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A New Museum in Waitsfield Showcases Timeless Design

State of the Arts


Published February 16, 2011 at 12:14 p.m.

David Sellers wanted to build a museum aboard the Queen Mary ocean liner. He would buy the behemoth, tow it up to New York City, park it in the Hudson River and fund the endeavor by selling off the rooms as condos at $500,000 a pop.

Sellers is a guy with big ideas, but that one was perhaps a little too big. No matter. His newly opened Madsonian Museum of Industrial Design — the name is a Mad River play on the Smithsonian Institution — found its home in a small house beside the covered bridge in downtown Waitsfield, and it’s working out just fine.

Sellers, the designer and architect responsible for Warren’s innovative Prickly Mountain movement in the 1960s, has been collecting everything from unusual chairs to complicated mousetraps to airplane propellers since the 1970s, and he’s long dreamed of displaying it all in a museum.

“We have these hands,” he says, “these are sort of negative [spaces waiting to be] receptors for things. If we consider ourselves an important species, and we’re beautiful, why aren’t the things that are extensions of ourselves also beautiful?”

Among Sellers’ beautiful things — about half from his personal collection, half on loan from other collectors — are a Frank Lloyd Wright dish designed for Japan’s imperial hotel in 1914, a trio of elegant egg beaters, toy trains and a 1934 DeSoto Airflow — one of only five in the world — whose most recent owner was Dan Aykroyd’s father.

On a wall near the museum’s entrance, Sellers projects, on a continuous loop, a slideshow that’s a pictorial wish list of some beautiful, well-designed items he’s missing, including a table fan and a sleek, aerodynamic iron that recalls a race car. “I’m thinking of tacking, you know, those ‘Wanted’ signs around town,” he says with a chuckle.

Sellers is looking for items with intrinsic beauty, he says. He doesn’t know who designed most of the objects in the museum. “They stand on their own,” he suggests, pointing to a pair of worn black pumps next to the Wright dish. Still, he’s making an effort to identify the designers when he can. He’s hung archival photographs of some of them in the back room, behind the DeSoto.

Sellers doesn’t just love the objects for their beauty; he loves that they stood the test of time. If we want to exist on this planet for another 100,000 years, he says, we’re going to have to focus on building beautiful and well-designed things.

Even so-called sustainable building doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t have beauty, according to Sellers. “You take your house and make it really sustainable, get your LEED certificate, and that’s basically crap,” he says. “Because, if that building is torn down five years from now because it’s ugly, all that energy has gone down the toilet.”

There’s a simple reason nobody has messed with the Pantheon in Rome, he says: It’s beautiful.

“The key ingredient for sustainability isn’t low energy; it isn’t high insulation; it’s beauty,” Sellers insists. “That’s what makes a difference. That’s what people will lay down in front of bulldozers for.”

And that’s what you’ll find at Sellers’ museum — perhaps in the form of a wind-up rocket ship.