A big adventure

How do you make the story of space exploration engaging and accessible to people of all ages? Scale is the key, says Fiona Sibley, who is rather taken with the use of murals and other big prints in an upcoming show

Ever since the space race of the 1960s, designers have been inspired to bring elements of other-worldly intrigue to everyday objects. Few elements of popular culture, whether fashion, interior design, film or kids’ toys, have escaped the influence of space exploration. This forms the subject of a new exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood, opening this month, then touring the UK until 2010.

When it came to capturing the mind-blowing scale that has triggered such imaginative responses, exhibition design group Designmap relied on the impact of large-scale graphic displays. Alongside objects and interactives, more than 160 panels will narrate the human fascination with what lies beyond our planet. ‘The brief was to design something to convey the scale of the subject matter, and also to occupy what is a vast building in a cost-effective and dramatic way,’ explains Daniel Sutton of Designmap.

Large-format printed montages will cover the perimeter walls of the exhibition, as well as several free-standing semi-hexagonal ‘pod’ units, through which visitors can walk and discover the exhibition’s main themes. Designmap’s murals combine graphic elements, exhibition text, scans of space photography and classic sci-fi film posters to set the scene.

The wall panels stretch to a commanding 3m x 4m, constructed from a series of 0.5m x 1.5m sections. ‘When working on a piece of artwork that size, getting things to work at that scale is the challenge,’ says Sutton. ‘An image of a 1960s space buggy toy might be superimposed against a photograph showing an astronaut in a classic space scape, so it’s meant to be quite playful.’

The pods’ geometric shape will be recognisable from any number of sci-fi, spaceship narratives such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, says Sutton, and it is the design language used throughout the 2D and 3D elements.

The 1960s style is at its most striking in the Fashion mural, where images of models wearing balaclava moon helmets are set against a life-size image of David Bowie, dressed as Ziggy Stardust. ‘Images like this may not have much presence in a magazine, but they have a different effect when they are used this large,’ says Sutton. Much work with large formats involves making sure images are at the right resolution, as images are rarely generated at this scale, he adds, requiring a lot of work to get photographs rescanned or retouched. All the panels were printed by large-format specialist Ltd Ltd.

Imagery has been used creatively throughout, particularly to decorate nine suspended translucent hoops, which will lead people through the exhibition. ‘Carrying images from the Hubble telescope, they create a mobile galaxy floating over the main exhibition space,’ says Sutton. For each hoop, imagery sourced from space agency Nasa has been printed on to transparent film then mounted on to discs cut from Twinwall, an acrylic material normally used for roofing conservatories. When suspended and backlit, these will filter light through the starry images and provide a strong visual connection between areas as well as a place for kids to stargaze.

It seems fitting that this wayfinding device will also be one of the main aspects in which the exhibition will convey outer space – visitors will feel as though they are looking through a telescope, or a cockpit window.

As the exhibition is concerned with finding a link between space exploration and design, even the typography was chosen accordingly, explains Sutton. Headline font Eurostyle hails from 1962, the year the first human orbited the earth, while text font Helvetica’s birth in 1957 coincided with the launch of Sputnik 1, which began the space race.

Exhibition curator Esther Lutman explains why the show had to be presented coherently. ‘Our audience is diverse, so we needed the design to make the exhibition accessible for kids, adults and collectors alike,’ she says. ‘It was to have serious undertones, as well as the fun elements.’

More than 300 objects from the museum’s collection and loaned pieces will be on display, including Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gidzenko’s suit and a piece of Mars Meteorite. Space-influenced designs on show include a lava lamp, a poster from 1929 for Fritz Lang’s space film Frau im Mond and couture designs by French designer André Courrèges, who sent ‘fembots’ down the catwalk in 1965.

But, as in many renditions of this archetypal 20th century story, it’s the imposing imagery that really captures the event.

Space Age: Exploration, Design and Popular Culture is at the V&A Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London E8 from 24 November to 6 April 2008, then tours the UK

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