Quirky approaches to designing exhibition catalogues

How do you design collectable exhibition catalogues, which will live on long beyond the shows themselves, while doing full justice to the work? Anna Richardson looks at some quirky approaches

High-end, hardback and glossy or quirky, conceptual and low-budget, the exhibition catalogue has always provided a popular outlet for print creatives. The catalogue needs to strike a fine balance between reflecting the theme of the exhibition, however temporary, and being a desirable object in its own right. Some museums prefer a standalone book that can sell on in perpetuity, while others think a strong visual link to the exhibition is vital, and a limited print run can throw desirability and collectability in the mix.

‘An exhibition catalogue needs to appeal to the general reader and the academic specialist, as well as being a souvenir of an event,’ says Raymonde Watkins of Price Watkins Design, who has recently worked on a number of British Museum catalogues.

‘The design has to showcase the visual material by the strong use of images, but also accommodate what is often quite a lot of text, all within a covetable package.’

Barbican curator Francesco Manacorda agrees that a catalogue fulfils a twofold mission. ‘It’s very important to convey what the show is about, but it should also be something that can do more than the exhibition and should allow the exhibition to live on into the future,’ he says.

Museum of Martian Artefacts, barbican
Last year’s quirky Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art exhibition at the Barbican imagined an exhibition curated by extraterrestrial anthropologists. It was accompanied by an equally quirky catalogue, the Martian Encyclopaedia of Terrestrial Life, Volume VIII, which took the fictional approach of the exhibition to another level. The B5-sized book has a genuinely encyclopaedic feel. It sports a buckram hard cover with gold foil embossing, and uses an invented Futura ET font, based on the Barbican’s Futura house style, and specially commissioned illustrations from Joris Goulenok that mimic anthropological usage guides. The book has become popular in its own right, but designer Sara de Bondt, who is putting together the forthcoming book to last year’s ICA Nought to Sixty project, says, ‘It’s still important that the catalogue ties in visually to the exhibition.’

Royal College of Art Graduate Show
Design consultancy Happily Ever After is putting together two broadsheet-format catalogues to accompany this year’s Royal College of Art Graduate Show in May. Partly in light of the current economic climate, the catalogues mark a ‘return to basics’, says Happily Ever After co-founder Sara Carneholm. Printed on recycled paper, they will feature a black, completely typographic identity in three different, hand-crafted versions – hand-drawn, linocut and cut-out in paper – with the students’ work displayed in colour within (see pictured mock-up). ‘We didn’t want it to be glossy or shiny,’ explains Carneholm. ‘We want it to have a handmade feel, but also high quality and printed beautifully.’

Hussein Chalayan, Design Museum
Graphic design group Åbäke produced an accompanying booklet to the Design Museum’s Hussein Chalayan exhibition, reflecting the designer’s ideas in subtle ways. Conceived as a notebook-style collection of footnotes to the exhibition, with extra titbits of information to add to the visitor’s experience, the pocket-sized booklet is printed on Huntsman Chromo New Shade stock. Åbäke used an archive version of Futura, which reflects Chalayan’s fascination with future archaeology, and a set of seemingly random marks at the bottom of each page form the date span on the edge. This again hints at the fashion designer’s obsession with not only geographical displacement, but also the temporal.

Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts
The Baltic in Gateshead stopped producing exhibition catalogues a few years ago, preferring to use existing books of touring exhibitions in conjunction with its own branded material. All material uses the distinctive letterpress type, derived from the Baltic Mill building itself. Designer Anthony Cantwell of Blue River says, ‘We try to use materials in an inventive way, inspired by the artists’ work.’ An invitation to a recent David Shrigley preview, for example, was printed on high-gloss rigid PVC, picking up on one of the artist’s light-switch illustrations, while the interpretation leaflet for Yoshitomo Nara’s exhibition used a screen-printed window envelope, allowing one of his illustrations to peer out, reflecting part of his A-Z project. ‘The most important thing is to make sure that Baltic has ownership of the exhibitions and to keep all branding extremely consistent, but at the same time never overpower the artists’ work,’ says Cantwell. •

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