“You have one minute. Grab a piece of scrap paper and draw a house.” And with that simple direction, Professor Jennifer Gray began MoMA’s continuing education class, Dwell: Histories of Modern Housing.
I frantically drew, erased, and redrew my house, wondering what the other students were conjuring up and scribbling down. I was curious if the drawings would be as different as the classmates, who ranged from a Czech woman to a Brooklyn architect to a retired empty-nester to me, an art director at an advertising agency. They weren’t. And that was exactly the point of this seemingly rudimentary exercise.
Despite our diverse backgrounds and varying levels of art history experience, we each drew a single-family home with a triangular roof, shutters, and a yard. Even though many of us didn’t grow up in these idyllic homes, we quickly found out that most Americans automatically think of that ideal when asked to quickly sketch one. But why were we all hard-wired with this simple notion? The complex answer, which involves gender roles, international influence, the industrial revolution, and more, is what our five-week class was about to teach us.
As we began discussing our drawings, the conversation turned toward the history of the modern kitchen. Our teacher led us out of the classroom and into what seemed like secret passages to arrive at the Counter Space: Design and the Modern Kitchen exhibition. One of the incredible benefits of MoMA’s continuing education classes is the ability to skip the slides used in traditional art history classes and see the works firsthand. When Professor Gray explained the clever built-in food containers in the model Frankfurt Kitchen, she proved that seeing a slide wouldn’t do this piece justice. You would miss the tiny food labels, like “rice,” “macaroni,” and “potato flour,” imprinted in German above the handles. Or it would be harder to grasp her tidbit about the icebox in Germany, and how the colder temperatures in Europe made them less necessary than in the United States (thus explaining why, still today, Europeans don’t typically serve beverages with ice cubes).
The direct access to pieces like these and the ability to ask questions to an expert on the subject is exactly why I continue taking classes at MoMA (this is my fifth since moving to NYC). Even though I already had the privilege of viewing MoMA like an insider by taking previous classes like The 1960s: From Pop to Minimalism; Henri Matisse; and Bauhaus, I still felt like a kid in Night at the Museum (a MoMA version, of course). The classes prove that no matter how many slides you see of a Marcel Breuer creation or a Matisse painting, you can’t fully appreciate it until you’ve seen it live—through a MoMA class—in MoMA’s galleries. And most importantly, with a teacher that will somehow connect your pathetic doodle of a house to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. I’ve always believed that there’s no place like home, and now I can say that there’s no place to learn about home like MoMA.