No Preservatives: Conversations about Conservation

International Design Conservation: A Discussion with Tim Bechthold

Are the “Design Arts” the same as “Contemporary Art?” Is Jasper Morrison a contemporary artist?  Or is Jeff Koons a designer?  Art objects serve different functions than design objects, don’t they?

As an art conservator, my initial focus in any project starts with from what and how art is made. To this end, there really isn’t a big difference between, say, a toaster and a gigantic puppy made of flowers. But I must consider the intent or purpose—or maybe function—of an object when creating a conservation plan.


I had these questions and thoughts in mind last month when I departed from my fair Hoosier State to Munich, Germany, to attend a conference organized by conservators Tim Bechthold and Susanne Graner and hosted by Die Neue Sammlung, The International Design Museum Munich. The conference was called “FUTURE TALKS 009: The Conservation of Modern Materials in Applied Arts and Design,” and I wouldn’t have thought of making this trip three years ago, because back then the Indianapolis Museum of Art only had a few design objects in its collection. But now, all of a sudden, we’ve acquired hundreds of objects, recently co-organized and hosted the exhibition European Design Since 1985 (which will be traveling to multiple venues in the near future), and just this year we acquired the Miller House, one of the country’s most highly regarded examples of mid-century Modernist residences. It was designed by Eero Saarinen, with interiors by Alexander Girard and landscape design by Daniel Urban Kiley. Of course, this home is filled with design objects.

But I digress. The conference in Munich was excellent, and Die Neue Sammlung is a fantastic museum. To talk more about the conference and caring for design objects, I’ve invited Tim Bechthold, the Head of the Conservation Department Die Neue Sammlung, here for a conversation. Thankfully, Mr. Bechthold is not only good at organizing conferences and working as a conservator, but is also fluent in both German and English.

Tim Bechthold

Tim Bechthold

Richard McCoy: I left the conference not really having any hard answers to my above questions. But I think that in many cases, design objects are like works of art, and then other times not at all. Do you have a sense of what makes a design object similar to an artwork?

Tim Bechthold: I think whether it is an art object or design object, we conservators are all starting at the same point. The procedure starts with collecting background information on an object. For an art object, you can talk to the artist; for a design object, we talk to the designer. Then we research the materials from which it was made, and try and understand its degradation systems. With this knowledge, we begin to conceptualize a suitable conservation treatment.

So the difference between a conservator of design objects and a conservator of contemporary art objects is not that big. I think it is more the mission or focus of the museum you are working for. As a design museum, the Neue Sammlung is mainly interested in the aesthetic form of a collectible object. As we aren’t a technical collection, the actual function of an object plays a smaller role. Compared, for example, to a kinetic art object, this is something quite different.

RM: Does this decision of whether or not the object is a closer to a design object or an art object affect the way you devise a conservation treatment?

TB: Normally not. First of all, the necessity or importance of a conservation treatment relates directly to the object’s current condition or its degree of degradation. But I wouldn’t be honest to tell you that a mass-produced bottle of Coca-Cola has the same importance to us as a Rapid Prototype chair by Patrick Jouin.

In most museum collections, you’ll find the dogma of expensive objects—acquired from private donations or huge amounts of tax money (in the case of my museum). Objects like these have to be put on exhibition quickly because people want to see them shortly after they are acquired. In cases like this, the prioritization of treatment is affected.

But what I’d like to emphasize is this: even if you put more energy in the conservation of a unique design object, as a design conservator you shouldn’t forget that often it is more difficult to find material information about mass-produced objects than from one-of-a-kind pieces. These mass-produced goods were available in large numbers for a certain period of time; then there was a change in production and with this, a change in mentality. These goods were thrown away and nobody took care of them. So be aware of this!

RM: Now that the conference is over, what projects are you working on?

TB: At the moment, there are three extensive projects we are preparing. One is still connected to Future Talks 009, and that’s producing the post print publication. With 28 contributions related to the conservation issues of modern materials, this publication promises to become a very valuable resource in our field. We intend to publish it in Spring 2010.

The other project deals with the re-opening of our permanent exhibition on contemporary jewelery. With approximately 1,000 objects, we are deeply involved in condition reporting and the installation of these very delicate objects.

The third project is related to a kitchen unit designed by the French architect Le Corbusier in 1946 for the Unité d’Habitation Marseille. After more than 50 years of extensive use, we are facing the challenge of developing an appropriate conservation treatment. Questions like traces of usage, intention of the designer (original color scheme etc.), degradation and conservation of different materials (rolled and cast alloy, blockboard, cast iron), and reconstruction of original color versus conservation, etc., are presenting a large spectrum of research issues.

RM: As a conservator responsible for the care of contemporary objects, I’m constantly chasing information around new technologies, materials, and media from which these things are made. In many ways, it’s an impossible task to try and keep up. It seems like every designer and artist is working in a new medium, or applies a new technique. What are some of things you read or research to stay current in our field?

TB: We keep in contact with designers, product companies, research laboratories, and specialists in the respective fields. We study books, magazines, and articles on technology and materials and we go through datasheets and patents. Moreover, in the last few years, there has been a wave of new literature on modern and innovative materials. This is also a valuable source of information for our daily work. Nevertheless, a big part of identifying and assessing these materials is related to the examinations we do in our conservation studio.

RM: Design objects, unlike artworks, often come packaged in boxes that are used to not only keep them safe during shipment, but also to help sell them when they are in a store. Do you ever keep the box that a design object comes in, and why?

TB: Indeed, these packages are often very fancy and ingenious, have innovative details and materials, or come with a fantastic graphic design. Moreover, a good package plays an important role for the promotion and the “feeling” of an object. This is why Die Neue Sammlung has been collecting good package design since it started collecting in 1908. If we decide to keep a package, in most cases, we store it separately from the object to avoid any undesirable interactions.

RM: Of course, museums need to keep track of their objects and even occasionally the boxes they come in. One of the best ways to do this is to give each piece a specific number and then record all sorts of information about it using an electronic database.  To do this, we often paint numbers on objects and then cover them with a protective synthetic coating. This is occasionally problematic, in that sometimes solvents are used in this process that can harm plastics. How do you deal with this problem?

TB: To avoid the undesirable interaction of solvent and the object, we have developed a method which is permanent but reversible. For most of our plastic objects, we achieve quite good results by writing the inventory number with pigmented ink on acid-free paper labels and then applying a thin BEVA lamination layer on top. A label can be fixed to the object by heating a small spatula to approx. 55 °C and then gently pressing it on the BEVA film.

Please note: This method needs a short input of increased temperature which means extra energy for chemical degradation processes for some plastics. Therefore it is not advisable to label sensitive plastics, like PVC (that have a high amount of softeners), PMMA which already shows crazing, thin thermoplastics, or heavily degraded plastics. Sometimes the BEVA label doesn’t stick to polyethylene or polypropylene surfaces. This labeling method is also not suitable for elastic plastics like rubbers or silicones. In that case, a soft pencil (3B) is our tool of first choice.

RM: I had the good fortune of taking a tour of the collection with Chief Curator and Deputy Directory Dr. Corinna Roesner. Not only are your exhibition spaces impressive, but your collection is enormous. How many objects are in it? And how do you store it all?

TB: The objects you saw in our permanent exhibition are more or less just the cherry on top. Since we have not completed the digitalization of our collection database, I’m not able to tell you the exact number of all of our objects. It is definitely more than 80,000 objects, which is quite a lot!

We store them in our museum in Munich (Pinakothek der Moderne) and at 5 other places, which are located in Bavaria–all within a distance of a maximum of 250 km away from Munich. You can imagine that it is quite time-consuming to do even the regular monitoring of the collection.

Most of the object groups are divided in different storage facilities. We have storage facilities for graphic design, furniture, industrial design (electric devices like TV sets, radios, kitchen machines and so on), ceramics, porcelain and glass, cars, and the so-called ‘street furniture’, such as fountains, a metro station, street lamps, petrol, and bus stations and a 22m rotor blade made of glass-fiber reinforced polyester of an early windmill-powered plant.

RM: With all of those things in the collection, do you have a favorite object right now?

TB: The interesting thing about being a conservator is that the more you work on an object, the more it thrills you with its technology and design. I don’t have a favorite object–one could rather say that I have a favorite period of design: the 1950s to the late 1960s. At that time there were so many new ideas about how to live, the development of new technologies and products often originating from war production, and most of all an enthusiastic belief in plastics.

Okay, maybe one favorite object. The Futuro house by Matti Suuronen. It’s a UFO-shaped house which was designed in 1964 as a ski-cabin. It’s really an incredible design object that consists mainly of all kinds of plastics.