or geometric fabrics. His curatorial skills first surfaced in his namesake shop in London, which became known for its dense, enticing cabinet-of-wonders arrangements. These included not only his designs but also contemporary art as well as jewelry, ceramics, textiles and other furnishings, and much else — old and new, European and African.
Olowu exercised his ecumenical taste in group shows he organized at the New York gallery Salon 94, in 2012 and 2014. In early 2020 he orchestrated the ambitious “Seeing Chicago,” an exuberant multimedia exhibition that filled that city’s Museum of Contemporary Art with works drawn primarily from its collection but also from others, both public and private, around town.
At the Cooper Hewitt, Olowu worked with its contemporary design curator Alexandra Cunningham Cameron assisted by Amanda Forment Hirsch and Claire Quong, choosing nearly 80 items, from furniture and ceramics to 17th-century Italian tassels and tiny 19th-century “miser’s” purses, with a strong spine of textiles. Everything is shoehorned into the dedicated “Selects” gallery on the museum’s first floor. It helps that the exhibition design — led by Roger Diener of Diener and Diener Architekten — uses clear plastic partitions, although the labels printed on them in white can be difficult to read.
Olowu’s selections emphasize the ubiquity of patterns, the ways they flow and mutate through time and among cultures, as well as the ways they are used — as decoration, as structure and in repeating methods of manufacture that range from weaving, knitting and knotting to printing and bronze-casting. “The built environment is shaped and embellished by pattern,” he says in a pithy wall-text, calling his show a “gloriously erratic selection of objects.”
Interestingly, online definitions of erratic include “random,” “unpredictable,” “lacking consistency” and “not even or regular in pattern.” Pattern is too big a subject to be explored in an orderly manner at this scale. Olowu’s selections proceed individually and in clusters, skipping from here to there and sometimes back.
One of the most singular objects in the show engages pattern at every level — decoration, structure, manufacture. This is the 1996 “Knotted Chair,” by the Dutch designer Marcel Wanders: a kind of sling chair in braided cord around a carbon fiber core using traditional macramé techniques, whose loops and knots proceed in a pattern of diamonds within ovals. (The pattern this leaves on one’s backside is another issue.) The chair seems like a stand-alone until you come to a dress designed and made in 2009 by the Argentine Lydia Novillo; it uses chaguar fiber in interconnected looping and crochet. Its flesh-to-garment ratio seems relatively demure compared with current standards of red-carpet exposure.
Olowu begins the show by demonstrating that pattern is far from benign, indicating that material culture often reflects the histories of capitalism, colonialism and racism. The point is made by “Cadastral Shaking (Chicago v1)” a new acquisition by the artist and the architect Amanda Williams, which consists of a map of Chicago divided according to color-coded neighborhoods to indicate property values as well as redlining (pink areas) and its absence (yellow, green and blue areas). Williams has, in effect, shaken the map until it resembles a messy pile of jigsaw puzzle pieces. Disruption is a fitting response to many patterns, even within the show itself.
For example, a group of beaded accessories arranged on small tables at its center includes beadwork samplers and accessories — a turn-of-the-20th-century Zulu necklace, a belt from 1970s Kenya and an eyeglass case from 19th-century China. Among these sits the small “The Middle Passage — African Holocaust Brooch” (1993-96), in cast silver, by Phyllis Bowdwin. Its shape is that of a slaver’s vessel; its patterns of tiny figures portrays the inhumane crowding of these ships’ human cargo.
If design is rarely purely decorative, a less sinister example is Ruth Asawa’s white-on-white lithograph from 1965, “The Chair.” This large lacy image — which is installed next to three small panels of Wiener Werkstätte lace — depicts a wicker or rattan chair surrounded by a mosaic-like expanse of tiny squares as if by an aura.
Olowu makes points within points. He presents what seem to be examples of irregular patterns — variously geometric, photographic and hand-drawn — that appear on album covers designed by Josef Albers (“Provocative Percussion, Vol. III” by Enoch Light and the Light Brigade), Tibor Kalman ( “Remain in Light” by Talking Heads) and Laini Abernathy (“Sun Song” by Sun Ra). The relatively unknown Abernathy, who died in 2010, was a Chicago artist, graphic designer and activist who, the label notes, is thought to be the first Black woman to design a jazz album cover.
Some of Olowu’s supplementary points, especially those regarding cultural appropriation and re-appropriation, are discovered visually before the labels connect the dots, especially in the irresistible studies in comparative textile-making that fill two corners of the gallery, with the non-Western examples usually coming out ahead. Here you’ll find an Afghan war rug, bristling tanks and other weaponry and a hand-loomed Ivory Coast textile from 1964 that is among the show’s greatest objects. Its black-and-white checkerboard pattern has been complicated with three or four subsidiary weft-weave patterns in red, green and orange as well as black and white. It’s a wonderful thing, austere and restrained, yet patterns all the way down.
Duro Olowu Selects: Works From the Permanent Collection
Through Aug. 28 at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, 2 East 91st Street, Manhattan; 212-849-8400, cooperhewitt.org.