Moving images

The standards of travelling exhibitions have risen dramatically in recent years. Jessica Cargill Thompson looks at five examples of stylish and practical displays

While electronic communications continue to shrink the globe, the need for businesses to cover as much of it as possible grows. Blue chip companies no longer confine themselves to their own shores but seek clients everywhere from Andorra to Zambia. Despite the Internet, the travelling exhibition is still a core part of marketing policies and large companies such as British Airways and Volvo, and official organisations like the Department of Trade and Industry and The British Council, are constantly on the road.

At the same time, exhibitions are becoming increasingly sophisticated. The “page three girl and a free glass of champagne” approach of the Eighties trade fair thankfully cuts no ice with most clients. Nor is it enough to arrive in a far flung location, put up a few display boards and expect people to show any interest.

Designers are using creativity to exploit the potential of lightweight materials and modular engineering to develop eye-catching solutions that weigh less and less and can be packed into ever smaller spaces. For an exhibition or stand to be successfully portable requires flexibility (you can never be certain what you will find at the next venue), durability (exhibition displays are expected to last for two or three years, visiting as many as 50 locations around the world), simplicity (if it requires a team of experts to assemble, it is no good), lightweight materials, and the ability to pack up as small as possible.

There are several off-the-peg systems on the market, but some of the more innovative work at the moment has come from bespoke solutions. Aluminium, stainless steel tubing and inflatables are currently popular choices where weight is important. The inflatable tubes used by Urban Salon in its designs for the Royal Institute of British Architects Portable Architecture exhibition earlier this year, provided a simple panel for the display of pictures and text, was straightforward to erect and packed up small when deflated. The idea has also been used by Graven Images for the UK Style exhibition where inflatable A1 frames provide a fun way of displaying graphic design.

For flexibility, free-standing panels and single objects can be adapted to almost any space. They do not have to be boring: Met Studio has used translucent panels to create ghostly shadows in Across the Waters; for a British Council exhibition, currently touring Pakistan, Graven Images has specified panels to be held in place by local rock or sand.

The ultimate in mobility is Apicella Associates’ mobile pavilions, which have become something of a trademark for the practice. Its mobile aluminium frame pavilion for the Hong Kong Tourist Board uses hydraulics to fold up on to three 13.5m-long trailers.

Examples below show that you can meet all of the criteria of a travelling exhibition, and still have room for the creativity that is easier to achieve with a site-specific installation.

Apicella Associates

Volvo Car UK mobile pavilion

Client: The Russell Organisation

Architect Apicella Associates is fast becoming master of the mobile pavilion. Its latest venture is a fleet of mobile, multipurpose pavilions for Volvo, selling the car manufacturer’s new corporate identity on the racing circuit. Primarily used at outdoor events, each pavilion is a building in itself, housing a sheltered reception, display podium, and sales room. Light, simple materials such as birch and stainless steel predominate, and the pavilion is encased in glass. When it is time to move on, canopies are folded down manually over the glass to form a trailer box 2.4m wide which is then attached to a lorry and driven off to the next location. The fleet has been touring since April, during which time it has visited 250 events.

Sledge

Succeed@UK

Client: The British Council

Succeed@UK, a 24 000 exhibition promoting educational opportunities in the UK on behalf of The British Council, is one of the first outings of the “Sector” display system developed by communications agency Sledge in association with exhibition designer Firbank Kempster. An S-shaped wall, 6m long and 2.5m high, is assembled from 1 x 0.5m plastic-injected panels attached to seven steel uprights. There are no nuts and bolts or tools required; uprights feature built-in knobs that are tightened once the cross members are in place. Panels are then simply hung off the frame. The whole exhibition should take two people just one hour to erect.

For Succeed@UK, Sledge has steered clear of heritage clichés and attempts to portray something of contemporary British life. “There was a need to come right away from Beefeaters and the Tower of London and bring GB Inc into the 20th century,” says Sledge’s executive producer Grenville Houser. “All the images we have chosen are modern images such as modern buildings and sporting achievements.” To give the exhibition a storyline, Sledge has collected correspondence including letters, postcards and e-mails, from visitors to the UK back home to friends and relatives. The exhibition is currently in New Delhi at the start of an Indian tour. If, as expected, it moves to another country, the letters and postcards can be replaced with others from the relevant country.

Graven Images

UK Style

Client: Department of Trade and Industry

Designed and curated by Graven Images with its usual sense of humour, the exhibition is a promotion of all that is cool and British.

A transparent wardrobe and floor display a changing exhibition of clothing; a video bath plays interviews with designers, footage from catwalk shows, and a trip round London’s Covent Garden; a sound booth covered in Astroturf plays iconographic British sounds such as the shipping forecast; and a library of products stores everything from Lava lamps to board games. The best of British graphic design is displayed in inflatable A1-size frames like a picture gallery.

“There’s a lot of subversion of images,” says Graven Images director Janice Kirkpatrick. “We’ve tried to keep an ironic humour running through the thing.”

The whole exhibition is wrapped in an illuminated perimeter wall 17 x 5m, and itself displays products from Irn Bru to Juggernaut furniture. Marking the entrance are a Jaguar SK8 and a Triumph T595.

“We have conceived it as a self-contained barge,” explains Kirkpatrick. “We have no control over what site it might go to, so we have had to make all of the lighting and services integral. That way, if it is set up in a drab exhibition hall it doesn’t matter because it can create its own ambience.”

All exhibition components are bespoke, and although the variety of material and ideas makes the exhibition sound complicated, the whole thing can be easily broken down into its component parts. According to Kirkpatrick, the whole exhibition can be dismantled and repacked into two transporters in ten hours by a team of three.

It is expected that the exhibition will be travelling for the next two years, much longer than was originally conceived, and will therefore have to be constantly updated and refurbished. Since April it has visited Seoul, Auckland, Wellington, and Hong Kong, and is due to arrive in Europe next March.

Branson Coates

Look Inside – New British interiors for people

Client: The British Council

This is an exhibition of 25 public interiors designed over the past three years and aimed at promoting interior design and, in particular, British interior designers. Although the exhibition is photography-based, it is not just a row of prints hanging on the wall. Branson Coates has enlivened the display by designing a system of deep frames in opal Perspex and similar materials which draw the viewer right into the picture and create the illusion of a grander scale.

Frames of varying sizes can be hung on the wall, in mid air, or sit on legs, and schemes can be arranged in any order to suit individual venues. Each frame packs up flat and consists of four side panels and a back panel that lock together with teeth and are held in place with elastic cords. The exhibition is currently in India and comes to Europe in January before moving on to Brazil and Hong Kong.

MET STUDIO

Across the Waters – travelling exhibition on the Batonga people

Client: Choma Museum & Crafts Centre, Zambia

Travelling across Africa visiting a range of indoor and outdoor locations is tough even on the hardiest traveller. Across the Waters, a 40 000 exhibition relating the experiences of the Batongan people who were resettled during the Fifties from a remote village on the banks of the Zambezi, had to be flexible enough to change its footprint and the range of objects on display depending on the venue; robust enough to withstand outdoor sites; and light enough to be transported on a flat-bed truck.

Flexibility has been ensured by breaking down the subject matter into five separate themes that can be arranged in any order with no set beginning or end. Weight problems are addressed with a modular stainless steel display system which is also hard-wearing. These support lightweight translucent plastic display panels which are attached to the support frame by the simple device of press studs.

For waterproofing, graphics, pictures and text have been printed directly on to the panels, and all photos, pictures and objects kept in transparent plastic bags.

The panels come in three sizes – 0.8 x 1.8m, 1.1 x 2.1m, 1.2 x 2.4m – and are hinged at the edges, creating a landscape of varying heights, widths and angles. Translucent walls and coloured lights are used to cast ghostly shadows around the area dedicated to funeral traditions.

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