It's natural to associate cities with the structures that grace the front of postcards. The Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Colosseum in Rome, the Statue of Liberty in New York. But the things that truly mediate our relationships to a city are typically of a much smaller scale. The metro card we pluck from our wallets everyday, for instance, or the rusty fire escape that stares back at us from the bedroom window.
For a moment, at least, these underrated icons of the city are getting their place in the spotlight. A selection of 62 are being featured in a new exhibition called "Masterpieces of Everday New York: Objects as Story," running now through September at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons The New School for Design in Manhattan. Inspired by the British radio series "A History of the World in 100 Objects," program curators Radhika Subramaniam and Margot Bouman invited New School faculty to submit objects to go on display.
Some of the objects, like a subway token or those little buttons from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, feel quintessentially New York. Some, like Purell hand sanitizer, seem rather universal to urban (if not simply American) life. Some represent bygone eras, like pictures of the Shadowman Paintings from the Village in the early 1980s. Some seem timeless, like building-top water towers. Some, like broken umbrellas or sidewalk gum dots, represent quotidian ubiquity at its finest.
In addition to representing some part of city culture, the exhibit items are accompanied by a brief personal essay by their faculty sponsor that describes a personal attachment to the object.
"For all our talk about objects, the show in a way says that this city is composed of stories," says Subramaniam. "It's composed of people and their relationship to the place."
This idea of objects representing personal stories — I take it that's what you mean when you say the items in the exhibition will narrate a "biography" of the city?
Yes. All these very idiosyncratic individual stories compose this biography. A street corner lamppost can have a thousand tales attached to it. All that sort of sediment building together is what makes this shared sense of place.
"Water towers," submitted by Carin Kuoni, photo by Martin Seck.
You seem to have taken a pretty liberal definition of "object." I don't necessarily think of a homeless bed as an object, for instance.
In our original invitation we said, quite explicitly, feel free to interpret it as widely as possible. So someone proposed the mural on the Grand Central ceiling. The way in which that's in the show is a bottle of cerulean blue paint and Simple Green, which is a cleaning product [used for the ceiling restoration]. So there's actually nothing related to the Grand Central. We didn't want people to say, what you have is simply a picture of, or the object itself. We actually wanted to say: what gets to the core of what you mean.
"Homeless homes," submitted by Margot Bouman, photo by A. David Hill.
For your contribution to the exhibition, you chose the cup of coffee that you purchase from a street vendor every morning. I've always felt these vendors were very iconic to New York.
In a sense it's not the coffee cup — it's really the conversation that happens as you pick the coffee up. It was a coffee cup in a photograph and that's how it exists in the exhibition. In a sense that's also not the entirety of what I'm talking about, but it's how it's there. It's a way to convey a sense of the experience. The coffee cart or the food cart — I feel that is truly a New York experience.
Were there any suggestions that caught you by surprise at first, and then maybe as you thought about them more saw how someone could connect that to everyday life in the city?
I do think the broken umbrella came as a delightful surprise. The view of the Empire State Building was a pleasant discovery because it seemed very obvious, but then it was not at all about the building itself, but about the way you look at something. The bait stations was a long discussion for a multiplicity of reasons. One, we were like, yes, of course, rats are key to the city. At the same time, I thought, I don't want anything that says animals should be killed in a routine way.
Parsons is starting a new course called "Objects as History." Why is this area so important for young designers, especially those focused on the city, to consider and study?
I do think one of the ways in which people begin to understand other places is often through handling something or in an encounter with something. Objects can embody a relationship between places. The fact that these objects are here in New York as part of New York City collections tells you not only about this city, something about the place from which that object came, but also most profoundly what it is that relates New York City to this other place.
What impression of New York — or perhaps city life in general — do you hope attendees will leave with that they might not have had before?
I hope they'll leave with an appreciation of the utterly ordinary. I have a longstanding interest in getting people look at everyday things as if for the first time. Even if you were a tourist coming in, it's not about the great things, it's about the greatness in everyday life, which to my mind matters above all. Even when great catastrophes like 9/11 happen, what we're trying to find our way back to is making sense of everyday living. That's where most of our life is lived.