Reincarnating a Treasured Design Store in Minneapolis

This article is part of our Museums special section about how institutions are striving to offer their visitors more to see, do and feel.

At the Walker Art Center here, Felice Clark sits on a sofa that looks like it crawled off the set of the 1988 Tim Burton film “Beetlejuice.”

The “Lawless Sofa,” created by the Detroit-based designer Evan Fay, features a snaking white cushion wrapped around a steel-pipe frame.

Across from Clark, the Walker’s director of business development, is Asli Altay, the Walker’s director of design programming. She leans against a faux fireplace enveloped in orange carpet, framed by an ice-cast bronze fireplace screen designed by the Chicago-based Steven Haulenbeek. It looks like a hundred roses melted together in a molten flash.

“It’s a shop disguised as an exhibition, or an exhibition disguised as a shop,” Clark said.

“We kind of built a house, and we blew the roof off,” Altay added.

This is Idea House 3, a new iteration of the Walker museum gift shop, which closed during the pandemic. Idea House 3 was inspired by the museum’s Idea House concept of the 1940s, which displayed modern design and contemporary art.

In the vacated space of the old store is the new gallery of design collectibles. It opened in November, a year after Altay and Clark pitched the idea. They wanted Idea House 3 to resolidify the Walker as a hub for design in the Midwest.

Altay, a former creative director for Apple, left her home in Istanbul to come to the Walker because of its historical design reputation, beginning with its original director, the architect Daniel S. Defenbacher.

“My mission was: Let’s not just have one exhibition, and tour it for years, dedicated to design, but let’s have it be present at all times,” Aslay said. “We can contribute to the discourse of design, which is still very young in comparison to architecture or art.”

The Zak Group out of London helped the Walker design the space to feel like a home with an open floor plan. It is entirely covered in the orange carpet — “Home Depot” orange, Aslay explained, a “tongue-in-cheek” reference to home improvement.

Throughout are playful and avant-garde vignettes of domestic life that include classics such as Frank Gehry’s Wiggle Side Chair and glossy Panton chairs. But they are outnumbered by creations from emerging Midwest designers such as the Ghost Garden table from Ayako Aratani (of Detroit) and the octopuslike home objects of Daniel Shapiro (of St. Louis).

Entry to the shop, unlike the museum, is free, and visitors are encouraged to try the items, many commissioned by the Walker.

“Part of our mission was also to demonstrate to people how to live with these types of objects,” Clark said. “You might see a sofa like this and not necessarily understand at first blush how that’s going to actually live in a space.”

When Clark and Altay did market research for Idea House 3, they couldn’t find anything like it in the museum field in the Midwest, or really anywhere. The Detroit designer Aleiya Olu said the closest might be the MoMA Design Store at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Olu is one of about 30 designers featured in “Midwest Design Here & Now,” a “guest room” in Idea House 3 curated by “guest” Wava Carpenter, the curatorial director for Design Miami. Altay says these special collections by guest curators will rotate out twice a year, with the next planned for late summer.

Olu’s contributions to “Midwest Design Here & Now” include her Lyndon Table, a Walker commission. It is a disc of black-tea-stained cherry wood atop a gray velvet base shaped like a Hershey’s Kiss. The tabletop features floral cutouts, a nod to memories of Olu’s grandmother as well as to the Arts and Crafts movement.

“It flirts with practicality,” Olu said.

Olu, who until recently was a contemporary art publicist, said she jumped at the chance to participate in Idea House 3, which reminded her of the Japanese Exhibition House at MoMA from the 1950s. She said it offered her the prestige of having designs appear in a museum as well as exposure to other Midwest designers.

“Understanding what design coming out of Chicago looks like, what design coming out of other places in the Midwest looks like, is really cool,” Olu said. “I feel like Walker has always been a place for innovation and, in the Midwest, you don’t always get that.”

Mary Ceruti, director of the Walker, said because the museum was set up as an art center — with performing art spaces, a cinema and its own design department — it’s more flexible to incorporate porous spaces like Idea House 3.

“It’s about experimentation and visual culture and material realities,” Ceruti said. “It also connects the Walker as a thought leader in the design space, which it has historically been one.”

Altay found inspiration for Idea House 3 in the museum’s history. A year after its opening in 1940, the Walker, under Defenbacher’s direction, built Idea House I, a single-story home next door.

“They built an actual house to show modern design in use, to kind of educate the public about the virtues of choosing good material, Modernism, etc.,” Altay said.

In 1946, the Walker started the “Everyday Art Quarterly” and the Everyday Art Gallery, another showcase of home design. Then Idea House II went up in 1947 with an open floor plan and design objects such as an Isamu Noguchi coffee table, Eames furniture and Eva Zeisel’s dinnerware from the nearby Red Wing Stoneware and Pottery.

“A man’s house is his art,” Defenbacher said at the time. The original Idea Houses have since been demolished, and Everyday Art has ceased, but their legacy now lives at Idea House 3.

“We got our cues from those two really legendary projects,” Altay said.

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