As though a visit to the Met at 25% capacity isn’t magical enough for New Yorkers who’ve had to schedule their visits around the tourist crush — until now, only Anna Wintour could have the Temple of Dendur to herself — there is a delightful new discovery to be made. Turn right past the medieval court and pass through a door you could have sworn wasn’t there before. (It was, but it had been sealed off for decades.) You’ll find yourself drifting through 10 exquisite rooms filled with British decorative arts, displayed with modern style and sophisticated cheek, thanks to their designers, the husband and wife team of Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch of Roman & Williams.
Gone are the Chippendale and the staged vignettes cordoned off by dusty ropes. Instead, you’ll find soaring bronze-edged vitrines in which over 100 teapots, from gilt to humble slip, are lit like jewels; a soaring carved staircase from the 17th century that you can actually climb; and intimate pocket galleries where you can view textiles in a new way. With the elaborate color story — part of a collaboration with Farrow & Ball, of course — and complex display cases that took a year to build, the feeling is much more cinematic and retail-esque. That’s because, as Standefer explains, the couple was driven by “object lust” to bring the collection to life for a new generation, drawing upon the couple’s beginnings as film set designers. It was this immersion in craftsmanship and beautiful useful objects that led to the creation of their home store and restaurant, The Guild, in SoHo.
After competing for the job for two years, the duo spent over six years working with the curators, including Sarah Lawrence from the department of European sculpture and decorative arts and Wolf Burchard, the Met’s associate curator of British furniture and decorative arts, to create 11,000 square feet of new galleries housing objects from the 16th through the 19th centuries. (The collection has moved many times since it opened in 1910; the renovation marks the museum’s 150th anniversary. The galleries’ opening had the ill-timed opening date of March 2, meaning that few have seen this new jewel in the city’s beloved cultural crown.)
“It was a very bold move,” Burchard said of the choice. “Roman and Williams were chosen because of their ability to create spaces in which people enjoy spending time — see their restaurants, bars and shops. Their experience with film sets, paired with the fact they had never worked in a museum context before, brought an entirely fresh approach to the presentation of our collection, for which they created a new stage set of operatic drama.”
They also rose to the daunting task of contextualizing objects that were, in many instances, made for a class that was enriched by slave labor. Take the teapots, which, Standefer points out, were originally designed to be enticing as a way to get Brits excited about buying the new import. “Not only is it a visually extremely compelling presentation,” says Burchard, “but it allows us to simultaneously address an array of subjects: creativity and British entrepreneurialism, the tea trade and expansion of the British Empire and, of course, the transatlantic Slave Trade.”
“The vast majority of these things were designed to give joy to their owner or beholder,” Burchard said of the collection, which includes many more common objects of beauty than the typical sterile displays of singular, manor-born objets. “Our hope is therefore that the stage set that Roman and Williams created to showcase our collection helps to convey some of that aesthetic pleasure, while acknowledging and interrogating the complex, sometimes disturbing history of these objects.”
Thanks to Roman & Williams’ design, pleasure leads. We asked Standefer to show us her five favorite elements in the galleries. Be sure to reserve your spot at the Met now — before the tourists (and New Yorkers) return. Because, thanks to brilliant updates like this, the Met will always be at the top of everyone’s list.
“It’s a moment of total retail drama, with 10-foot-high cases in a 12-foot semicircle. It’s about massing: The Met has thousands of teapots. If you show four teapots, it’s quite polite. We inspired them to embrace objects that were more powerful in mass. When you visit this case, you see the barrage of graphics and see a culture that pulled ideas and references and designs from around the world to promote this new beverage, if you want to boil it down.
I think there’s a moment now where museums are looking for different methods of storytelling. We thought about how to make them Instagrammable and make a bigger community like them. The color story was part of that: In the teapot room we created this ombré of blue, to a weird, purple-blue like you were in the sea to show that it was a moment where the British shipping industry and ships in general and their trade routes found its full glory. You get to see fabrics and objects from around the world in that room, including an incredible Indian tapestry that’s visible through the teapot case.”
“It’s the first object in the Met that people have used! We basically worked with the curators through two years of getting an approval for people to be able to walk up those stairs. “Use it” was our philosophy throughout. We built that balcony because we wanted to get you to have a real domestic perspective. It’s also so fun to be able to walk up the stairs! We thought, In the gallery, everything feels so solemn. How can we get people to engage and enjoy? You have to break that barrier down.”
“Croome Court is one of the most important tapestry rooms in the world. Gobelins was the same tapestry maker as Versailles, but these were made for a private home. At the time, you could pick how many birds you wanted, the plants, how deep your pink was. Now I do that for a bathroom for De Gournay wallpaper, but then people were spending five years weaving. In terms of the low lighting, all of these rooms would’ve been candlelight. L’Observatoire International did the lighting – they did Le Coucou and the Boom Boom Room with us. We worked so hard to get the level to feel more Barry Lyndon than a typical museum. That feeling of being evocative is part of a story. I wanted people to feel there’s this magical moment where you are inside a movie.”
“The arches in each gallery are a geometric symbol to tell you where you are. Each century has its own style of arch. For example, the 19th-century gallery has Gothic arches. It doesn’t scream at you like you’re in a period gallery, but it speaks to a fundamental geometry — a code.”
“We felt strongly about wanting to create a fairly modern interpretation so the objects could stand on their own – the whole thing has a retail tactic. These incredible cases were made in Italy and took over a year. They are so meticulously built: One of them took one woman a year just to build the mounts for the case for this room. So there’s craftsmanship not just in the objects but in the space as well.
What we call the toy case is 10 feet long and 8 feet high and very skinny — almost like a two-sided plate-glass window. We wanted it to read like a storefront. These toys — they were called “toy men” by the merchants who sold them — were more about objects of delight and entertainment. They were also about leisure, for there was a real leisure class that was starting to make money at the time. There were royal objects, but here you have a crazy range: snuff boxes and mini teapots and pins and carved clocks, all mildly adorable sort of hideous wonderful, but in mass they’re really powerful, I think. So we decided to put them that way so both sides are completely densely covered with these objects. A lot in the gallery is about use, utilitarian. These are not about that!”
“Throughout, we were undermining the idea of the vignette — doing something that was more about focused on a vision of telling stories through the objects versus making people sort of feel as though they were in a room in a period. There were these three extraordinary historical rooms that are part of the fabric that were brought from England – the cornerstone of the British galleries. We chose to treat those rooms as objects. Now the room with the bed is more of a niche than a room. The bed is outrageous – there are moldings made of fabric! It’s literally like a textile sculpture that people slept in!”
Christine Muhlke is a food consultant and writer currently based in Woodstock, NY. A former editor at The New York Times and Bon Appétit and the founder of the Xtine newsletter, she has written books with chefs Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin, David Kinch of Manresa and Eric Werner of Hartwood Tulum. Her most recent books include Wine Simple with Le Bernardin’s Aldo Sohm and Signature Dishes That Matter.