Book of Ideas, “Eddies of Calm”

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.”

Preliminary floor plans show spaces defined by gently curving walls.

Pictured here during installation, the basic structural armature creates the “eddies of calm.” The curved ceiling of Moshe Safdie’s architecture was a major influence on our design as well as our initial idea of fully utilizing the “sky” of the gallery.

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.

We set up framework to test the effects of color, light, and distance on the different materials.

During materials evaluation, we assessed how maps would print on fabric. We were careful to include the whole world in any map on display, not just the country or region discussed in a particular text. For us, it was crucial to reinforce that every issue concerning the oppression of women and girls anywhere is a global issue.

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.

Evident even in these early renderings, we wanted the photographs—many taken by Nick Kristof himself while conducting research for the book—to take prominence.

The “Maternal Mortality” section was renamed “Maternal Health,” a rephrasing that emphasizes the achievable goal. The stories of pioneering women in maternal health, including Dr. Edna Adan Ismail and Dr. Catherine Hamlin, are told in this “eddy.”

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 gradient panels were “double-struck” prints, meaning that they had to be printed twice to achieve the desired color effect. This made the panels somewhat fragile, requiring two-person teams for installation.

The Maternal Health panel—pictured here in its final, S-shaped form—combines text, photography, 3D objects, maps, and a video monitor.

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.

Soft, circular furniture was the final touch to a gallery defined by curved walls. This photo was taken from the Overcoming Violence section, looking out at the Trafficking section.

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.

Right after Thanksgiving weekend, eleventh graders from Grant High School visited the exhibition. Here they’re gathered in the Overcoming Violence section. When it was time to break out into discussion groups, the students stood along the bench circumference to face each other and talk about the issue of gender-based violence. Photo by Peter Turman.

Now what about that sky? Like I said earlier, more on that in a totally separate blog post!

Posted in Behind the Scenes, Design, Exhibitions, Museum, Women Hold Up Half the Sky and tagged , .

About Tom Schirtz

Tom Schirtz is Head of Exhibition Design and Production at the Skirball. He’s also an artist, graphic designer, photographer, writer, Air Force Veteran, and onetime short order cook. As a printmaker and curator, he has worked with the likes of Richard Serra, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Ellsworth Kelly. His favorite memory of that period of his life is sharing zucchini with Alan Ginsberg (long story). Tom is smitten with the Southern California desert and considers a particular (secret) peak in Joshua Tree National Park his favorite place in the known universe.

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