In a brick building tucked within Pittsburgh, PA you’ll find Barbara Luderowski and Michael Olijnyk. She, a sculptor unlimited by scale, and he, a curator whose mind is a vast archive. Together, they are the forces behind a building and a movement, and their loft will inspire you to return to the tangible. They co-direct Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory, a contemporary art museum celebrating its 40th year. The museum is an internationally recognized leader in site-specific, contemporary works, but it also happens to be their home. Both the museum and the loft were born of Barbara’s incredible power to see opportunity where others saw condemned spaces.
Barbara founded the now highly regarded museum in what was once an actual mattress factory, and Michael, feeling the energy of the space, joined her movement shortly after and would become the head curator. Barbara recalls, “The intention I had at the time [in the late 70s], as best as I can reconstruct it, was to create my own environment. In those days, there was a place called the King Pitcher Gallery on Craig Street, which was handling my work. There, I met artists at various meetings and openings. But I really wanted a place with some real vitality, where there was intellectual exchange, a mishmash of various disciplines with energetic conversation, and I couldn’t find that anywhere. So I set about trying to create that.”
So create it she did, and the energy attracted a creative crowd looking for a similar home. It wasn’t long before Michael showed up as a Carnegie Mellon University design student. “[The Mattress Factory] was kind of a gallery, kind of a theater. There was a vegetarian co-op restaurant, and that just attracted creative people.” Shortly thereafter, Michael would become the head curator of an impressive lineup of shows. In the 40 years since, the museum has hosted the likes of Damien Hirst, Christian Boltanski and John Cage.
Barbara recollects, “I consider myself lucky to have Michael as a co-conspirator. Each of us did a complete investment. We had our backs together and protected each other. It was our unity of direction and our connection of minds that made the thing work.”
Feeling a lot like Charlie holding his golden ticket, I met the co-conspirators at their loft to invite you, our readers, to peek beyond their museum, beyond the industrial veil of concrete and brick. From their glassy perch, they can see the hillsides dotted with houses, remnants of industrial communities, and in the other direction, the gleaming skyscrapers of downtown. Between those two Pittsburgh worlds, they have created their own world, filled with tokens from trips, from curated shows, from artist residencies, from flea markets, and from dusty and overlooked corners in small towns.
As I boarded the elevator to travel the six stories back down to the ground floor, I challenged my brain to paint a mental image of what I had just seen: walls with carefully gridded clocks, Russel Wright spun aluminum wares on display, quick sketches by famed artists (put to paper casually during coveted dinner parties), dolls that might take on a more alarming feel after sunset, toys with intricate mechanics and hundreds more objects I hadn’t even processed yet. There were museum-worthy displays paired with cozy nooks for conversation, spaces for entertaining and spaces for the basic necessities required of a home.
The mental image faded as quickly as the doors closed. Mentally or physically cataloguing such a home, and its stories, would take hundreds of visits, and by then, its clever owners would have collected more, rearranged more and added more wonder. It’d be an enchanting challenge nonetheless. —Quelcy
Image above: Barbara describes their loft spaces as memory tests. Each object is a little challenge to remember when, where, and how it was purchased. The “how” usually involves some haggling. It’s all part of the fun of collecting.