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Dancing on the Ceiling

Dancing on the Ceiling

Designer Matthew Bird 89 ID, an assistant professor of Industrial Design at RISD, learned long ago that the secret to carving out a successful career is thinking outside the box.

Designer Matthew Bird 89 ID, an assistant professor of Industrial Design at RISD, learned long ago that the secret to carving out a successful career is thinking outside the box. “Saying yes to weird things is always the right answer,” he says. “The weirder the project, the more you learn from it.”

That personal motto led Bird to devote 14 years to retail – first helping to found RISD WORKS, the art and design retail gallery that has now merged with the museum shop, and then at the Curatorium, an offbeat Providence gift shop he ran single-handedly for eight years before closing the doors earlier this year. It also paved the way for a series of tote bags, umbrellas and other artful “after-projects” he designed for museum shops across the country. And that same approach recently opened him up to the idea of curating Wheels and Heels: The Big Noise Around Little Toys, a triumphant exhibition on view through October at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, FL.

The show traces the history of two iconic American toys: the Barbie doll and the Matchbox car, both of which came to life in the post-World War II era as baby boomers were craving new toys and factories were able to produce ever more fanciful designs using plastic. When the Norton’s Executive Director Hope Alswang and Deputy Director James Hall MLA 94 initially conceived of the idea, they invited Bird, with whom they’d worked when they were both at the RISD Museum, to curate the fun, summertime exhibition.

“Hope said that she wanted a clear narrative – the story of these toys,” Bird recalls, adding that she felt the museum should invest in owning the objects and that they didn’t need to be collector quality. With that in mind, he spent about six months researching the two toy lines and purchasing used dolls and cars on eBay. “As an academic, I do a lot of slide lectures,” he explains, “so I’m accustomed to telling stories about design through images. In this case, I got to decide what story I wanted to tell and then find the actual objects I needed to tell it.”

Bird ultimately collected more than 1,000 Barbie- and Matchbox-related items and collaborated with fellow alum Hilary Jordan 09 GD, the graphic designer at the Norton, to put together an exhibition that speaks to adults and children alike. The Barbies are all wired so that they stand and the toy cars are mounted to create compelling, three-dimensional arrangements within each display case.

“The level of craftsmanship that went into making these objects is astounding,” says Bird, whose passion for the history of product and industrial design is revealed through his teaching as well. “The goal of the first Matchbox designers was accuracy – making a tiny version of that huge London bus and getting every detail right.”

Bird’s hands-down favorite Barbie is the African-American Julia doll (whose brown hair oxidized over time and turned flame red) inspired by the Diahann Carroll TV series by the same name, which ran from 1968–71. “She is badass!” he exclaims. “I dressed her in this electric blue hooker outfit with a faux fur collar. People are critical of what Barbie became later, but in the beginning Mattel was very adaptive and really eager to have Barbie reflect the times.”

Wheels and Heels focuses on what Bird describes as “the call and response” between toy designers and their audience, tracing the development of plastics and bendable knees, changing hairdos that responded to the desire to play with the doll’s hair and Barbie’s ever-evolving professions, most of which were introduced in the 1990s.

Bird delivered a gallery talk on the topic at the Norton Museum and also did an online presentation for a friend who is teaching a class on toy design. But even after 15 years of honing the History of Industrial Design class he teaches to RISD sophomores each spring – shaping the course around the weekly sketches students make in response to the historic products they study – he says his favorite audience is senior citizens.

“I give talks at nursing homes every couple of months,” Bird explains. “With 20-year-olds, you have to work so hard to win them over – to convince them that the iPhone is not the only good design that ever happened in the world. It’s exhausting!”

Octogenarians, on the other hand, have personal memories of the products he discusses. Take the Electrolux vacuum cleaner. “When I give a talk about the Electrolux, afterward everyone in the room wants to tell me about theirs,” Bird says. “It’s like product archaeology! It’s about how people actually used these objects – not what they look like in a museum. That’s what I love about the Wheels and Heels show and what I love about industrial design. It’s all stuff that gets used and abused and ruined!”

Simone Solondz