Plates and silverware, functional items that hold food or carry it to our mouths, often fade into the background of daily living. To Margaret Carney, though, they are a source of endless fascination.
Carney, the director of the International Museum of Dinnerware Design, loves anything that goes on a table: forks, glasses, pitchers, salt shakers, even ashtrays. In her view, these are the objects that, through their design, tell the stories of human lives at their most fundamental. We all have to eat, and we all have to eat off of something.
The museum, which was established in 2012, does not yet have a permanent location, so Carney stores its collection in the house that she shares with her husband, Bill Walker, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The home is not open to the public, but its extensive collection makes appearances in popup exhibitions with various themes, from midcentury design to barware.
We visited Carney at her home, where she showed us the collection, introduced us to her cats – who somehow know what they can and cannot touch – and educated us in everything from museum development to design.
How did you first get the idea for the Dinnerware Museum?
It was in the late 1990s, and at that time, I was the founding director and curator of the Alfred Ceramic Art Museum, at the New York State College of Ceramics. The last couple of exhibits I did happened to be about dinnerware, and I loved it. I loved the designs, I loved the designers. Sometimes, exhibits aren’t that much fun. But in this case, there was no negative aspect – it was all just fun. And people who came to see the exhibits were very enthusiastic.
So I talked to people like [the late ceramist and designer] Eva Zeisel in New York. I talked to other people at NCECA. I talked to people about just the idea of it, and whether they thought it was a valid premise, and I got a lot of positive feedback. Of course, I didn’t do it for a while after that, but that was the seed of it.
The other thing was that when I was a child, one of the things I loved the most was a set of plastic dinnerware in the ’50s colors. I don’t know what colors they are, coral and funny greens and yellows – children’s plastic dinnerware. And I got to play “food.” Those were huge gifts for me; I just loved them. So I think that my childhood food obsession and whatnot fed into a lifelong trail.
Can you describe the museum’s evolution, from that first spark of inspiration to where it is now, with the pop-up exhibitions and the search for a permanent home?
That’s been something I didn’t anticipate. I’m kind of a planner, but it didn’t go the way I planned. I saw there was a need, and we [Carney and Walker] did the whole thing: moved to Ann Arbor, bought a property so we could set up the 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation and do it. But our real estate agent did not make me fully aware of the fact that prices for commercial property in Ann Arbor were just ridiculously expensive, so I had no idea that we weren’t going to be able to just move here, move our little collection, and live here and rent a space. That had been my original plan [laughs], which went awry.
But I met with somebody, some arts person in town, and they mentioned pop-up exhibits. And I thought, “Well, I’m never going to do that.” You should never say never, I guess, because it turned out that was what we had to do, because we couldn’t afford an exhibition space. We’ve done about a dozen exhibitions since 2013, when we did the first one. They’ve been in the Ann Arbor area, a few in Ypsilanti, which is nearby, and the other one with SOFA Chicago. We tried to stay in the area, so we could audience-build and see how it was all working out here.
The upshot of it all is I’ve gotten to partner with some incredible people and businesses and institutions in the area, and we’ve gotten a new audience. We met new people, and that’s been really rewarding for us.
What are the opportunities presented by exhibiting that way?
As a curator, it’s been an interesting challenge, coming up with a show theme that fits the space. For instance, we found this bed-and-breakfast, Stone Chalet, in Ann Arbor, and it had a midcentury modern building. When I saw that space, I thought, “Oh my God, this is where I’m going to do my first midcentury modern show.” It was an absolutely perfect fit with the lighting and the whole atmosphere.
How broad is the definition of dinnerware?
We collect everything that goes on a table: vases, centerpieces, ashtrays – since lots of people smoked at the table back in the day. We collect all different materials: ceramics, metal, plastic, paper, fiber, wood, and lacquer. I have crocheted cups and saucers. One of my favorite things that we collected about a year ago was a woven piece by a Mohawk basketmaker named Robin Lazore, who my husband and I saw at the Adirondack museum at Blue Mountain Lake in New York. She had designed these fantastic little cups and saucers that were a one-piece unit. She used sweetgrass and other traditional materials, with contemporary dye.
We also have a wonderful 1940s Baradio – a combination bar set and radio. That’s wonderful, because some designer, some crazy person, decided that you could put an ice bucket and shot glasses and glasses – all things that would condense and drip down – and then two decanters on top of a radio and just make it into a Baradio with one “r” in between it. I love it so much, but it was a crazy design.
How do you organize the pieces?
We never planned to have anything in our house, so it isn’t how it should be. It should be in dust-free cabinets. But I will say, we have nothing in boxes. Everything is out on shelving so that I can see it and so people who visit the collection – researchers or students from the University of Michigan or elsewhere – can visit things. I know how to find everything.
Most importantly, everything is properly accessioned. Everything is catalogued. The University of Michigan has a museum studies program, and occasionally I get wonderful people from there as interns. I get a few volunteers who know about museums and proper accessioning methods and cataloguing and all of that.
Has living with the work changed your relationship to it?
I’m aware of the fact that I love all these objects. I think I’ve newly fallen in love with having so many diverse objects all together. It’s sparked an even greater desire to have exhibitions that show juxtapositions of different kinds of materials and different countries and cultures. There are things that, in 2012, I never would have thought about belonging in the museum, and now they might be my favorite things.
What kinds of things?
I was reading a book about midcentury modern art, and they had some flatware designs by Carl Auböck for a Viennese company – I think it’s called Amboss. I went crazy. It was like, “Oh my God, I have to own this. The museum has to have this.” So I just searched frantically for where I could actually find this. It was terribly expensive, but I loved it, and that was something we acquired which I wouldn’t have thought would have made me so crazy-happy in 2012. It was like a new discovery.
What do you eat off of?
We eat off of Eva Zeisel’s Castleton china. Now, we don’t eat off of the Museum White. We don’t eat off of anything that’s been accessioned into the permanent collection, I would have to tell you that. But what we haven’t catalogued – I have an enormous collection of the Eva Zeisel Castleton china. It’s the first decoration that was ever put on her china, which is called Mandalay. And we use that for everything. It’s the cats’ china, too. It’s gorgeous, but the cats eat off of it.
What’s next for the museum?
I’m interested in the conversation between different objects or groups of objects or different designers or makers, and we have lots of plans for interactive classes and research opportunities and things when we get our new facility. But even what we’re doing now, I like the conversation between juxtaposing objects, and contemporary with industrially produced or designed things. I like the idea of taking people’s memories – if someone gives us an object, I don’t let them just donate their grandparents’ wedding china. I want the story behind it: the actual names of the people, what year they got married, how this was used in the family, or what role it played in something. I want the story.