SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

136 W 21st St, 2nd Floor

New York, NY 10011





(212) 592-2228

Porcelain Cigarette Holder – SVA MA Design Research

Monica Nelson

Porcelain Cigarette Holder

The study of the material artifacts of someone’s life allows us to investigate the moral implications of that person.

This is an excerpt from Monica Nelson’s larger thesis portfolio, titled “Re-Visiting Women’s Histories in House Museums.” This work can also be found in the Class of 2019 publication, Everything That Rises: Thinking about Design in Precarious Times.

As an object, it is subtle. It is made of porcelain and hand-painted with a delicate pink floral motif. It is shaped like a small tea saucer with an attached pedestal, featuring three tiers of tiny, hollow cylinders jutting upwards, waiting to be filled, like vases for microscopic roses.

The docent on the tour pointed it out in the living room of the house, placed diminutively on the far side of an antique coffee table adjacent to a LIFE magazine from 1956: a cigarette holder in the likeness of one that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have used when he sat in that very living room. The house itself is the parsonage of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church, the first church Dr. King was appointed minister, in 1954, when he was just 24 years old, at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery, Alabama. Now a museum, the house’s mission is to preserve the private life of Dr. King, his wife Coretta and their two children from the six years they lived there.

In the house, the effect of the cigarette holder pales in comparison to the effect of standing at the dining room table at which the Bus Boycotts were organized, or looking at the cramped aluminum kitchen table while audio of Dr. King is played, in which he describes sitting at that very table and receiving a death threat over the phone while his children slept in the other room. These moments all illuminate what the museum sets out to do: place us as closely as possible into approximations of the past, obliging our senses to assess what is provoked, summoning the weight of the discreet existence of such a public persona at such a venerable point in history.

It is widely known that when Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in1968, he was standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. What was not disclosed at the time was that he was smoking a cigarette. And that one of the first things that witness and fellow pastor Billy Kyles did when he found him was remove the cigarette from his hand, and the remaining pack of cigarettes from his person. The removal was a way of protecting his character, shielding him from judgment.

The study of the material artifacts of someone’s life allows us to investigate the moral implications of that person. One is only privy to the framework in which one lives, and an individual’s ethical composition inflates to fill this specific perceived barrier of time. For Dr. King, his was a time of extreme scrutiny, in which his righteousness was dependent on maintaining an image of the most conservative of 1960s Christian values, and a level of sophistication that was, at the time, generally afforded only to whites.

The parsonage was refurbished and opened as a museum in 2003, 35 years after his death. The women at the church were given some creative license to scatter around simple doilies, family photos, and decorative bowls of fruit. But overall, the arrangement and assortment of furniture (which had prior been kept easily accessible in storage) gives the impression of any upper-middle-class family in the 1950s.

The porcelain cigarette holder, within this framework, serves as a representation of the malleable nature of time itself. Perhaps placed for its significance within the decorative arts—its provenance possibly as valuable as a piece of Dresden antique porcelain—it acts as a reminder of the pliability of legacy within one’s own story. The cigarette holder, in its intended use, would lay mostly in wait, anticipating a moment of quiet reflection, or a social exchange. But the paradox of time remains, in that in 1968 it was unfathomable to picture Martin Luther King Jr. smoking, and yet his private habit is now afforded an elegant and nuanced display.

The porcelain cigarette holder does not fit within the narrative ascribed to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Not only because his habit of smoking was not permitted, but because the object itself is far too ornate, too delicate for a man so influential, too gilded for a man who was armed with such potent plain speak. 

But, as time marches on, there is slow ripening of one’s personal history—the way a memory can become more fragrant or distinct with distance, or a gradient shift in perception can alter a past reality. The home is a space which shelters the interior, encouraging a complexity of character. A home, preserved, should relish in these complexities and the mutability of time—its hidden and its possibly ornate intricacies.