The Allure of Close Observation

The Allure of Close Observation

Mellon Faculty Fellow John Dunnigan MFA 80 ID is building more opportunities for faculty to tap into the RISD Museum’s stunning collection.

“If you can overcome the challenges we all have with patience and observe an object closely for a long period of time,” says Furniture Design Department Head John Dunnigan MFA 80 ID, “you can experience something extraordinary. It’s an experience that can’t be duplicated by looking at something on screen or in a book.”

An accomplished studio furniture maker himself, Dunnigan has been captivated by the objects on view at the RISD Museum since he began teaching at RISD in 1978. So he was delighted to learn last spring that he’d been selected for a Mellon Faculty Fellowship in the museum’s Decorative Arts and Design department. The two-year appointment, which began last September, allows him to work closely with David and Peggy Rockefeller Curator of Decorative Arts and Design Elizabeth Williams and faculty members in all departments to further object-based learning at RISD.

An important part of that charge involves building more opportunities for faculty to tap into the museum’s stunning collection and to consider how its 20th- and 21st-century holdings can be expanded in order to better support teaching, learning and research. “It’s not like we’re creating a shopping list,” Dunnigan explains, “but we’re trying to determine which objects are considered especially important in various disciplines and what stories, angles and approaches we could add that would excite students and the public in new ways.”

“If you [...] observe an object closely for a long period of time, you can experience something extraordinary.”
Furniture Department Head John Dinnigan MFA 80 ID

Dunnigan, whose own work is full of historical references, frequently incorporates visits to the museum into his teaching. “It’s great for students to see how makers of the past dealt with issues they’re thinking about in their work now,” he explains. “For students of furniture design, it might be proportion or balance; for painters, it could be color or line.”

If he could add one item of furniture to the collection, Dunnigan says it would be an “over-the-top” piece of Rococo. “I teach a History of Furniture Design class,” he notes, “and we could really use a spectacular example of 18th-century French Rococo. It’s an important marker in furniture design history —an expression of a cultural moment that sparked a reaction and eventually led to Modernism.”

Dunnigan is excited about the museum’s plan to create “visible study storage” for the Decorative Arts and Design collection, which will bring many more items up from the basement vault and back into circulation. He’s also advocating for incremental changes in a couple of the museum’s existing galleries to include more contemporary work. “It would be great to make a few small changes—without undermining the museum’s overall logic—that would allow for more flexible space,” he says, “and might enliven the whole collection by creating a dialogue between historical works and contemporary ones.”

But Dunnigan is quick to point out that the RISD Museum has always been a wonderful teaching resource and a “haven” for the RISD community. “Spending time in the museum is such a privilege,” he notes. “In addition to spending more time in the museum in pursuit of my own furniture-based research, my main role as a faculty fellow is to build on the relationships the museum has established over the years with RISD’s academic programs.”

text by Simone Solondz / photo by David O'Connor

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