The Inside Scoop: An Interview with Jeff Daly, former Head of Design at Metropolitan Museum of Art

Thanks to the fabulous Lynne Perrella for this fascinating interview with Jeff Daly.  I happened to run into Jeff after Lynne interviewed him.  Jeff has been interviewed by numerous national publications and he said Lynne posed some of the most insightful and interesting questions he’d ever been asked.  — Joan

Jeff Daly in the Egyptian Wing at The Met.

Jeff Daly in the Egyptian Wing at The Met. (photo by Gary Delemeester)

Mark your calendar:  On Friday, April 22 at 7 PM, The Moviehouse in Millerton NY will screen “The First Monday in May”, a documentary about the Metropolitan Museum’s historic, record-breaking 2015 exhibition “China Through The Looking Glass”.

Following the film, Jeff Daly will discuss his exhibition design work for the Museum from 1979 to 2009* – plus, he will take questions.

Who doesn’t love chatting up an expert?  In anticipation of the documentary, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff about his reactions to the “China” exhibit from his very knowledgeable and seasoned perspective.   (And if anyone needed a reminder that the late Diana Vreeland was a force of nature and one of the most influential taste-makers ever, notice Jeff’s frequent references to her exuberant joie de vivre.)


Q:  The “China” exhibit was staged throughout three floors of the Museum – as far as I know, the most expansive exhibit at the Met –Did that add to the sense of adventure and discovery?

A: Yes!  I was exhausted by the time I finished since I always look at every damn thing! Ms. Vreeland taught me to do that.  Details, details, details!   I only made one visit to the exhibit and I regretted not going more.  The crowds were significant…plus I was spoiled from years of being in the Museum when there were no visitors.  That was heaven! 



Q:  Some people commented about the lack of “historic purity” of the exhibit, and the strong emphasis on fantasy.  As a designer, do you ever worry about striking the right balance between tradition and pure fantasy?

A:  Diana Vreeland preferred to have the galleries completely transformed for each installation, so I got used to that approach.  If the Chinese galleries had been kept completely intact, not many people would have come.  Without the buzz, it would have been a very expensive flop! 

Q:  The mood swings of this show were amazing.  Sturdy “worker’s garb” from the Mao era, and costumes worn by Asian film star Anna Mae Wong, and current-day fantasy gowns by Galliano, and so much more – How did you feel about the constantly-shifting themes, topics, eras, and settings?

A:  Hey!  That’s fashion, baby!!  That’s what Ms. Vreeland always used to say to me.  The museum had two issues to deal with in the installation.  Get “design control” over the galleries without ruining them, and make the costumes fit in without competing with the surroundings. 

Q:  What was your favorite part of the exhibit and why?

A:  The Astor Garden Court.  I had worked on that space when it was originally created and was stunned by the transformation of it.  MAGIC!!! 

Q:  Many elements of film were included.  Do you think they added significantly to the exhibit and were they skillfully blended into the various galleries?

A:  I was glad to see the film clips – when I could squeeze in front of the crowds.  Sometimes the film elements blended into the surroundings and other times they were right in your face.  I think that was important because Fashion does the same thing.  New technology and flat screen videos are ideal – not like the old TVs of the Sixties to the Eighties.

Q:  Including elements of “kitsch” – notably Fred Astaire performing “Lime House Blues” – might have seemed off-topic, but the overall design maintained a lavish, elegant and stylish vibe.  How does an exhibit designer strike the right mood, when so many different moods are at play?

A: Fred Astaire was a genius, so he fit perfectly into this spectacular presentation.  In a traditional museum gallery installation, kitsch or camp can be out-of-context or jarring; but this exhibit called for “pushing the envelope”.  The critics would have been abusive without the addition of some campy elements.  But when introducing kitsch or camp, make sure it is relevant in some way or you will get caught for sneaking in gimmicks that really don’t work.

Q:  Is there anything in the exhibit that you found to be especially “forward leaning”, revolutionary or surprising?

A:  Half of the exhibition was forward and surprising, and putting the exhibit in those galleries was a HUGE gamble that could have backfired if they didn’t push it as far as they did.  Anyone who saw the exhibit should go back to the Grand Asian Gallery and see what it looks like now – IF they can even recognize it!

Q:  One of the galleries was totally bathed in blue light, and featured blue and white Asian porcelain paired with stunning designer gowns.  What role does color play for an exhibit designer?  Is it a key component or more of a finishing touch?

A:  With Ms. Vreeland – color was everything.  I learned to be brave and unrelenting with color.  It HAS to be right.

Q:  What do you suppose Diana Vreeland would have said about this exhibit?

A:  Her reaction would probably be – “Marvelous Darling!”.  “Good job, Andrew!” (Andrew Bolton)  Ms. Vreeland loved to mix in decorative arts, fine arts, perfume in the air and music in the galleries to help set a mood and bring the costumes alive in their period.  Her wonderful “Belle Epoch” exhibit did that really well.


Q:  Do you have an all-time favorite Costume Institute Exhibit? – Either one that you designed, or otherwise?

A:  I have two personal favorites – One was the Yves Saint Laurent Exhibit with Ms. Vreeland, and the other was the Jacqueline Kennedy Exhibit because I was always a huge fan of hers and I got to work closely with Caroline Kennedy, who was a friend during her years working at the Met.  But my most favorite was one I didn’t work on:  the Alexander McQueen exhibition, “Savage Beauty”.  I thought it showed the genius of his work in the completely perfect setting that was exactly his design aesthetic.

Q:  Part of the fun of every Costume Institute exhibit, is the Grand Opening Party and Red Carpet Event, held in the Museum.  How does it feel to see the total transformation of the public areas of the venerable Museum into the ultimate lavish party space?

A:  At first I was surprised.  But then I realized the budgets for the Exhibits and Galleries were huge so I quickly understood why they had to do everything in a big way.  The spectacular decorations and the fascinating mix of film/fashion/sports/business guests for the party help to garner a lot of press and excitement and building awareness for the show.

My thanks to Jeff Daly, for sharing his expertise and enthusiasm.  Jeff was Head of Design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1979 – 2009. Learn more about Jeff’s current museum and design consultations at


Interview and Photos by Lynne Perrella

*During Daly’s tenure, the Metropolitan Museum of Art expanded or renovated nearly continuously, and Daly was the designer in charge of many of the museum’s most well-known public spaces, including the galleries of Greek and Roman art, the European Paintings galleries, the Ancient Near East Galleries, and the renovation of the Egyptian wing.  In addition to designing most of the permanent galleries, he was exhibit designer of hundreds of special exhibits ranging across all departments.  In 2008 he designed the special exhibit celebrating the highlights of 30 years of Met collecting to honor the retirement of the director Philippe de Montebello. During his years at the Metropolitan he worked closely with Diana Vreeland and Anna Wintour on a series of special exhibits for the Costume Institute.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *