Design for exhibitions, galleries and museums has long been an important part of our portfolio at APFEL. A lot of the studio’s early work was for institutions like the ICA, where we designed exhibitions and materials for ambitious projects to very tight budgets and timeframes. But in recent years, exhibition design in particular has become a more prominent part of our practice. Shows such as last year’s Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 at the V&A, Dirt at the Wellcome Collection and most recently Bauhaus: Art as Life at the Barbican Art Gallery, as well as our work on the identity, signage and gallery design for The Hepworth Wakefield, have put our designs in front of a diverse and demanding public and offered us the opportunity to work with and within some of the facets of art and design that inspire us the most.
Exhibitions like these are in many ways a designer’s dream, and the opportunity to immerse yourself in the output of artists and designers who you’ve long admired is a great one indeed. But it also throws up some considerable challenges.
The rising popularity of blockbuster exhibitions at institutions like the Tate Modern and the V&A means that today’s visitors come with high expectations. It has to be said that the sheer complexity of exhibition-making, and the amount of conceptual and logistical planning that goes into the production of a show like Postmodernism or Bauhaus, is staggering; narratives need to be established, exhibits sourced and loaned, section texts and object labels written and installations overseen. And all the while, the design team—often these days composed of architects and graphic designers working in collaboration—has to sift through the visual and historical sources at hand and devise an appropriate stage in which it’s all to be set.
It’s a task that we relish, of course, but achieving the desired level of balance is by no means straightforward.
A good example here is Bauhaus: Art as Life, an exhibition we designed which opened this May at the Barbican Art Gallery. Through it, the curators aimed to use the Bauhaus’ output to shed light on the human stories within it and explore the lives of its masters and students, and our task—in collaboration with architects Carmody Groarke—was to create a framework within which that narrative would unfold and those exhibits would sit.
As for many of the shows we’ve worked on, there was certainly no shortage of reference material on hand to guide that process. And therein lay the challenge: to develop a design for the exhibition that felt appropriate and complementary to both its content and aims, without veering too far towards pastiche or over-appropriation. To put it bluntly, we wanted to engage and even inspire its visitors, rather than leave them feeling like they’d been beaten around the head by the Bauhaus.
Achieving that balance within exhibition design often requires an oblique rather than direct approach. For Bauhaus, as for many of our other projects such as Postmodernism, this meant referencing not only the most well-known or loved pieces of work but also perhaps the less celebrated but equally important pieces of its history. Choosing a letterpress typeface for the exhibition texts in Bauhaus: Art as Life that was used within the school, for example, rather than one designed there. Or for Postmodernism, drawing upon the aesthetic of films like Tron and Blade Runner to inform the design of LED-lightsheet-mounted section panels set throughout the show.
By doing so, what APFEL hoped to achieve was a result in which the exhibition design complemented but didn’t compete with the work on display. It’s also about giving the audience due credit, and trusting visitors’ visual literacy and ability to weave their own sense of meaning from both the design and the content of an exhibition.
One of the worst charges levelled at graphic design over the years has been that it’s little more than the window dressing of our contemporary world; exhibition design, however, is one of the practices that proves for us how inaccurate such statements are. Get it wrong, and visitors are either overwhelmed, distracted or entirely oblivious, and the whole rhythm and intention of a show can be misinterpreted. When you’re dealing with the exploration and interpretation of great swathes of our cultural history, achieving the appropriate balance is no small authorial charge to bear.
Originally published in Computer Arts magazine, issue 207. Written at A Practice for Everyday Life in collaboration with the directors.