Unboxing the Design Museum’s blockbuster sneakers exhibition

Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street charts the rise of sports shoe, with exhibition design from InterestingProjects and graphics by Studio LP.

The Design Museum has reopened with an exhibition on what it calls “one of the most universal design objects”: the sneaker. Sneakers Unboxed: From Studio to Street takes visitors on a journey from the 1970s New York basketball scene and London’s grime scene to Tokyo’s streetwear world through the lens of the ever popular sports shoe.

The show has been designed with a view to elevate the shoe to its cult status, according to InterestingProjects co-founder Joana Filipe. The studio has created three distinct spaces across the exhibition’s two sections, style and performance. “We wanted to create three different spaces that highlighted the cultural significance of sneakers within the global market,” Filipe says.

The start of the exhibition intends to showcase the “sneaker as a cult object” so the team created a “white canvas, cathedral-shaped space” as a backdrop to the sneaker’s early days, the designer says. Here there are infographics – produced by the exhibition’s 2D designers Studio LP – about which countries buy the most sneakers as well as a chart explaining the sector’s technical term.

The following section explores how sneakers have been adopted by people in cities around the world since the 1970s, from Los Angeles and New York to London. “We created these walls and billboard-like displays to reference the streets and the brands that started to link sneakers to personalities from sports to the music industry,” Filipe says. One of these links is Nike’s Air Max model (known as 110s), which were immortalised on the cover of Dizzee Rascal’s debut album Boy in Da Corner in 2003. Dark grey tones and cement-like surfaces also aim to “evoke an idea of an urban landscape”, Filipe adds.

The exhibition’s second half looks at how designers have worked to improve technical performance, from Chuck Taylor’s basketball clinics for Converse, to Puma’s self-lacing model. Filipe says this a “behind-the-scenes” look at sneakers, with details inspired by laboratory and factory settings. The design team used metal trays for displays which “evoke this production line of various technological developments”, Filipe explains. The studio has also installed “lab islands to explore each technological advancement” which incorporate screens, sketches and samples.

A final room – which the designer calls a “green room of possibilities” – covers the burgeoning environment movement. The room’s centrepiece is a 3D-knitting robot from Adidas which aims to reduce waste and repair sneaker models. With green lights and minimal display cases, this area is a “clean slate looking into the role of sustainability in the sneaker industry”, Filipe says.

Designed to explore the “different stories behind this iconic object”

One of the challenges of the exhibition design was working out how to “exhibit a small object like a sneaker in a five-metre high room without the object getting lost”, Filipe says. Keen to avoid “endless MDF display plinths”, the studio used Perspex cases which allow the sneakers to be displayed easily and sustainably. 85% of the Perspex cases used on display were reused from the museum’s existing stock, according to Filipe. InterestingProjects has also attempted to keep the structure as lightweight and modular as possible in case the exhibition tours.

These cases also convey trends within the world of sneakers. In the final part of the style section, a floor-to-ceiling display base marks the emergence of sneaker culture in Tokyo in the 1990s. Featuring high-profile collaborations from the likes of Kanye West and Tyler, the Creator, this more “fashion-focused” section marks a “shift in sneaker culture”, Filipe says.

The team was also inspired by how the exhibition reveals the “different stories behind this iconic object”, Filipe says. “We felt that the design had to reflect this idea of this assemblage of stories.” Cement-like colours and plinths are used as a way to show the origins of sneakers in the streets, explains the designer. Walls and tables appear in a “raw form” which aims to show how “these stories come together”, she adds.

The studio was careful to use materials connected with the sports and sneaker industry, explains Filipe. These include netting (used as barriers), LED panels which are suspended by cotton ropes as a nod to sneaker laces and recycled grey rubber reminiscent of indoor gyms. Rubber foam pads – often used for outdoor pitches – have also been incorporated.

Unveiling the “process behind sneaker production”

Studio LP was tasked with creating the exhibition’s visuals, from infographics, wall signage and graphics to a timeline on the gallery’s external walls. Studio co-founder Lauren Chalmers says that this process began with an in-depth look at the “aesthetics surrounding sneaker advertising and the wider sneaker culture”.

While admitting that there’s no one “particular language” for sneaker culture, Chalmers explains that inspiration came from the exhibition’s content – from fashion and street culture to sports and performance graphics. For the exhibition’s typefaces, the studio used both the heavyweight sans serif Formula Condensed from Pangram Pangram Foundry (often seen in streetwear campaigns) and a bespoke monospaced font designed in-house.

The former is used at a large scale, which hopes to “make the most of the high ceilings and narrow spaces”, Chalmers says. The custom font was inspired by the thermal printing used on warehouse packaging. It was designed to tie into the “behind-the-scenes” element of the show – emphasising how it “uncovers what goes into sneaker construction and design”, Chalmers adds.

Infographics were designed with a similar mindset, she explains. They aim to convey the “process behind sneaker production”, using grids and outlined shapes to showcase “the idea of patterns, fabric and construction”, Chalmers says. Section titles meanwhile have been inspired by  markings found on athletic tracks and sports halls. The colour palette was taken from the 3D materials, the designer explains, and there are a number of sustainable elements including the exhibition labels which are made from 100% recycled plastics.

Sneakers Unboxed: Studio to Street runs from 18 May – 24 October at the Design Museum. Tickets start at £6 and more information can be found on the museum’s website.

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