An Interview with Dr. Sarah E. Lawrence

Sarah E. Lawrence, Dean of the School and Art and Design History and Theory, is a design historian who is highly regarded by her colleagues both within and beyond Parsons.  Her academic focus has been Renaissance decorative arts, with a specialization in Renaissance visual culture and curatorial practice. Her scholarship has focused on the work of Valerio Belli, Jacopo Strada, and Giovanni Battista Piranesi. She has curated such exhibitions as “Crafting a Jewish Style: The Art of Bezalel, 1906-1996” (1998-1999); and “Piranesi as Designer” (2007-2008).

As an associate professor, Sarah is a member of the senior faculty at Parsons, and she currently serves as the chair of our Advancement, Promotion and Tenure Committee.   She was the director of the master’s program in the History of Decorative Arts and Design from 2001 through 2011.  Sarah received her undergraduate degree from Swarthmore College, and her masters and doctorate from Columbia University, in Renaissance Art History and in Theory and Criticism.

The School of Art and Design History and Theory is both honored and excited to welcome Sarah E. Lawrence as our new Dean.  Dr. Lawrence answered some questions below to help familiarize us with her accomplishments, her ambitions for our school, and perspectives on her new role.  Read on for a chance to get to know Dean Sarah E. Lawrence.

What are some things you are most excited about in your new role as the Dean of ADHT and Associate Dean of Parsons?

For the last ten years, I have been the Director of the MA Program in the History of Decorative Arts and Design, a program housed in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum uptown.  I am very pleased to have this opportunity to resituate myself downtown and be more integrated with and integral to the life of the students and faculty within ADHT, Parsons, and The New School.  I look forward to taking my work within one graduate program and contributing, with greater breadth and depth, to the emerging trio of graduate programs within ADHT, and to the very significant connection these have to the undergraduate student experience.

Please share some information about your recent, current, and upcoming projects and research.

My scholarship focuses on Italian design history from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Design histories too often begin in the nineteenth century and I have found more fluid models for the interconnections of art and design practice by looking farther back in time.  I am currently at work on a monographic study of Jacopo Strada, the sixteenth-century court antiquarian to the Hapsburg monarchy who worked as architect, metalwork designer, engineer of hydraulics and warfare technology, urban planner and cartographer, to mention only his most significant contributions.

A second area of focus in my work, which has developed out of my ongoing involvement with projects at the Cooper-Hewitt, is the consideration of design in relation to curatorial practice. The challenges posed to a museum for the collection and display of design bring to the fore some of the most essential challenges that museums of every sort are facing today.

What have been some of your most rewarding experiences in your time with Parsons thus far?

I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been the Director of this MA program that evolved as a collaboration between Parsons and the Cooper-Hewitt.  This has allowed me for ten years to have one foot in the academic world and the other in the museum world, which has brought a richness to my teaching and scholarship that is a very rare thing to find.

In your Job Talk, you mentioned that your goal for Parsons students is not only to help them find work within their fields, but to encourage them to shape and enrich the future of their fields.  How do you hope to help students achieve this in your new role?

I made that remark in reference to the Masters Students, but of course my point pertains just as much to the undergraduates.  Our programs do not aspire simply to best prepare the next generation of artists, designers, curators and critics for the jobs that currently exist, but prepare them to challenge, explore and redefine what these professions can become. This pedagogic principle requires that we, as teachers, value students whose work challenges, explores and redefines possibilities.  It is my good fortune to be surrounded by colleagues who similarly embrace this principle.

Please share some plans you have for the future of ADHT, Parsons, and The New School, particularly focusing on the upcoming year.

My greatest aspiration for ADHT is to realize its potential as a center of study in the Humanities and Social Sciences that actively connects Parsons to the other divisions of The New School. I look forward to reaching out to my colleagues throughout the University as we work toward building these connections.

Which of the exhibitions you’ve been involved with have been most important to you?  What parts of your experiences made it/them so rewarding?

My most significant curatorial endeavor was the exhibition, “Piranesi as Designer,” a collaboration between the Cooper-Hewitt and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2007-2008.  This was the first exhibition to bring together all aspects of Piranesi’s creative work – his etchings, architecture, furniture and interiors – set within the full context of his theory and practice as a designer.  The exhibition included consideration of Piranesi’s impact on contemporary architecture as well.  The most rewarding part was to see the excitement of both the general and scholarly audience in response to this range of work brought together for the first time.  The exhibition accomplished what I had hoped: to compel people to rethink the work of Piranesi, which had seemed so familiar.

Can you tell us the exhibitions you’ve seen recently that struck you as especially valuable, and why?

The two exhibitions I have seen this summer that were revelations for me are the Sonya Delaunay exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt – sadly no longer on view – and the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The Delaunay exhibition was exemplary in showing how to present the work of an artist/designer whose painting, poetry, craft and design are entirely of a piece.  The McQueen exhibition completely challenges our expectations for an exhibition of fashion design.

Do you have any recommendations you’d like to share, such as enriching books, summer activities, lectures, or events?

One of my students recommended that I read The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal and I enjoyed it tremendously.  It brilliantly interweaves the histories of art, collecting, taste and politics around the Second World War.

I also encourage everyone to go to Governors Island to see the magical installation of the sculptures by Mark di Suvero there.

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