Reimagining Mingei | Mingei International Museum

"We want them to be inspired by what they see and feel. Even if this is their first exposure to the Museum and they are not aware of the mingei philosophy, they will discover it along the way, over time and through experience, just like I have."

For over three decades, Architect Jennifer Luce has established a multidisciplinary architectural practice in San Diego, focused on public art projects, urban design interventions, creative workspaces, and collaborations with artists and landscape architects. When the Museum held an open RFP for its renovation, LUCE et studio’s commitment to collaborative work and dedication to craftsmanship made them the clear choice for Mingei.

It seems that before you even began working with the Museum you understood the philosophy of mingei and had unknowingly incorporated it into your practice. Can you share your understanding of mingei?

To me, mingei is the sensibility that inspires thoughtful design with a focus on an intimate experience, textural materials, embellishment meant solely for function, and a humble intent. Materiality and use generate a beautiful idea; an elegant solution (as said of the perfect scientific experiment). Working with the Museum and acquiring a deeper understanding of mingei from Rob Sidner, has informed the way I approached the design for the renovation, turned transformation. We hold the hope that visitors will experience Mingei and sense an optimism. We want them to be inspired by what they see and feel. Even if this is their first exposure to the Museum and they are not aware of the mingei philosophy, they will discover it along the way, over time and through experience, just like I have. Our studio has shared a certain joy in understanding what mingei means and how it affects each of our daily lives in unique ways. It is meditative.

Is there one aspect of the Museum’s Transformation that you see the philosophy of mingei playing out perfectly?

For me, the message of mingei is embedded in a series of overarching initiatives we set up at the very beginning of the project in 2015, centered around ideas of inclusivity, openness, community, and humble spirit. Then, as the design began to unfold, we infused an understanding that architects “make” things and places that function, but that those functional elements can also be artfully crafted, in order to strengthen the experience.

The commissioned artworks by various female artists have been a personal joy for me. Each artist has brought a sensibility that is integrated with the building’s architecture. Tapestries, curtains, furnishings, hardware, and fences are all highly functional elements elevated to art, on behalf of mingei. There is a strong message that mingei happens everywhere. It happens in our lives at all moments, and the experience of the Museum should spark that kind of universal inspiration. Everywhere one looks at the Museum, there ought to be a spatial cue that sparks curiosity about function, material, and purpose. The spaces that “hold” art can be as meaningful as the works themselves.

Do you have a favorite material to work with and why?

Hands down METAL—steel, brass, aluminum, bronze! There’s something guttural about the fact that it comes from the earth and through an alchemical process, can be shifted and changed by the human hand. At its core, it is a simple mineral. Over time, metals have been used in so many contexts, especially for functional use. It is perceived as being hard, unforgiving, industrial. We have experimented, drawing the sensuality from within the metal, expressing its essence of stability and softness to people on an intimate level. From exposing the building’s steel skeleton structure to fashioning hand-twisted brass fencing enclosing the new exterior Courtyard to hanging a steel piano roll-inspired Café ceiling, we immersed ourselves in the exploration of metal. We treat it like paper—malleable; shifting and sculpting it, folding it, to prove just how soft and sensual it actually is.

Are there any objects you enjoy collecting?

My (humble) collection is twofold. One is an obsession with vessels, which is a passion I believe comes from being an architect and understanding that buildings are vessels for life. In a humorous way, my kitchen has been rendered non-functional in that I have all sorts of collected vessels occupying the counters resulting in non-functional workspace. Mingei objects take precedence over nourishment! Many of the vessels were acquired while traveling and “hold” moments, memories, and shifts in life experience. There’s something powerful about that ability to “hold” a moment in time. Mingei through and through.

The second predominant medium in the collection is photography. I am interested in how the photograph captures that very moment in time, expressing a fleeting sensation. Recently, I attended a provocative exhibition of David Hockney portraits at the Morgan Library. His portraits of family and friends traverse decades, from pencil sketch to Polaroid photography to Photoshop and then iPad drawing. Hockney explained how the photograph is still, and has a moment, whereas a drawing has a sense of time. I love this idea of having a still moment in architecture (like a photograph) or the ability to sit with a space in repose (like a drawing).

When visitors walk into the new Museum, what do you hope they feel?

A sense of community. A sense of being a part of Mingei. A feeling that they belong here. Many museums feel austere and a little intimidating. We want the Museum to feel like a living room, a place where all can gather to discuss, wander, explore, eat, drink, and just be.

You recently moved to a new office, what drew you to your new space?

Well, mingei inspired us! In the beginning, the intent behind LUCE et studio was that it would be our studio + others—a collaborative place. Which is why we use the word et in the title; French for and. Collaboration is essential to our practice, and our space ought to be reflective of that. We spent 15 years in a secluded yet intimate warehouse, where we honed our craft quietly, but now we have a desire to be more open (thanks to your influence), more visible, and more engaged. Our new studio in La Jolla reflects this desire with ample natural light, an open floor plan, and an inviting threshold. It has changed our mood, our sense of the future and what’s possible. Lessons learned. At times, one needs to be quiet and other times open to new horizons. Now, I know that Mingei and LUCE et studio are projecting both realities ensemble.

Is there anything more you’d like to share?

A very personal connection to Mingei for me is my family’s history with textiles. Both my grandfather and father worked for Liberty London, resurrecting patterns from 18th-century textiles that were part of the history of Liberty, bringing them forward with a modern sensibility. The work was a formidable part of my childhood. Transformation of something familiar is a fascination.

I am so honored; we are so honored, to have been a part of Mingei’s transformation. There is truly no other project I can imagine spending almost seven years of my life engaged deeply with. We all thank you for allowing us this journey together.

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