High Drama

Long gone are the days of no-nonsense exhibition design – today’s events are all about interaction, cutting-edge technology and narrative journeys. Yolanda Zappaterra learns the latest thinking from some maestros in the field

WAS when galleries and museums were fairly simple affairs. Pictures hung on walls, sculptures stood on plinths and ephemera was displayed in glass vitrines. Interpretive elements were often little more than extended captions next to the exhibit. Fast forward to the 21st century and interpretive elements are much more complex, gallery shapes, materials and spaces are more flexible, work is often site-specific and artists want to get in on the act by collaborating on the environment in which their work will be seen.

Next month, for example, the Timothy Taylor Gallery will unveil its stand at Frieze, and in place of the traditional trade stand – dull rows of interconnecting panels set at right angles to each other – will be a dynamic, asymmetric space designed by Ron Arad, who is now represented by the gallery. It’s a bold and original move, one driven by Arad’s multiplicity of skills, as Emma Dexter, director of exhibitions at Timothy Taylor, explains, ‘Bringing someone like Ron Arad in to do this is a very special case because he comes with so many strings to his bow.’

For Arad and Dexter, the move makes perfect sense. ‘It’s a great way of heralding our relationship,’ Dexter says, and an original one too. It would have been easy to simply fill the stand with Arad’s work, but it’s a lot more imaginative to have him design something structurally, thereby forging a strong relationship with the gallery and with the other artists represented by Timothy Taylor – and, as Dexter points out, ‘Sending an important signal about the gallery – working with Arad in this way shows integrity.’

Public-sector galleries, too, are increasingly using a range of creative professionals rather than dedicated exhibition designers. Last year, the Science Museum brought in London graphics and art direction group Multistorey to design the children’s exhibition Spymaker. The consultancy created six different zones and devised a narrative that takes the visitor on an exciting journey through the world of covert Government agencies. And at the Barbican the remarkable The House of Viktor & Rolf was designed by fashion duo Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, plus Dutch architect and art historian Siebe Tettero. With graphic design by Fuel, every element of this high-fashion project was carefully devised and developed by the London gallery.

So what do such projects gain by using creatives like architects, fashion designers and graphic designers?

‘Being so experienced at staging catwalk shows every several months, Viktor & Rolf brought an extraordinary sense of drama and spectacle to the design of the exhibition. Tettero has collaborated with Viktor & Rolf in the past and knew how to interpret their sensibility and come up with an exceptional design,’ says Ariella Yedgar, assistant curator of the exhibition.

Multistorey director Rhonda Drakeford, who co-founded the consultancy with fellow Central St Martins College of Art and Design student Harry Woodrow, sees another advantage. ‘Our experience as graphic designers is in the field of communication, and to be able to communicate the themes and motives of an exhibition calls for a level of audience empathy — to work out what the visitor can and should understand upon entering the space and as they move around it. We can then design the pacing of an exhibition to best achieve the necessary communication. I’m not saying that dedicated exhibition designers don’t do this, but in our experience they seem to concentrate more on building walls and fitting everything in than on the actual experience of the visitor,’ she says.

Such a view is countered by Peter Higgins, creative director at Land Design Studio. ‘In an environment that’s all about telling stories in space, and the complexity of interpretation, graphics people will often be very strong on narrative, but might be weaker in creating a powerful piece of drama. A good exhibition designer will bring a number of different elements together, considering architecture/ space, narrative/storytelling, communication/media and understanding of destination – that is, getting people through the space, which means understanding the visitor profile,’ he says.

‘This can change from exhibition to exhibition,’ he continues. ‘For example, we’re working on a Shanghai 2010 Expo exhibition which will see 40 000 people coming through the space every day, many of them unfamiliar with exhibitions and how you navigate through them.’

For Land’s work on next year’s Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition International Baroque, the relationship of the objects to each other will be very important, ‘so we have to work very hard on that, but just as hard on the exhibition movement and interpretation,’ says Higgins.

One thing designers agree on is the importance of the client in the process of creating an exhibition. ‘Our best work involves a small client team. The more people you have, the more views you have, and everyone thinks they can do it,’ says Higgins. And Drakeford advises clients to ‘appoint graphic designers and exhibition designers at the same time. It allows for a much more cohesive approach to the whole project.’

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