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Dwelling, 2011

Charles Simonds

Look closely at this site-specific installation from MAD’s permanent collection that suggests a mysterious dwelling lodged within the Museum walls. Create your own environment from paper, cardboard, and found objects in this object lesson for learners and makers of all ages.


Commissioned for the Museum lobby in 2011, Charles Simonds’ site-specific installation Dwelling invites viewers to think about how art impacts the spaces around us—inside and outside, ancient and modern, permanent and temporary. As you examine the image above, imagine walking through MAD’s lobby and down the stairs when your eye suddenly catches a glimpse of Simonds’ small clay settlement nestled into the corner by the window.

  • What is the first thing that comes to mind when looking at it?  
  • What does it remind you of?
  • How do you think it was made?
  • What materials did the artist use?
  • Imagine yourself moving through this settlement. Where would you want to go and which path would you take?


Dwelling was commissioned on the occasion of the 2011 exhibition Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities, which explored artists’ fascination with small-scale artificial environments and alternative realities.

  • Think about the scale of this work. In what way does the fact that it is a miniature version of a settlement change your perspective?
  • Can you imagine what its inhabitants would look like and what some of their daily activities could be?

Starting in 1970 with impermanent constructions nestled into nooks and corners along the streets of New York, Charles Simonds has created numerous versions of his Dwellings for an imaginary civilization he refers to as “Little People.” More sites were added in cities all over the world, including Paris, Berlin, Shanghai, and London, ultimately leading to semi-permanent installations in museum settings. Collectively, each site imagines a stage in the fictional nomadic journey of the “Little People,” telling stories of settlement, abandonment, and migration.


Visit the artist’s website to look at images of the Dwellings Simonds has created around the world or watch a film about his early projects. 

  • What do you notice about the installations Simonds has built in open-air settings?
  • In what way are the constructions in vacant lots or the crevices of urban buildings different from the one in the confines of the museum space at MAD?
  • How do you think Simonds decided where to build?

Using unfired clay as a material means that works built outside will disintegrate pretty quickly. While indoor installations might last longer they, too, are bound to decay over time.

  • How does this notion of the sculpture’s impermanence change your perspective of Charles Simonds’ Dwelling
  • Why might an artist be interested in working in this way?
  • Simonds famously said, “I build ruins,” which seems like a paradox of sorts. Discuss this statement.


Invent your own community of ‘little people’ and construct a dwelling for them that represents their interests and lifestyle – on a window ledge, your desk, in the corner of a room, or on a bookshelf. Use paper, cardboard, and any other everyday things you’d like to incorporate.

Charles Simonds
Dwelling, 2011
Clay, wood, polyurethane, sand
Museum of Arts and Design, New York; this two-part commission is made possible at MAD by the Collections Committee, the Howard Kottler Endowment for Ceramic Art, Mimi Livingston, and Stephen and Pamela Hootkin, and at 1790 Broadway by 1790 Broadway Associates LLC., 2011

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