As much as we may yearn to transcend the material, we live with "stuff." Inspired by the British Museum and the BBC’s hugely successful “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” New School curators Radhika Subramaniam and Margot Bouman present New York through the everyday (the subway token, the public phone booth), the overlooked (a boot scraper, a rat bait trap), the iconic (the Empire State Building, Metropolitan Museum badges) and the mundane (black umbrellas, a coffee cup, sneakers).
What object would you choose to represent this great city?
New School faculty, some of whom are native New Yorkers, others new to the city, have responded to this question with 62 pieces, in a mosaic of Gotham variation.
For those familiar with New York street life, those black umbrellas that seem designed for just one serious storm evoke a nod of rueful recognition. For tourists, the Empire State Building signifies New York and a visit isn’t complete until it has been glimpsed.
Native New Yorkers may take for granted that which jolts newcomers. Yet all see the white “ghost bicycles” – the choice of Jane Pirone, an assistant professor of communication design -- and shudder. The ghost bikes, each of which marks the loss of a life, stand alone throughout the city, quietly inspiring a collective mourning.
Cecilia Rubino, an assistant professor of theater, selected an elegant black and white shirtwaist. At the beginning of the 20th century, the loosely fitted shirtwaist expressed freedom from corsets, bustles and hoops. In 1909, the seamstresses at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory went on a five month strike, the first major women’s strike in history. Two years later, 146 women lost their lives in a fire that broke out at the factory.
Close to the shirtwaist, which was sewn by members of the International Ladies Garment Worker Union (ILGWU) for Professor Rubino’s "From the Fire” produced in 2011, is a sewing box. This belonged to Ruth Rubinstein, herself a star of “Pins & Needles,” which ran in the late 30s with a cast of ILGWU workers. The overflowing box tells the story of Ruth at home, at work and on the stage.
Stepping out of the New School, there’s “stuff” everywhere. Heading north on 5th Avenue, the Empire State Building glimmers.
“Masterpieces of Everyday New York: Objects as Story” is at Parsons The New School for Design, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery, 66 Fifth Ave (13th St) through Sept. 4th. No admission charge.
Sharon Anstey is a business consultant and writer.
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