Shortly after we opened the exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky, I was asked, “So how do you design a show based on a book of ideas?” Good question. For one thing, I didn’t do it alone but as part of a core team of designers, curators, educators, and advisors. Through a lot of discussion, a few key ideas emerged that would drive all of the exhibition design, from signage to furniture.
First, we wanted to move away from any design language that would be typical of a museum art exhibition—rigid walls, framed images, projection rooms—and strive to create “safe” environments for viewing, absorbing, considering, and discussing some very difficult subject matter. We would come to refer to them as “eddies of calm.”
Second, we opted to use as many non-traditional materials as possible. Semi-transparent fabrics were our main choice. We were drawn to the softness and malleability, but also to the way the fabric would enable viewers to “see through to the other side.” We hoped that by layering the cloth, visitors would perceive the support structures for the content panels as well as see fellow visitors. For us, this was a way to express the need for transparency regarding the human-rights issues addressed in the exhibition, as well as the interconnectedness of all members of society.
Once we determined general floor plan and materials, we began to tackle design of the panels. Early designs focused on narrative and images, which are at the heart of both the book Half the Sky and our exhibition. From there, color and scale relationships began to be considered.
As design work on the show’s ceiling art installation progressed (more on Wish Canopy in a future blog post—check back again soon!), the color palette was toned down and altered to complement what would be featured overhead.
Ultimately the text panels were designed to show gradients of color. We were careful to check how colors translated from computer screen to fabric. We also tested how the legibility of various type sizes and colors would be affected by the printing process.
The choice and placement of furniture completed the installation of the themed “eddies.” Upholstered, round benches were designed so that visitors could either sit outward and take in the content, or sit inward and engage in discussions.
For the designers whom I admire and hope to emulate, the ultimate goal is for design to recede in service of the content and the viewer. In the end, the process of transforming pages of ideas into an exhibition of ideas works when I visit the gallery and watch as visitors move through the environment and appear to contemplate the issues at hand. At times, deeply so.
Now what about that sky? Like I said earlier, more on that in a totally separate blog post!