The renovated Mingei International Museum in San Diego uses materials, craft and reconfigured interiors to uphold its mission of presenting “art of the people.”
The Mingei International Museum’s Neeley Courtyard, a dining space with a fence of hand-twisted bronze-alloy pickets by the architect Jennifer Luce.Credit…Paul Rivera
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The word “mingei,” meaning “folk craft,” was coined in 1925 by the Japanese philosopher and art historian Soetsu Yanagi to celebrate the beauty of everyday objects made by anonymous craftspeople. Yanagi was a founder and the first director of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, which opened in Tokyo in 1936. Forty-two years later, his philosophy inspired the creation of the Mingei International Museum in San Diego, which contains objects from 140 countries and many eras (as well as works by known artists and designers) and defines mingei as “art of the people.” It reopened on Sept. 3 after a three-year renovation.
Located since 1996 in a Spanish Colonial building in Balboa Park that was constructed for the 1915-17 Panama-California Exposition, the revitalized museum recommits itself to the idea of community — of shared space, culture and creativity. “We are making an effort to offer radical hospitality — every visitor counts equally, so they discover that art is for them or about them,” said its executive director, Rob Sidner. As redesigned by the architect Jennifer Luce of Luce et Studio in La Jolla, the interior spaces are now more open and welcoming. Materials and craft are celebrated in every component of the renovation, including commissions from renowned female designers and artists.
Noting a lack of natural flow between the museum and the park, Ms. Luce offered new pathways and attractions. “We wanted to show that Mingei connects to everyone’s cultural backgrounds by bringing them in to explore and become curious,” she said.
The admission-free first floor, or commons level, has a public gallery, stepped “amphitheater” seating, a cafe, a coffee bar, a shop and an education center; Ms. Luce calls it “the living room of the park.”
On the east side of this commons level, the architect opened up the arcade that flanks the ornate main entrance, adding glass doors that offer seven points of entry. She turned a ground-floor loading dock below this level into a 125-seat theater, with a front wall of glass looking out to a patio and amphitheater that she designed with the landscape architect David Reed. The theater’s roof was transformed into a dining courtyard for the cafe; a large, enameled copper mural created in 1965 by the San Diego artists Ellamarie and Jackson Woolley adorns its west wall. And the bell tower now holds a grand staircase with a large glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly.
Also on the commons level is Ms. Luce’s 125-foot-long, canopylike perforated stainless-steel ceiling. Inspired by the player piano in Mr. Sidner’s office, the project, she said, explores “music as craft.” She designed a fence (required by the parks department) for the dining courtyard, made of hand-twisted bronze-alloy pickets that are “more welcoming and less forbidding.”
The second-floor gallery level incorporates a large exhibition space, as well as a library; the Founders’ Gallery (open to the public when not hosting board meetings); and formerly unused outdoor terraces.
As she reconfigured the museum’s interiors, Ms. Luce invited important women in art and design to humanize them. Above the cafe’s bar hangs a 36-foot-long mural by the Dutch designer and environmental activist Claudy Jongstra, created from felted wool from Drenthe Heath sheep. (This ancient breed native to the Netherlands is dwindlingwith the loss of its grazing land.) Dyed with pigments made from organic plants grown by Ms. Jongstra, the piece is an exploration of indigo and Burgundian black, a hue used to depict clothing in Renaissance paintings. The wool also has acoustical properties, a benefit in its lively setting.
For the entrance to the second-floor Founders’ Gallery, which is furnished with pieces by the renowned woodworker George Nakashima, the metal artist Sharon Stampfer designed a bronze door handle that depicts the bridging of the distance between San Diego and Nakashima’s studio in New Hope, Pa. Within the room are two cut-paper pieces by Christina Kim, based on Nakashima’s drawings of trees. Ms. Kim, the founder of the clothing and housewares label Dosa, used the Mexican papel cortado technique to create the works and placed them between panes of glass in small windows, for a play of light and shadow.
For the main gallery, Ms. Kim designed a curtain to screen in-progress installations, using Dyneema, a technical fabric she embellished with holographic thread, which refracts light, so it would “glisten like spider webs in the sun,” she said. Billie Tsien, a co-founder of the New York firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, designed three long, low wood benches, which are being fabricated in California by Tule Peak Timber. (The company also produced the cafe’s bar counter out of a felled walnut tree.) Complementing two existing Nakashima benches, the new seats will have organic appendages made from pieces of a root ball by Stephen Iino, a New Jersey woodworker, that are intended to be used as handles to assist sitters in rising. Ms. Tsien said she and Mr. Williams were drawn to the Mingei’s ethos of “finding the beautiful in the common.”
And for the theater’s curtain, the Dutch designer Petra Blaisse layered sheets of gray and blue felt that were laser cut with a pattern of abstracted jacaranda leaves — in homage to Kate Sessions, a horticulturist who introduced jacaranda to San Diego. The curtain can move to cover the large window or the theater’s concrete east wall.
When it came to materials and fixtures, Ms. Luce opted for proven quality and sustainability: white oak and heart oak flooring by the 120-year-old Danish company Dinesen; architectural metalwork from A. Zahner, a company based in Kansas City, Mo., and founded in 1897; and Vitsoe’s 606 metal shelving, a classic design by Dieter Rams, who famously said, “Good design is as little design as possible.” Mr. Sidner said that one of the museum’s goals was “to let the renovation express the museum’s mission” to showcase “art of the people, for the people.” In which case, mission accomplished.


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