Transforming a Californian institution
How Jennifer Luce redefined the Mingei International Museum in San Diego

View of the Museum’s inaugural exhibition ‘Global Spirit’

Words: Dr Jana Scholze,
associate professor at Kingston School of Art, London.

Photography: Nic Lehoux Photography; Paul Rivera Photography; Voice of San Diego

On 3 September 2021, the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, opened its doors after three years of closure and seven years of transformation. The museum might not be known to a global audience, but it is a fascinating combination of international as well as local museum. Dedicated to the mingei philosophy – which can be translated as ‘common or folk craft’ but also as ‘art of the people’ – the museum celebrates everyday objects as artworks of purpose and beauty from any culture and era of the world.

Its founder and director of 27 years (until 2005), the San Diego academic Martha Longenecker, was introduced to the philosophy of mingei during her studies in Japan under the potter Shoji Hamada (1894–1978) and the contemporary potter Tatsuzo Shimaoka (1919–2007). Hamada was one of the craftsmen with whom the philosopher Sōetsu Yanagi coined the term ‘mingei’ to celebrate craft for everyday use and founded its movement in the late 1920s. Longenecker, who met Yanagi in 1952, became fascinated by these values and started collecting and making objects. To foster regular cultural exchanges, Longenecker founded a public institution in 1974 which became the Mingei International Museum in 1978. The museum’s collection holds arts of daily use by historical and contemporary anonymous craftspeople and designers from more than 140 countries.

Jennifer Luce

Architect Jennifer Luce tells the story of the museum with enthusiasm and respect. Her practice, LUCE et studio, was the architecture team behind – and even responsible for – the move from a renovation to a transformation. They came with experience in designing, renovating, and expanding museums, but this project has been profoundly different. Rather than looking at improving parts of a museum, the studio reviewed the entire institution and redefined its presence, function, and intention for the 21st century. Jennifer claims, “Mingei is astutely moving forward the concept of how we live in a digital age with these beautiful objects around us and how we make sense of the dialectic between the two.”

The beginning of the project is curious if not uncommon: it started with a request for a proposal to replace the floor and lighting in the museum. In the interview, Jennifer suggested expanding the brief to pertinently share the museum’s work for and in the community. Curious, the museum asked her to present proposals. Conversations started and became the main tool for developing the project. The dialogue provided the project with mutual trust and courage, allowing all stakeholders to recognise opportunities and secure support. Not only the board, but many parts of the community (the park, neighbourhoods, the city) were involved in discussion and decisions which might have seemed desirable initially, but became defined by everyone as necessary. It was these conversations that allowed the project to grow over the course of many years and to transform not only the exterior and interiors, but the mission and ambition of the museum. Despite the official end to the project, Jennifer is certain, “Conversations will continue in the way the museum describes displays and collects work, and I am so proud that everything in the building will be an inspiration towards this end.”

The grand Spanish Colonial exterior

The initial idea for the transformation derived from analysing the historic building and its functions, which made the museum appear isolated and closed to the outside world. Opening the museum to the immensely beautiful Balboa Park and the city seemed an unquestionable decision. The challenge of modifying a historic Spanish Colonial building was met with a strong narrative based on respect for the history of the building and its environment, which not only convinced community and regulators, but made them advocates for the project. Opportunities presented included blind arches and a defunct entrance. Both offered opening to the outside and bringing light to the inside while keeping the historic structure of the building intact. An unused loading dock from the 1980s could even become a new theatre building.

From 1980s loading dock to theatre space

An important part of the architectural concept were new artworks by female designers who focus on craft. These commissions were not proposed as decoration of walls but as a true part of the building. Remarkably, the museum immediately embraced the idea despite increasing costs and time. It understood that these works would enrich the narrative of the building with invaluable miniature stories and would instrumentally influence the way the museum is animated and experienced daily. To name a few: the Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra created a large tapestry ‘Truth and Beauty in Black’ for the Bistro; Petra Blaisse of studio Inside Outside designed a large-scale curtain for the new theatre, named ‘Sessions’; Billie Tsien made the official gallery bench, ‘East/West’. The excitement around the carefully situated commissions secured private funding and they have all since become part of the museum collection.

A large-scale curtain for the theatre designed by Petra Blaisse of studio Inside Outside

For Jennifer, furniture is an inseparable layer of the architecture. Discussing the interiors was part of the Mingei Project from the start, and luckily, the client felt equally strong following an understanding that furniture is part of everyday life and the daily use of spaces. A table by American designer George Nakashima (1905-1990) which had been in the galleries as an object to be touched and used, inspired the decision that all furniture in the museum should be accessible and for use, while also a representation of good design that could be part of the collection.

The library, proving particularly popular with visitors

Jennifer (sitting during the interview next to a 606 system in her home) discovered the Universal Shelving System in 2005 when she moved to her modernist 1960s apartment. Intending to honour the history of the building, which had been designed in 1962, Dieter Rams’s shelving system was the obvious choice. But only living with the system made her understand and love it more. She introduced some residential clients to the system, which was always a success.

In the museum the challenge was the complexity of the commission, demanding components suitable for a restaurant, a shop, the library, and offices. She explains, “I wanted to find an iconic design and express it at a level of intensity that visitors would truly understand and be curious about.” Now, the restaurant has a 606 wall for wine, the shop is a series of 606 elements for retail, there is a 606 system in the coffee bar and in every office, but “The crowning moment is the library. Here people just gasp at the scale of the system. The fact that the central element is compressed between the floor and ceiling seems to be beyond imagination. I think, joy and curiosity combined makes this effortless system such a strong sensation.”

However, Jennifer highlights that it was not without difficulty to convince the librarian of a shelving system for her collection which was also used in the shop and the museum offices. Caring for a valuable collection is a rather complex, specific, and demanding task which makes scepticism towards a universal system understandable. Jennifer is proud to report that the librarian is thrilled with the flexibility and ease with which the system is supporting her work, and it makes the library currently the most visited space in the museum. It is perfection that convinces her about the system.

“People just gasp at the scale of the system”

We finish the interview by talking about the sensory experience – an important goal for the project. Jennifer tells the story of how the artist Ann Hamilton came to visit the museum, immediately turning to the shop and running her fingers along the shelf and back to the post. Jennifer was surprised but realised how much people want to understand how and why the shelving system works, that they feel invited to have this sensory experience with the object. She concludes, “The way it commands its space, borders on an artwork for me. It possesses all those components that strike you emotionally. This piece is truly an installation.”