Vitra Showroom by 2x4, New York 2003. Photo: Courtesy of Vitra.
Designers invited to display their work in the space of a museum face quandaries. Certainly the largest of these is that almost nothing about the processes of design — from the point of view of the public, anyway — is self-explanatory. And yet, for designers who have to design exhibitions about their own work, part of the problem is over-familiarity. So designers often resort to tropes or metaphors as a substitute for direct explanation: but this creative strategy is risky, and can undermine the ability of the audience to grasp the meaning of what they see.
I recently saw two museum exhibitions on the work of designers (both groups whose work I greatly admire), where the designers designed their own exhibitions. One was the exhibition "Renzo Piano and Building Workshop: Selected Projects" (on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until October 2, 2005); the other was "2x4: Design Series 3," an exhibition of the work of 2x4 (on view at the San Francisco Museum of Art until November 27, 2005). These two (very different) design firms encounter the situation of having to essentially create a proxy experience to describe their work (which of course can be experienced by the public in an unmediated way, outside of the museum, but which is unlikely to happen as coherently). Both exhibitions provide that rare opportunity for the designers to present not only the finished products of their work, but to also reveal the parts of the design process that are less visual: how they think, how they work, what they value, how they collaborate with their clients, how they consider the users of their products, where they position themselves on the continuum from art to business, how much they care about history, etc., etc. And since the design of their own exhibition is an artifact of their work, it is inevitable that its design will be read as a reflection of their identity.
The exhibition on the Renzo Piano Building Workshop is wonderfully "old-school." By that I mean that there is no evidence of any kind of agenda on the part of Renzo Piano or his colleagues, beyond the presentation of a clear (albeit compacted) narrative of how they generate ideas and what sorts of buildings they build. The exhibition consists of a group of large flat tables (the old plywood-on-horses kind), each surrounded by bright red canvas director's chairs, inviting viewers to sit down and immerse themselves in a microcosm of the workshop itself. Each table is dedicated to a specific project, and the table-tops hold sketches, working drawings, study models, finished models, material samples, proposals, transparencies on light boxes, photographs, small screens playing video or DVD's, and copious captioning on the surface of the table. The exhibition is in a three-story cubic space that the visitor glimpses first from a balcony; hanging overhead are full scale pieces of models, which lure the viewer downstairs into the sea of tables. Standing amidst all that, viewers might feel like they've entered an exploded book, (or the inside of the architects' brains); it's so explanatory that a catalog would be redundant (besides, a shelf-full of books on Piano's work exist already, it too displayed on one of the tables). The day I visited there were lots of people hanging around, clearly not all architects: Piano and his group had definitely figured out how to deliver an inviting, richly-textured experience for the visitor without any metaphoric displacement. It's interesting to me that they avoided the large-scale photographs or renderings that seem like the easiest way to describe buildings to the public; but, by delivering this convincing facsimile of a workshop, they leave little doubt as to its authenticity as a expression of how they do what they do.
The 2x4 exhibition is a more convoluted thing, reflecting a set of doubts that bedevil designers (particularly graphic designers) facing the problem of public display: 1) that no one wants to look at design under glass; 2) that the products of graphic design are too ephemeral to merit inspection; 3) that the processes of design — either conceptual, or locked inside a hard-drive — are invisible and have to be represented metaphorically or symbolically rather than descriptively; and 4) that maybe a museum is not the best environment for a design exhibition.
The exhibition consists of a group of colorfully-printed hanging scrolls of digital output, each at the scale of wallpaper, hanging from ceiling to floor. Each scroll represents a specific project or a category of work, and some scrolls have a video monitor hung high toward the ceiling, providing additional information; also, smallish scale captions printed on dark plates sit on the floor at the bottom of each scroll. The only objects in the exhibition not rendered as wallpaper are a set of blank studies for book formats sitting in a vitrine, looking like what non-professionals might think of as artists' books, but which graphic designers will recognize as "dummies." The vitrine also holds a video screen that shows footage of books being paged through (a way of exhibiting books that I've tried myself, which is only partially satisfactory since low-res video just doesn't really capture the printed page). [Online version of exhibition is here. Catalogue is here.]
It's not such a weird idea for 2x4 to adopt wallpaper as a conceptual motif: first of all, there's an important segment of their work which uses flatness as a medium for communication. Murals for Prada, walls at IIT, banners and walls for Vitra, and similar projects for other clients, have led them to the outright design of decorative patterns for KnollTextiles. And the scrolls provide a clever, practical solution to the odd space that SF MoMA provides for design exhibits — a transitional space between a stair-landing and a larger gallery; it probably also solved the problem of a constricted budget for shipping.
However, by reducing most all of their work to "wallpaper," they give short shrift to their own projects that either exist at a different scale or materiality (like publications), or where their participation was critical, conceptual, and (largely) collaborative. For instance, this is a problem for the projects that they label "Diagrams," projects which I think represent them at their smartest and most formidable: except you would never know it from the relegation of those particular works (the MoMA/Koolhaas proposal, the "UnCity" project, and the really interesting "Seeing and Writing" project) to cropped fragments depicted on the scrolls. By doing this, they — deliberately? — assume the very position that graphic designers have been excoriated for, that of being decorators only concerned with surface effects. By only showing their work in fragments, they manage to disguise the connection between their ideas and their processes and the actual products of their making. Another curious message of the "wallpaper" is that it renders their work as an industrial product, implying endless multiplication and anonymity, while their practice is anything but that. It's possible that 2x4 assumed this disguise ironically or at least knowingly, but for who's benefit? If design exhibitions were a dime-a-dozen, 2x4 riffing on 2x4 might be OK: but given the comparative rarity of these events, the solipsism on display here feels like a lost opportunity.
Did I mention how cool it looked? (I saw it a second time and was struck by how well it works from a distance). But viewers who didn't already know the work, and were curious to know more, had to assume some undignified positions of their own view the show, like craning their necks toward video monitors hung way too high, and bending over — or even squatting — to read captions on the floor. The orthopedic stress induced by the exhibit's physical design on its hapless audience symbolizes the conflicted nature of 2x4's response to the opportunity to present themselves. They obviously didn't want to replicate the model of a standard academic or didactic museum display, perhaps because it seemed too boring or institutional; they rejected the model of the store, which would have made the "customer" at least a bit more comfortable (with the exception of stores like Prada, where a bit of discomfort is construed as "resistance"); they avoided the model of the trade fair, which would have given the audience more of a spectacle, or a "take-away." That only leaves one other model: contemporary installation art. So we witness graphic design's brightest and best assuming the most conventional of positions. Design is seen as somehow secondary to art and must emulate its typically oblique strategies in an attempt to be taken seriously.
Both Renzo Piano and 2x4 are at the top of their respective games as designers, but the way they approach their own exhibitions places them at opposite poles of a spectrum of communicative styles, and maybe even belief. Is the straight-ahead approach of the Piano Building Workshop naïve, or overly confident, so that they are simply unconcerned with positioning themselves as anything other than humanistic builders? Is the oblique approach of 2x4 cynical or overly-intellectualized, focused on position itself as a contemporary expression of doubt in the values of design? I think it's generational: since 2x4 straddles the fence between the "critical theory"-driven design of the 90s and the "post-critical"-design of the 00s, they've operated with strategies that range from questioning the conventions of public communication in a global capitalist economy, to the outright embrace of them. Beneath the beautiful surface of 2x4's wallpaper is a palpable ambivalence, which may be just as authentic to them — and to a lot of designers these days — as is the enthusiasm of the workshop for Piano: but, for those of us who know graphic design from the inside, and 2x4 in particular, it's difficult to reconcile the limitations of that position with the inarguable intelligence and achievement of the work.