Plaid weaves grid concept into V&A Dundee Tartan exhibition space

Tartan’s grid pattern not only influenced the layout of the exhibition but also its bespoke typography and exhibition campaign identity.

London-based design studio Plaid has designed V&A Dundee’s new exhibition Tartan, composing a spatial plan influenced by tartan grid patterns.

It is the first major exhibition in Scotland in 30 years to focus solely on the tartan textile and pattern. Tartan comprises more than 300 objects, exemplifying how tartan has been used across fashion, architecture, graphic and product design, photography, furniture, glass and ceramics, film, performance and art.

Plaid director Brian Studak says that the curators wanted to highlight how Tartan can symbolize “diverse and often opposing sets of ideas”, knitting them together spatially through an underlying theme. Using the pattern and its weaving process as spatial concepts, the exhibition design seeks to present these ideas through “juxtaposition, architectural vistas, content bridges and shifting context”, Studak adds.

Tartan’s interlocking horizontal and vertical bands also inspired a bespoke typeface by Atelier Carvalho Bernau and David McKendrick Studio, and an exhibition campaign by Form Digital.

“Linear but not chronological”

From Tartan and the Grid. Credit: Michael McGurk

Tartan is divided into five sections – Tartan and The Grid, Innovating Tartan, Tartan and Identity, Tartan and Power and Transcendental Tartan – guiding visitors through a “linear but not chronological” journey, according to Studak. Its floorplan draws inspiration from the tartan grid pattern, with the larger gallery space divided into nine equal parts, placing the Tartan and The Grid section in the centre.

Visitors start the journey at this central point, which introduces how the visual language of Tartan has influenced art, architecture and fashion. Standing five metres high, The Grid is “a visually permeable structure” made up of inward- and outward-facing showcases and display surfaces, says Studak, so visitors can look through it to other exhibition areas.

Plaid opted for raw softwood timber and engineered timber beams for its materials, which are arranged in “visually weaving vertical and horizontal lines”, says Plaid director Lauren Scully. She adds that it is clad with off-set, semi-transparent fabric panels, aiming to create a tartan effect of “alternating positive and negative space”. The stretched semi-transparent fabric used throughout the exhibition attempts to “modulate the space and control views” without the need for solid partitions, Scully explains. Studak says: “The incorporeal qualities of fabric scrim shift depending on the viewpoint and help to support the physicality of weaving”.

With the grid as the “central anchor” for the exhibition journey, he says visitors can complete a full loop of the gallery, encountering each of the five sections. While each section has a distinct feel, Plaid wanted to avoid creating “a series of rooms”, designing the space so that the content sits within one cohesive environment, Studak adds.

“Fully immersed in tartan”

Tailor’s Touch Table. Credit: Michael McGurk

Scully describes the subsection in Transcendental Tartan, called Balmoralisation, as one of the more immersive areas. Inspired by the image on the front of Jonathan Faiers’ book ‘Tartan’, in which the tartan of a model’s shirt continues onto the model’s face, Plaid developed a bespoke tartan wallpaper and carpet pattern with David McKendrick Studio. Plaid then used mirrors to reflect these surfaces, “creating a sort of infinite tartan corridor”, says Studak, where visitors can become “fully immersed in tartan”.

Audio-visual installations are scattered throughout the exhibition, including an analogue interactive called “Design Your Own Tartan” where visitors can create their own colourful tartans using coloured acrylic and a backlit surface. Plaid also designed a “Tailor’s Touch Table”, showcasing objects which guests can touch, such as tartan fabric samples and examples of particular kilts folds.

“Pivot objects”

“Pivot objects” – objects which can be viewed in the context of two different sections – were key to the interpretation design, according to Scully. Plaid incorporated the idea of overlay, which appears in tartan patterns when two colours combine to create a third. In the same way, pivot objects sit at the threshold of two sections of the exhibition.

Conscious of not competing with the objects on display, Plaid created a colour palette that uses tartan colours in a different way, inspired by natural dye samples from the curators as well as “the forest greens and purple heather of the Scottish landscape”, says Scully.

COLDWARmHOTLINE, 2012, by Michael Sanders in Tartan and Power.

Studak explains that the exhibition “increases in colour intensity”, with the first two sections being “fairly neutral” and the last being “the most immersive”. Plaid also experimented with putting opposing colours in proximity and foregrounding a minor colour from a more vibrant tartan, such as a lemon yellow.

A typeface following “principles of symmetry and balance”

In collaboration with Atelier Carvalho Bernau, David McKendrick Studio developed a bespoke Tartan typeface for the exhibition. The unique typesetting is inspired by a Scottish slab serif from modern Alexander Wilson & Sons type foundry, which was established in Glasgow in around 1742. As well as being connected to Scottish heritage, Carvalho Bernau co-founder Kai Bernau says it was chosen for its “low contrast as well as its sturdy serifs”, which emphasise “the horizontal movement”.

Bernau explains that the idea was to create an all-caps typeface in two styles: a larger one with a “criss-cross thread direction” and a typeface to be used in smaller sizes “for vinyl lettering on the walls”. David McKendrick Studio and Carvalho Bernau deconstructed the typeface into “horizontal and vertical parts, like the weft and weave of a tartan”, basing it on a grid pattern “determined by the narrowest hatching pattern [they] could imagine, says Bernau. He adds that the studios then wrote software that could “generate the different layers” of the typeface in various line widths “at the click of a button” for a quick turnaround time.

“Challenging preconceptions” through the campaign

Scottish design studio Form Digital also looked to tartan’s grid formation for the exhibition campaign identity. Form sought to “use displacement of some of the squares within the grid”, which changed for every application across the campaign “from print to digital”, says Form’s managing director Cameron Fraser.

He explains how imagery was incorporated into the grid in a bid to “showcase tartan’s many applications across the globe over the centuries”, as one of the campaign’s main goals was “challenging preconceptions of what tartan is, whether that be from a historical sense or fashion sense”.

“Motion and video played a vital role in this campaign”, says Fraser. Form collaborated with Glasgow-based motion designer Tiernan Crilley, using the grid to create a suite of motion graphics and assets for use on social media, internal exhibition screens and the brand film.

Similar to Plaid’s approach to colour, Form’s campaign palette is derived from the local landscape, taking inspiration from plants, roots and berries.

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