Stereo system
Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni’s RR126 Stereo System is included in SFMOMA’s exhibition | Credit: Don Ross

Think about the last time music moved you. How did design shape that experience?

That’s the question the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) explores in Art of Noise, a new exhibition that offers a history of listening in 800 objects. Midcentury modernist record sleeves and album covers, concert flyers from punk to hip-hop, and a floor-to-ceiling installation of psychedelic rock posters are among the attractions that Joseph Becker, associate curator of architecture and design, has assembled (with Divya Saraf, curatorial assistant).

Design has the ability to revolutionize and strengthen our relationship to sound. This unique exhibition shows how trailblazing graphics and design objects fuel our bonds to music and help us develop lasting memories of fleeting musical phenomena,” says Christopher Bedford, SFMOMA’s director.

Art of Noise kicked off on May 4 with free admission to the entire museum and, in collaboration with the San Francisco Public Library’s Bay Beats, a battle of the bands. But the performances don’t stop there. HiFi Pursuit Listening Room Dream No. 2, an immersive sound installation by audiophile Devon Turnbull, presents a different lineup of music daily. In upcoming sets curated by Turnbull and guest musicians (including Balmorhea’s Michael A. Muller, Ben Wintroub of Tunnel Records, and Treasure Island Music Festival co-founder Jordan Kurland), listeners can hear it all: tropical, tango, trance.

Devon Turnbull
Devon Turnbull’s HiFi Pursuit Listening Room Dream No. 1 (2022) | Credit: Michael Lavorgna

Turnbull says, “When people see a picture of [the installation space], they think, ‘Oh, were going to have a dance party there,’ or, ‘I’m going to film my rap video there,’ or something. But that’s not what this system is designed for or what the intention of the space is.” Regardless of what genre’s on — and several curators will feature the meditative music of Pauline Oliveros — the space’s goal is to provide a means for deeper listening. “I want them to leave feeling better than they did when they got there.”

Winding through cases of equipment, from wax cylinder phonographs to the iPod and beyond, visitors to SFMOMA can track the history of the recording industry — and consider problems of fidelity, portability, and accessibility. As a teen, Turnbull tinkered with salvaged stereo parts; he now designs sleek “sound sculptures” for brands like Supreme in addition to mounting his own audio installations free and open to the public.

Creating this installation, his first on the West Coast, Turnbull thought of a living room, as if a friend had invited you to come over to listen to an album. Except this space seats 50, and the entire sound system, its speakers colossal, is lit up like a stage. “When you walk into the room, you’re struck: ‘What is this?’”

Art of Noise runs at SFMOMA through Aug. 18.