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8 Cabinets Of Curiosities By Famous Architects

A new book revives the ancient tradition of the Wunderkammer, or “wonder-room.” See what this group of world-renowned designers–including Todd Williams, Billie Tsien, Richard Meier, Shigeru Ban, and more– showcased in their boxes of wonders.

Before Pinterest, there was the Wunderkammer. Translating to “wonder-room,” wunderkammers were cabinets of curiosities popularized in Renaissance Europe. Rulers and aristocrats showed off their most precious objects in these tiny memory theaters–gemstones, fossils, taxidermied beasts. One of the most famous Wunderkammers of the 1700s belonged to a Danish fellow unfortunately named Ole Worm. A narwhal’s tusk, a Scythian lamb, and a papier-mâché lemur were all part of Mr. Worm’s Museum Wormianum.

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Renowned architects and self-confessed quasi-hoarders Todd Williams and Billie Tsien revive this old tradition in Wunderkammer, a stunning book published by Yale University Press. The husband-and-wife team invited 42 architects and designers from around the world to create and photograph their own cabinets of curiosities. The designers also contributed essays and sketchbook pages.

Image: Sheila O’Donnell and John Tuomy / Michael Moran

In the book’s introduction, Williams admits to having an “almost pathological hoarding instinct,” which drove his interest in collecting curiosities. As an architect, he’s a Thing Person. “Objects are our ballast,” he writes. “They help to keep us grounded. They make us feel secure in our own histories. They are chosen by intuition and curated and ordered in ways that answer only to our own wandering logic.”

The wunderkammers here are wildly imaginative and varied. Some are high-concept art pieces, while others are more straightforward collections of meaningful objects. In architect WG Clark’s box, a fist pumping money cat guards over a motley assortment of stuff, including 20 used appointment books tied up with string, a globe of the Earth, eight shark teeth, one fossilized equus tooth, two Native American pottery shards, nine books, including Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre, and Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” CD.

Image: Tanya Christoff and Martin Finio / Michael-Moran

Then there’s Marwan Al-Sayed’s gold-lined “Shrine to the Shimmering Inversions of Form and Space,” which holds tiny cubes of pyrite, drops of Omani frankincense in a red pouch, and a black iron bull. It pays homage to the ancient Mayans and Aztecs, who would polish slabs of pyrite to a mirror-like finish, and in a form of divination called scrying, would gaze at these shiny objects until a vision appeared.

“Adoring Rumplestiltskin” by Claudy Jognstra simply contains 600 balls of wool and silk. Thundereggs, the state rock of Oregon, are spotlighted in Brad Cloepfil’s shrine to the Pacific Northwest, along with snakeskin agate and obsidian. An “I Love NY” shotglass, an ashtray, plastic ears, a foam angel, and Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa” are among the other wonders creatively showcased in this volume.

Contributors to Wunderkammer also include Shigeru Ban, Toyo Ito, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Peter Eisenman, Steven Holl, Richard Meier, Murray Moss, Diébédo Francis Keré, Juhani Pallasmaa, Elias Torres, and Peter Zumthor.

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Wunderkammer is available for purchase here.

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About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.

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