Person of Interest: Rachel Delphia of the Carnegie Museum of Art


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In October, Rachel Delphia was promoted to the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Ms. Delphia, 34, of Friendship, joined the museum in 2005 and was later appointed associate curator in 2011.

She received a master's degree from the University of Delaware's Winterthur Program in Early American Culture. She also earned a master's degree in English and a bachelor of fine arts in industrial design from Carnegie Mellon University, where she has taught design history and exhibition design.

 

How did you become interested in decorative arts?

I grew up in a family that valued the handmade, in which craft projects on the kitchen floor and tinkering in basement woodshops were the norm. To this day I treasure a block of pine that I shaped and finished with my grandfather at age 5. As an undergraduate I studied industrial design and furniture design. Still, it was not until my first year of graduate school in English that I realized there was an entire academic and museum field dedicated to decorative arts and design. It was as if the skies had opened and pointed the way.

You are currently working with the Dallas Museum of Art on a major traveling exhibition about Peter Muller-Munk (1904-67). What makes him a good subject for a traveling show?

At its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, the Pittsburgh-based Peter Muller-Munk Associates was one of the top 10 industrial design firms in the United States, but history has all but forgotten it. This project will finally attribute dozens of designs to Peter Muller-Munk for the first time: midcentury radios, tools, housewares, and appliances of all shapes and sizes. These are objects that people across the country will recognize and may even have tucked in their basements.

Muller-Munk's clients and reputation were national and international, but much of the work is grounded in our region. Peter believed that Pittsburgh was a great city for industrial design thanks to the leading manufacturers. Our manufacturing story is well known; this project will demonstrate that Pittsburgh is an important center for design as well. Speaking of things tucked in basements, we are still looking for a 1960 Westinghouse Center-Drawer Refrigerator for the show. If any of your readers have one, we would love to hear from them!

You studied at Winterthur. Tell us about a memorable day or experience you had there or tell us about an object you encountered at Winterthur that has inspired or informed your subsequent research.

I should say that Winterthur was the country estate of collector Henry Francis DuPont (1880-1969). In northern Delaware he created a mansion of 175 period rooms furnished with American decorative arts of the period 1640 to 1860, which is now a public garden and museum. Since 1952, Winterthur has offered graduate fellowships, and I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to study there.

As students we had full access to all seven floors of the house, and it was both inspiring and uncanny to wander those halls alone. I can remember being on the sixth floor, which is mainly bedrooms, late one winter afternoon as numerous 200- to 300-year-old clocks started chiming the hour. It gave me chills to think about all the human lives those sentinels had witnessed. I think this is what makes decorative arts and design objects so powerful: They were the stuff of people's lives that marked daily rituals, gave comfort to weary bodies, commemorated events and bolstered celebrations.

Do you collect any type of decorative arts yourself? If so, what?

I have a serious weakness for ceramics of all types and periods, though I mainly collect functional wares that we use in our home. I lust after modern and contemporary porcelain: Noritake, Hall China, Rosenthal, Nymphenburg, etc., but I look more than I buy. My husband is a minimalist. He keeps me in check.

Mac or PC? Mac.

Describe your perfect weekend? A 50/50 blend of scheduled activity and pure downtime. I need a little rejuvenation, but too much unscheduled time makes me anxious. I'm a doer.

Good luck charm: My almost 2-year-old daughter.

Three things always in your refrigerator: Cheese, bread and a seasonal microbrew.

Favorite spot in Pittsburgh: Frick Park for its hiking trails, Friendship for its architecture, Bigelow Boulevard and Boulevard of the Allies for the vistas they offer of our impossibly terraced hillsides. My four-mile (round-trip) walking commute through the East End is one of my favorite parts of the day. I love the energy of the city and the fact that I can get most anything I need on foot.

What is tops on your bucket list? Is it strange to say I don't have one? I don't approach life that way. I try to engage the present and enjoy it all.

Can't live without: Family, meaningful projects, beauty.

Best piece of advice you have ever received: You don't have to have all the answers. You just need to know how to find them.


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