Creator Curator: SFMOMA's Joseph Becker on Sets, Space, and Sailing

Joseph Becker in the Dieter Rams exhibition at SFMOMA [photo: Michael Armenta]

Joseph Becker (BArch 2007) comes from a creative family: In the 1980s, his parents combined their film and education backgrounds to open Southern California's first Gymboree kids' program, and his sister has her own fashion line. His North Hollywood high school actually offered classes in set design, and he further developed what he calls "a taste for space" with classes in architecture and design at UCLA and Art Center College of Design. He arrived at CCA in 2002 to formally begin his undergraduate studies with a plan to become a product designer, but he switched to architecture during his first year. He is now an assistant curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

How would you sum up your CCA experience?

There was a real sense of connection to San Francisco. With the Architecture faculty made up of professors who were also designing independently, I knew I was learning from people who were actually doing things. The studio environment, with late late nights and a palpable energy buzzing around you, was catalytic. You could get everything out of it if you put in the work, and if you were motivated by your own inquisitiveness.

Can you talk about your decision to switch from Industrial Design to Architecture?

My intention at the start was to be an industrial designer, having taken a pre-college course at RISD, but I relished CCA's conceptual curriculum. I took classes in photography, interactive technologies, and also really dove into Marc Le Sueur's class in film noir. I realized that what I was looking for was an umbrella for design. I found industrial design too focused on the consumer market. I worried that I'd end up designing toothbrushes and photo albums, whereas I wanted to use design thinking to pose larger questions and solve larger problems. So I switched tracks to architecture. Not only would I be designing buildings, but I'd also be working with product design, graphic design, and furniture design. For a year I worked at Craig Scott's studio IwamotoScott. He was one of three architecture professors -- along with Douglas Burnham and Thom Faulders -- who really got my creative juices flowing.

Considering that you're now at SFMOMA, did your gallery assistant work-study job at the CCA Wattis Institute influence your career planning at all?

It was a small role in the Wattis, but it started me thinking. Just being in that space gave me an understanding of the gallery as a forum for design exploration, and as a space for pushing the edges of the architecture discipline. Previous to my time at the Wattis, I had worked with Thom Faulders on an exhibition in preparation for the National Architectural Accrediting Board to make their accreditation visit to CCA. I think that's when I got hooked -- being within the space of the gallery, inside the "white cube," then understanding that experience and coming up with design strategies to affect it.

How did you get the SFMOMA job?

It was a mix of serendipity and hard work. Right as I was graduating, CCA's job board had a posting for a part-time position at SFMOMA. It was in the architecture and design department, and the project was to coordinate the design and production of the Olafur Eliasson installation Your mobile expectations: BMW H2R project, a frozen sculpture housed in an 800-square-foot walk-in freezer. It was a complicated project, from designing the frozen chamber to calculating how much water we needed to pump into the museum to finding a sustainable energy source to power the freezer. It was a new world for me, from solving large practical problems to navigating an institution's bureaucracy, and I found it challenging but rewarding. That success gave me the credibility to stick around, and a few months later, in December 2007, I was offered the position of assistant curator.

Does the curatorial position satisfy your architect's itch to design spaces?

The collective experience of a gallery space is not so different from what you're aiming for as an architect. In one situation, you're experiencing information in the context of a thesis. In the other, you're experiencing the look and feel of the space as you move through it. It's about how you tell the story. Having worked on projects as an architect, I was a little turned off by the realities of architecture: the pace, the client's needs, budget constraints, and your personal vision getting squashed. Exhibition design is a big component of my job, and a huge part of communicating curatorial ideas effectively. Getting to exercise my architecture training here affords a really great balance, and I haven't completely lost sight of role of the traditional architect. I'm still at times torn between the two worlds -- the auteur architect creating new spaces, and the curator presenting new information.

What are you working on right now?

Currently on view at the museum is an exhibition I curated on Dieter Rams, the seminal German product designer. It was a packaged exhibition I had seen at the Design Museum in London in 2010 and made the call to bring it to SFMOMA. My role was to reconfigure the exhibition for our galleries, rewrite the texts for our audience, edit the objects down by half, and add an additional section devoted to the legacy of Rams and his influence on the contemporary guard of international designers. This show is really great because of its immediate accessibility for our viewers. People can immediately identify with the stand-out qualities of Rams's work, and how beautifully designed, highly functional domestic wares can have an immense positive impact. This show will be on view through February 20.

I've got several other projects in the pipeline too. I'm working on an exhibition devoted to Parra. He's a Dutch artist with a recognizable style of hand-drawn graphic design and typography. He's a bit crude and off-the-cuff, which makes the show interesting, not only because of the work itself but also because it will expand the museum audience by reaching out to a much younger demographic. Another show I'm working on, Field Conditions, scheduled for September 2012, is all about space, borders, and the infinite. As a more conceptual show, it offers a different challenge, namely to present those abstract ideas in an accessible way.

In the longer term, I'm planning a flexible space outside the museum for 2013, when SFMOMA goes dark for the big expansion. The Norwegian firm Snøhetta is designing a new building to connect to the existing Mario Botta building, and the exhibition space will be tripled, but we'll be closed for some time. 2013 is also the year that millions of visitors will come to San Francisco for the America's Cup. In my free time I sail both competitively and recreationally, and this upcoming America's Cup is going to really change the landscape of San Francisco. So I want to put something together that will exist outside the museum. We've got an ambitious plan, and we're trying to get the right people excited to make it happen.

How do you measure your own success?

I have a great job that allows me an incredible opportunity to explore the edges of architecture and design, and every exhibition opening marks an accomplishment. I think that success is when you are aware of balancing your hard work and achievements with the right amount of rejuvenation and fun. If you constantly push yourself to succeed, you can lose sight of the most important thing; I measure my quality of life as an indicator of success. San Francisco is a beautiful city and I love living here. It's all about being able to take advantage of what the city has to offer. I co-own a sailboat (with fellow CCA alum and creative collaborator Erik van der Molen) moored down at Pier 39, a 1974 27-foot Coronado, and I crew for a Hobie 33 in the YRA. When I'm on the water, I feel like I've got it pretty good.