Showcase stars

Exhibitions attract people from all areas of design, and their demands for collaboration and creativity challenge veterans and emerging talent alike. Anna Richardson discovers some fresh approaches in museum and trade shows

Block architecture

Exhibition design gives architects a chance to explore theoretical spatial ideas – a very valuable process, believes Graeme Williamson of Block Architecture. ‘The majority of an architect’s time is spent in logistical discussions on how to build and make something work economically and functionally, whereas exhibitions allow you to explore spatial and physical ideas,’ he says.

Block Architecture, founded by Williamson and Zoe Smith, designed last year’s elegant Hussein Chalayan exhibition at the Design Museum, and is currently in the final production stages for Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. With a number of exhibitions under their belt, Block’s founders choose them sparingly. ‘We don’t do exhibitions all the time because they’re incredibly intensive,’ says Williamson, who was intrigued by the Walpole project, however. It’s a show examining the 18th-century aristocrat’s varied collection, evoking the interiors of his Georgian Gothic Revivalist Strawberry Hill mansion.

‘It was such a diverse collection of objects and materials, and made us think “how do you collect something that disparate without the walls of the original building”,’ says Williamson. Block is conjuring upStrawberry Hill through sepia-like drawings of details from the building, creating a 3D walkthrough with 3.5m-high, laser-etched walls to form the filigree nature of some of the interior elevations.

On the surface, there is no common thread linking historic Walpole with the futuristic Chalayan, but certain parallels attracted Williamson. ‘Both exhibitions present an individual’s vision of the world, whether through creative output, as with Chalayan, or through a cabinet of curiosities,’ he explains. ‘One is a completely contemporary and defined vision of how the world is and should be, and the other is a completely historic, but also defined vision of how he saw the world. So they’re both visionary projects and visionary people.’

Valentin Vodev and Tom Foulsham

It’s not every day that you get the opportunity to work with Ron Arad on the first major – and most likely seminal – survey of his work.

But Valentin Vodev and Tom Foulsham – both Royal College of Art design products MA graduates – were invited by their former tutor Arad to create mechanisms for his forthcoming Restless exhibition at London’s Barbican Art Gallery. They were to collaborate for the first time to help make his exhibition more exciting and interactive.

The duo was tasked with designing interactions around Arad’s chairs and were given a great amount of freedom. ‘We had to think about how to interact with the chairs and how to touch those chairs – not just in terms of the technical, but also in a conceptual way,’ says Vodev. ‘We wanted something that is not dominant and doesn’t take away from Arad’s work. Something that is different from the object, but also communicates with it.’

The mechanisms bring the chairs to life, adds Foulsham, who also designed some for Arad’s exhibitions at Paris’ Pompidou Centre and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. ‘As soon as you bring movement in, and you are able to see the way these things bounce, bubble and rock, it gives them character.’

Working closely with Arad and his studio, as well as with the Barbican team, provided a great opportunity for Vodev and Foulsham, who enjoyed discovering the effort that goes on behind the scenes of a major, interactive exhibition. ‘That’s what I’m interested in, the story behind an object or a concept – a learning process, rather than a final result,’ says Vodev.

‘When you work on collaborations you can’t predict the final outcome, and this is the nicest part. There’s always a bit of a worry, but the end is great, if you work professionally.’

Will Carey

It was a surprise to Will Carey when his Disruptive Thinking for Designersblock won an award for best exhibition at 100% Design last year. ‘It was a happy accident,’ he says. ‘But it did make me think why [we got the prize]. Was it because we were lucky, or because people were ready to experience more engaging content? I think it’s the latter.’

An industrial designer by training, Carey has always been fascinated by technology and the way people interact with it. Given the 100% Design opportunity, he was keen to create something different. ‘At trade shows, people show things to sell a product or make people aware of their existence,’ he says. ‘But it’s important to explore new ideas. More philosophical engagement is quite rare in these settings.’

The success of Disruptive Thinking, which presented projects about the future relationship between people and technology, has encouraged Carey to ‘carry on exploring ways for designers to create such exhibitions, which don’t just show the product itself, but versions of possible future products that engage with different types of technology and questions our relationship with our environment’.

As well as working as senior industrial designer at Ideo in San Francisco, Carey has personal projects in the pipeline. ‘Last year it was amazing to communicate such raw and unusual ideas within the context of 100% Design,’ adds Carey. ‘You never know what will happen, who you might meet and what those encounters might lead to. That’s invaluable, and that’s why it’s important that we do these shows.’ –

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