Denver Art Museums new interactive spaces let you sit on the art

The Denver Art Museum has worked steadily and strategically to upgrade its design portfolio over the past decade, adding significantly to its long-overlooked holdings of furniture, textiles, fashion, graphics and architectural objects of every sort. The museum now possesses tens of thousands of colorful works, from desk chairs to dinner plates to cocktail dresses, spread throughout its various collections.

The moves have been transformative, both for the museum itself — it has emerged as a national leader in the area of 20th-century American and European design — and for its constituents. The amount of space given over to fashion and furniture has doubled or tripled over the past few years, and visitors get the refreshing pleasure of wandering through more than 15,000 square feet of exhibitions that include such things as Yves Saint Laurent evening wear and Charles and Ray Eames loungers.

But DAM, to its credit, also recognizes that context matters. A credible design showcase needs to be incredibly designed itself, and the museum has succeeded in that regard with the scheme it recently unveiled for its major interactive spaces, both the central “creative hub” (located in the atrium of its main building) and the learning center used primarily by school groups (set on its lower floor).

For both spaces, DAM turned to Mexico City-based Esrawe + Cadena, one of that country’s leading design teams, which developed entire environments for its classrooms and communal work areas, encompassing everything from custom furniture to wall coverings to hanging lamps.

All of the tables, chairs, benches, lighting fixtures and work boards are sleek and sophisticated yet practical, as well as comfortable, for the most part. They do what good design does best: represent the tastes and habits of the present age while being fully functional and durable.

One object, in particular, stands out as a showpiece: a stackable chair system that allows DAM to store unused seating on vertical, school-bus-yellow poles. The piece, which DAM leaves on display in the atrium, is original and innovative, and its design rivals some of the pieces in the museum’s existing collection.

All the furniture is portable and convertible; light enough to pick up and place at will, or set on wheels so it can be moved around and reconfigured. Tables double as chairs. Benches can be used as storage. The pieces fully reject the idea of furniture as static objects; they are meant to serve a contemporary museum in motion. Museum visitors don’t simply look at objects these days; they also try their hands at painting or weaving or interior design — whatever they are up for that day — and this furniture gives them an inviting place to settle in.

Esrawe + Cadena created the whole package for DAM, and that is exactly what they are known for doing in Mexico. The team — which actually combines the talents of separate studios run by Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena — has created landmark retail spaces across that country,  including two famous coffee chains, Cielito and Tierra Garat, which owe much of their success to their forward-looking interiors.

The team, collaborating for 12 years now, doesn’t have a signature style but it does have a unique way of going about projects, which is to combine architecture, furniture design and graphics in a way that creates not just a look, but also a brand. Scores of retail and restaurant spaces have copied their ways.

Esrawe is known more for his architecture and Cadena for his graphics, but both are cross-educated and their duties are dependent on the project of the moment. They are not a typical design firm.

“We say we are more of an idea lab,” Esrawe explained during a recent interview in his bustling headquarters, a cavernous, converted manufacturing space in Mexico City’s fashionable Roma Norte neighborhood.

“It is never about what we want, or what we like,” he said. “We do try to promote good design, but it is always about what the project needs.”

Or what the designers themselves find interesting. Separately and together, they have worked on everything from office buildings to residential homes to temporary exhibition designs. Esrawe runs a respected art gallery in Mexico City called Masa. As a pair, they also have a popular perfume line called Xinú  — fabulously packaged, of course, in spherical bottles — that they will soon bring to the United States.

The firm prides itself on building long-term relationships with clients rather than taking one-off jobs, and in doing a lot of research at the front end of a project, often spending several months on concepts before producing actual drawings.

That was the case with DAM. The designers and the museum have an existing relationship that goes back to 2019, when the museum commissioned Esrawe + Cadena to do an interactive piece for its exterior plaza. The result was La Musidora, a set of 20 woven chairs that elicited musical sounds when gently rocked.

They followed that up with the design for DAM’s 2020 “Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Mexican Modernism,” an exhibition that might have been a blockbuster if not for general anxiety caused by the coronavirus pandemic at the time.

The relationship eased the way for greater collaboration on the new learning spaces. Esrawe + Cadena spent considerable time working with the museum’s educators to nail down needs. The project went on for about three years, though much of that time frame was slowed by the lingering pandemic and the limits it placed on both travel opportunities and acquisitions of construction materials, Esrawe said.

But the result is motivational, both for the fledgling creatives who use the spaces and for design overall in Denver.  The children’s rooms with their low tables and miniature chairs are particularly engaging, alternately appearing as playful, olive green play areas and as earnest places to get down to the serious work of coloring or making paper collages with the museum’s staff.

In typical Esrawe + Cadena style, the walls, floors and ceilings are integrated into a single theme. For example, the firm created round seating and storage areas, but then carried that same shape over into wall graphics and overhead lighting and even a set of round, free-standing lockers where kids can store their backpacks and lunches while they occupy the space. The center is cushy, where it needs to be, to keep kids safe, but refined in a way that spaces geared to young people rarely are.

That’s important. If museums want to inspire kids to take art and design seriously, they have to demonstrate a personal commitment to it and illustrate how it enriches everyday life. They also have to create impactful moments that youthful visors will remember and get excited about as they develop their own personal tastes and habits.

We do want a city that values good design, one full of beautiful buildings and bridges and parks and schools that make life more pleasurable. That can only be sustained if the public has a thirst for it. And that can surely be helped by an art museum that shows — and is itself — quality design.

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