image: Maria Fonti

Alexandra Cunningham Cameron is an internationally-recognized curator, writer and critical thinker on contemporary design. She currently sits as curator of contemporary design and Hintz Secretarial Scholar at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Formerly editor in chief of independent arts journal The Miami Rail and Creative Director of the Design Miami/ fairs, Cameron has organized a broad range of exhibitions, publications, and programs that examine the role of design, craft and visual art in shaping contemporary values. Cameron has spearheaded landmark public commissions and award-winning exhibitions with artists and designers such as Willi Smith, Duro Olowu, Dozie Kanu, and many more. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Financial Times, Vogue, PIN UP, The New Yorker, and other international publications.

 

Tell us about some of the work that you’ve been doing at Cooper Hewitt.

I joined the museum in 2018 and have organized two exhibitions – Willi Smith: Street Couture and Duro Olowu Selects. I’m currently working on the curatorial team for the upcoming Design Triennial. Alongside these exhibitions and their related publications and public programs, I’ve worked with our Digital and Emerging Media team to develop new digital tools for experiencing exhibitions online. In the past two years, I’ve spent increasing time looking at our permanent collection, securing works for acquisition like Jay Sae Jung Oh’s Savage Chair, 2021 and Amanda Williams’s Cadastral Shaking (Chicago v1), 2019. I also co-chair the Responsive Collecting Initiative with fellow curator Andrea Lipps.

Savage Series Chair, 2021; Designed by Jay Sae Jung Oh (South Korea, b. 1982); Found objects and leather cord; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; Museum purchase through the American Women’s History Initiative Acquisitions Pool, administered by the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, OTL 7847.1.2021; Photo: Amanda Ringstad

Do you have a favorite object in the Duro Olowu Selects show?

I have a special attachment to the zebra-print blazer designed by Willi Smith. The curatorial team for Willi Smith: Street Couture first saw the blazer in an issue of New York Magazine in 1985. Smith was featured wearing it in an editorial organized by design writer Wendy Goodman about fashion designers and dance. We later found the blazer through a vintage dealer, but it was too late to add it to the show. Luckily, Duro is a fan of Smith’s acrobatic use of pattern and wanted to include it in his Selects exhibition.

Blazer, designed by Willi Smith, Cotton

The Duro Olowu show is marvelous and vast in the variety of objects shown. Was there an object that was considered that you wish had made it to the exhibition?

Duro’s keen eye connected with so many different works in our collection across time, place and culture, from textile fragments like the Tumbling Blocks quilt to sheets of Mexican Papel Picado. At one point we may have pulled 400 potential objects for the exhibition. Narrowing it down took months and many darlings had to be killed. But I try not to have curatorial regrets. Each exhibition is the collaborative product of the many people involved in making it and marks a unique moment in history.

Who has greatly influenced you as a curator?

Hungarian-American architect Yona Friedman changed the way I understood the role of designers and curators. In 2018, I organized a public commission of one of his Space Chain structures in Miami. Yona was 96 at the time, and had built his career on the study of informal architecture, specifically, architecture made by people or a community to serve their immediate needs. When the time came to install his structure, constructed from giant rolls of steel rod, he was too ill to join us, and we were forced interpret his casual hand sketches. I was over stressed, but Yona called me and told me to trust the installation team and let them follow their instinct. He would be happier with the result they produced than his own. I think of his commitment to cooperation often, and try my best to use it as a guide.

 

Be sure to visit Duro Olowu Selects, on view until August 28th and purchase a copy of the exhibition publication, Willi Smith: Street Couture, at SHOP Cooper Hewitt using your 10% member discount.

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