Eat Your Art Out: Designing The Exhibition Space


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The exhibition space is not only a place for other artists to display and showcase their latest creations, but it is also a space for the interior designer to create the perfect internal landscape that complements the exhibition and seamlessly draws together the works of other artists.

The design and production of exhibitions now demand a specialised knowledge of spatial, digital, graphical and interior experience design. Through which, the exhibition becomes a process of co-creation, shaping as well as showcasing the understated beauty in what’s often not noticed in art.

We’ve seen some truly astounding design exhibitions in 2019. From Dior at the V&A – where one of fashion’s most pre-eminent designers’ restored Paris to the throne as the world’s fashion capital; to Mary Quant – the Queen of the 60’s who transformed British fashion as we know it. 

This wave of innovative exhibitions design that has graced out museums come with the special ability to hold and reclaim the viewers gaze. But how do interior designers tap into our ability to look at and appreciate the smaller things?

From small scale pieces like photographs and print to large sculptures and wall murals, some innovative and quirky exhibition design has been highlighted in a wave of recent shows whose elements remain in the mind long after they’ve ended. 

Whatever the function of the exhibition, one of the most important steps in its process is designing the space in which it is contained. Exhibition designer and curator, Rosenheim, who has been at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for over thirty years has paid special attention to the design of the room to force people to focus on smaller images.

Rosenheim, Butterfield – the exhibition’s designer and Niel Selkirk – photographer, worked together to create the Arbus show. They designed a series of free-standing walls with a small image on either side, to effectively give each image a wall of its own.

During the planning process for this show, they came to the realisation that this structure will enable a bigger audience to see very small and few photos. The design of the space enabled thousands of visitors to navigate and manoeuvre through space and pay special attention to small photographic prints.

In today’s digital world where we are blessed with digital everything, photographs are often skimmed and not individually scrutinised. Instead of getting lost, the photographs were given space to shine. The designer of this exhibition space was able to overcome the difficulties that come with the small scale of photographs on display. The distinctive columns with individual walls was a sound use of a big space for small things.

An unimaginative display can kill even the utmost stellar groups of photographs, paintings and sculptures. The manipulation of lighting, structure and decorative furnishings can envoke specific feelings in a room.

Exhibition designers must take many things into account, including the building that contains the display. It is imperative to the role of an interior designer to select the exact shade of paint to evoke particular emotions and create narratives.

A spectacular example of the use of colour in designing the exhibition is the Vanessa Winship show at the Barbican last year, where each room became consecutively lighter. This was not the int5erntion of the artist, rather the strategic design strategy of the interior designer to bring the exhibition to life.

However, designing an exhibition taking place in a brutalist building, such as the Barbican in London comes with its imperatives. This space is so masculine and bold and can often be difficult to manipulate for a softer and subtle narrative. The concrete floor and ceiling can’t be modified, which calls for a demanding job in designing the exhibition.

Whilst it’s true that the nature of the building and size of the art on display can make curating an exhibition more delicate, exhibition design can also be more bombastic, lavish and dramatic. An immediate show that springs to mind is the current Christian Dior exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Inspired and blown away by the opulence of the Christian Dior show in Paris, curator for the London exhibition, Oriole Cullen was motivated to recreate the art and fashion elements of the House of Dior. The galleries go through the ages of Dior, inspired by themes that inspired the designer himself. Themes of historicism, travel and garden were each recreated using lighting, textiles and colour.

Dresses and art are of course naturally easy to show off and display. Books, on the other hand, are tactile objects which demand interaction, are of course notoriously troublesome to exhibit. One memorable case of using interior design strategy in exhibiting books is at the 2017 Magnificent Gems show at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York. To show off the covers of the books the exhibition designer and curator inserted a mirror under the books to reflect the covers for maximum viewer access.


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