Mingei International Museum Director Rob Sidner surrounds himself with beauty at home as well as at work
IN ART AS IN LIFE, a sofa is not always a sofa, a chair not always just to sit upon. Rob Sidner, director of Mingei International Museum, clearly relishes the simple lifestyle he has crafted for himself away from the museum. His sofa is an early American, rope-tied bed made comfortable with cushions of fabric from India. The Snake Chair is serpent-shaped seating by the late artist Niki de Saint Phalle. The Lamino lounge is curvaceous and modern. One might even sit on the teak-and-brass vanity trunk once used by a drama troupe in Burma that Rob found at Amba in Solana Beach.
They blend easily with a Design Within Reach glass dining table and Spanish leather chairs. Breakfast or a cup of tea can be enjoyed on the loggia, seated on floor pillows that surround a brass tray from the Philippines.
Mingei means “art of the people,” a term coined many decades ago in Japan for the objects of everyday life — a unified expression of head, hand and heart in their function and beauty. In San Diego, mingei has become synonymous with the museum in Balboa Park (founded by Martha Longenecker in 1978), which cultivates local appreciation for the simplicity and beauty of everyday objects made by craftsman from all cultures.
Rob’s mentoring by Longenecker is evident in his conversation, and daily contact with the museum’s exhibits clearly has influenced his own lifestyle. In his 1,700-square-foot home, he surrounds himself with art, Japanese ceramics and furniture and textiles from many countries and periods.
“My particular interests are all over the place,” he says. “I’ve filled my condo with things that mean a lot to me — things handed down in my family from both Ohio and San Diego and acquired from my travels.”
Rob, who purchased his Bankers Hill condominium in 2006, enjoys a canyon view from the fourth (top) floor of the building, which was built in the 1960s.
“This place has good bones,” he says, “and the most pleasing floor plan I’ve ever lived in. The public and private spaces are so nicely separated.”
In an earlier remodel, the walls in the entry, breakfast room and both bedrooms were covered in mirrors, which brings in the outdoors and makes the spaces seem larger. A screened porch over the canyon was enclosed with jalousie windows, making one great room with a loggia.
Rob’s interest in art was nurtured when he was a preschool youngster by visits to the Toledo and Cleveland museums of art.
After majoring in theology in college, he lived in Rome near the Trevi Fountain for four years. “My deepest love is for the Italian Renaissance, so full of imagination and such skill in depicting both landscapes and humans.
The food, the people, the wine, the architecture and music — it all was an extraordinary experience,” he says. His architectural interest continues today, as he cites the new Oslo Opera House designed by the Snøhetta firm and architecture exhibits he’s working on at the Mingei. He enjoys the wealth of theater in San Diego, opera and La Jolla Music Society programs. He likes to entertain in small groups, often cooking up something Italian, with his winter solstice party (banishing the dark) a favorite.
Rob plays a bit of piano and loves the songs of Porter, Gershwin and other American Songbook greats. The 1921 Grinnell player piano he brought from Ohio, with its 150 piano rolls, sometimes is the center of attention with guests.
But the museum is where his heart is today. “I discovered the Mingei, not easy to discover in those days at its location in University Towne Centre, as soon as I arrived in San Diego in 1991,” he says. Having left his professional service and teaching after 22 years as a Catholic priest in Ohio, he owned The Cable Gallery in Mission Hills for a year. Then he became membership director and public relations coordinator at the Mingei in 1993 and later its director.
Nine trips to Japan, two to India and returns to Italy have only underscored his appreciation for spaces that respect the human being and have a sense of transcendence.
“The arts of daily life have a simple beauty. They’re satisfying and comfortable to live with,” he says. “It’s about keeping a correct balance in our lives.
Homes: By Phyllis Van Doren • Photography by Martin Mann