Joseph Becker

Maryanna Estomba

Get to know this creative curator and his curious, conscientious mind

San Francisco-based curator, writer, and educator Joseph Becker is a familiar face on the international art and design talk circuit—including Design Miami—and his discourse on art, architecture, and design has appeared in numerous publications. As the Associate Curator of Architecture and Design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), he has contributed to dozens of exhibitions and has been responsible for several major acquisitions and donations to the museum's collection. His unique curatorial approach focuses on creating access points to the tools, ideas, and issues that define the intersection of design and art, always tracking the shifts between conceptual and material practices at multiple scales. Maybe his focus on accessibility is informed by this upbringing, where early exposure to art and architecture was the norm.

Like many of us, Joseph is currently working from his dining room table. Here, he shares his very timely thoughts on the state of design, including what he would like to see in a museum in 2021—his answer is inspiring and something we couldn’t agree with more.

Donald Judd: SpecifiFurniture at SFMOMA, July 14–November 4, 2018. Photo © Matthew Millman

What’s on your desk right now?

My desk is currently my dining table. In arm’s reach are some wooden spoons that I have been carving as meditation and a grouping of small ceramics made by my grandmother, my mother, and my sister that keep me inspired all day.

What sparked your interest in design?

I come from a very creative family, so art and architecture were part of my upbringing. My personal journey towards a career in design was tipped by an exhibition on the multitalented designer Verner Panton that I saw in London as a teenager; I came to realize the breadth of what a “designer” can do.

Tomás Saraceno: Stillness in Motion – Cloud Cities at SFMOMA, December 17, 2016–May 21, 2017. Photo © Katherine Du Tiel

The one design reference book everyone should have on their bookshelf:

I’m someone who understands design and architecture by imagining how it is put together. While the list of books for research and inspiration is constantly growing (as are my book stacks), I think that a McMaster-Carr catalogue is an invaluable reference for designing and building – it’s an encyclopedia of starting points.

What is the most memorable exhibit or project that you’ve worked on?

I have worked on over 25 exhibitions at SFMOMA, and all of them have been so rewarding and eye-opening for me. I’m very fortunate to be able to facilitate exhibitions that share inspiring ideas with a wide audience. A recent highlight would be when I took Marshall Allan and the current Sun Ra Arkestra— in their full cosmic regalia—through our exhibition Far Out: Suits, Habs, and Labs for Outer Space, where we were showing Ra’s 1974 film Space is the Place.

Far Out: Suits, Habs, and Labs for Outer Space at SFMOMA, co-curated with Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, July 20, 2019–January 20, 2020. Photo © Matthew Millman

What five objects should be in a design museum in the year 2120?

I’m looking forward to a design for universal voting— whether that is an object, a piece of software, or a legislative policy.

If you were new to collecting design, where would you start?

Our homes are collections of objects, regardless of our intention. You start “collecting” when you do it with purpose. It can start with a pepper mill or an armchair. It can be a historical artifact or a contemporary work. It can be a flea market find or a design fair investment. Choose something that you want to understand, that you appreciate for its craft, and that will make you happy every time you look at it.

Something you would like to see more of in the design world:

Less click-bait, more actionable potential.

Get With the Action: Political Posters from the 1960s to Now at SFMOMA, Sep 16, 2017 - Apr 8, 2018. Photo © Katherine Du Tiel

Is there a designer that you currently have your eye on?

I am very excited to be working on a future exhibition with Marshall Brown, who operates at all scales, from the vast urban and infrastructural to the intimate and domestic—and even into dance and performance. His practice is critical in looking at the systemic disparities across communities of color in this country, and his proposals of inclusive urbanism are crucial to learn from as we work to build a better world.

Best discovery you’ve made at Design Miami:

For the past few years I have just been blown away by the nuanced historical work of Shaker furniture makers presented by JK Russell and the juxtaposition with much louder and often irreverent contemporary design in adjacent booths.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received:

Lived advice, from my dad and from so many others who have inspired me, is that learning happens everywhere. Never stop looking.