Jennifer Komar Olivarez
Department: Decorative Arts, Textiles, and Sculpture
Jennifer specializes in architecture, craft, and design, particularly from the 19th century to today. She also oversees the museum’s Purcell-Cutts House and the Modernism collection shown in the Wells Fargo Center in downtown Minneapolis. She joined the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1991 as an intern, and has since helped the MIA become a destination for its collection of modern design and craft. She received her Master’s from the University of Minnesota and a diploma in Decorative Arts from the University of Glasgow. A native of southeast Missouri, her frequent trips to the Gateway Arch in nearby St. Louis sparked an interest in Finnish father-and-son architects and designers Eero and Eliel Saarinen that later fueled her involvement in an international exhibition of Eero’s work (co-hosted in Minneapolis by the MIA and the Walker Art Center). This led to a major project on Finnish contemporary design, craft, and architecture. Jennifer also led a major retrospective of Minnesota architect and designer Ralph Rapson, including his lesser-known furniture designs, filling out his legacy beyond architecture. An avid collector of mid-century design, particularly Scandinavian, she is also widely sought as an expert on the Prairie School.
Q: You often consult on architecture and design projects beyond these walls, particularly the works of Purcell and Elmslie. What’s a favorite design of theirs—besides the museum’s Purcell-Cutts House, of course?
JENNIFER KOMAR OLIVAREZ: The Merchants Bank in Winona—of the banks they designed, that’s the best. People don’t realize how broad the Prairie School was, they tend to lump everyone together, but Purcell and Elmslie created beautiful design details you just don’t see from Frank Lloyd Wright.
Q: The Prairie School also tends to be confused with the Arts and Crafts movement, no?
JENNIFER KOMAR OLIVAREZ: Yes, the Prairie School was really the American manifestation of the international design reform movement, philosophically separate from Arts and Crafts. The Prairie School expressed a type of modernism; it wasn’t about going back to guilds like the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Q: The work of Eliel and Eero Saarinen was a big part of your childhood, growing up near St. Louis.
JENNIFER KOMAR OLIVAREZ: Now I enjoy Christ Church Lutheran in south Minneapolis, which was Eliel Saarinen’s last completed work, and the education building addition was Eero Saarinen’s last completed work. It’s kind of been hidden for decades, but recently it has become a sort of Finnish cultural center, embracing its Finnish ties and its role as an architectural landmark.
Q: You actually lived for a time in the Purcell-Cutts House. What was that like?
JENNIFER KOMAR OLIVAREZ: I lived there for about two-and-half years, not long after I started at the MIA—the tenant must always be someone from the MIA’s curatorial departments. It’s beautiful, really quiet, and living there you discover details you wouldn’t necessarily notice on a public tour, like the iridescent stained glass in the mortar joints of the fireplace. But it’s a bit like living in a fishbowl. I once came down the steps to find someone looking in, his face pressed against the glass—I think he was more surprised than I was, as though he’d seen a ghost.
- “Wood Art’s Rise to Fame: Developments to 1996,” in Conversations with Wood: The Collection of Ruth and David Waterbury (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2011), pp. 25-31.
- “A New Kind of Worship Space: Eero Saarinen’s Churches and Chapels,” essay in Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), pp. 266-275.
- Progressive Design in the Midwest: The Purcell-Cutts House and the Prairie School Collection at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, (Minneapolis: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts), 2000.
- “Bradstreet’s Craftshouse: Retailing in an Arts and Crafts Style,” co-authored with Michael Conforti, in Art and Life on the Upper Mississippi 1890-1915 (Newark: University of Delaware Press), 1994, 63-91.