Lorraine Wild | Essays

Exhibitions by Renzo Piano and 2x4

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.

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Graphic Design

Comments [7]

It's good to see this piece. There is a surprising poverty of critical investigation when it comes to the more exploratory design firms such as 2x4. On the one hand, they enjoy a certain reputation for doing strong work and as articulate individuals who think hard and speak publicly about their activities. (Michael Rock did some fine critical writing in the early to mid-1990s, but subsequently concentrated on building a critical design practice with 2x4.) On the other hand, they are warier than many in their position about the possibility of journalistic coverage, though it has been a while since I visited them and they may be more relaxed about this now. I can think of very few published appraisals of their work. I see on the SFMOMA website that "New York-based design firm 2x4 is credited with helping to redefine graphic design as one of the most inclusive and visible design categories." That's a large and also rather vague claim. Museum copy-writers always say this kind of thing, but is it true in 2x4's case? It might be, but who has actually made this argument?

Lorraine, I believe there is a catalogue with this exhibition. Does it shed much light?
Rick Poynor

Implicit in this post is the proposition that designer's should (or get to) design their own exhibitions. Isn't this ultimately the issue? Having the tools to write one's own history does not mean the history is well written. I'm always surprised that more designers are not brave enough to put their work in other's hands. (Tibor Kalman was an exception, asking Peter Hall and Michael Bierut to edit his monograph.) What would we be saying in this post if Renzo Piano had designed the 2x4 exhibition or 2x4 had designed the Renzo Piano exhibition. Those are exhibitions I would have liked to see.
William Drenttel

An interesting post, especially in light of Rick Poynor's article on the designer as editor. To some extent I think the museum curator acts as an editor. The process is one of determining what information to present and how best to do it. What is the end result of designers acting as their own curators? Is there a role for informed criticism outside of the profession?

I was intrigued by what I took to be Lorraine Wild's suggestion that design differs from other visual arts in that its process is not self-explanatory. I think one of the greatest difficulties for the museum curator to overcome is an assumption of understanding on the part of the public. Because someone has painted their shed, they believe on some level that they understand how an artist layers a canvas. Exploring these assumptions is a difficult task indeed. Is the painter the best person to do this? There's no reason why she might not be, but equally there's no reason to expect that this is where her expertise lies.
John Boylan

I just experienced the 2x4 exhibition two days ago, and I have to say that I feel the comments regarding their show are right on. I too love much of what 2x4 does as a a studio, so when I saw that they had work at SFMOMA I was very eager to check it out (I live in San Diego and was visiting SF). While it was nice to see a (graphic) design studio's work in a museum, I did feel as though the exhibition was a missed opportunity as the post suggests. Yes, it was beautiful-looking in many ways. And it was actually interesting to see the work completely out of context as a way to view it objectively, with no concern for whether the projects "worked" or not. Still, the exhibit did feel a bit exclusive. I was curious about how others (okay, "non-designers") might interact with and interpret the space. After a thorough exploration, I stepped back to watch the general public's reaction to the show. Watching them craning their necks to view monitors or bending over (especially older patrons) to read info. was kind of painful. And then I got frustrated. Aren't we better at this sort of thing? I mean, shouldn't we expect a fluid communication of the information presented?

Now, I know it is easy for me to be an armchair critic, but I really did leave the space feeling ambivalent about the whole deal. I just wanted to know more about the "why" behind the presentation. This was the third in a series of 2x4 exhibitions at SFMOMA. I didn't see the first two, but I'm sure the designers would want each to stand on their own.

I'll close by saying that regardless of these criticisms, I was happy to see the work in the museum space. I'm not saying, "Wow, at least there was some graphic design in a museum!", but again, it was nice to see the work stripped away from the context. I know this could warrant many other discussions. The thing I like most about the 2x4 exhibition is that perhaps it is pushing our perceptions of how design can be viewed publicly without being weighted to purpose. The display of bound dummies did seem to showcase the mock-ups as independent, worthy art objects. In this way I wonder if the designers were looking at the exhibition strictly from the public's eye, where quick glimpses and varying levels of communication are the norm. I can understand this, but again, I feel like it was a grand opportunity to de-mystify design and its process, and talk publicly about what we do outside of a monograph intended for purchase by other designers. Here's to the day we see an exhibition where famous (a la Bierut's post) designers truly, publicly, reveal all. And I think James Victore should do the poster.
James Bowman

To Bill's comment I am reminded of the Otto Treumann monograph designed by Irma Boom. It is by now viewed familiarly as a book about her, and not him. I think it is an important book about her and she does too...and the level of involvement evidenced there causes me less surprise at the rarity of a designer inviting external curation. I recently attended the opening of the Populism show at the Stedelijk Museum which was curated by French design duo M/M. Only the faintest trace of their hand was available through the show (a disappointment in this case) and proved to be about as non-designed a thing as I had seen in Amsterdam... There is a future in this designer curation business and it will require a deep self-confidence on the exhibitor's part and some semblence of humility on the curator's part, but with mutual respect and encouragement, the double bill in one show sounds good to me too.
Andrew Breitenberg

M/M didn't curate Populism; they only designed the newspaper that functioned as the catalogue. And even that was designed by one of their interns. So their involvement in that wasn't that big.

He was funny, witty, and utterly won over my skeptic husband (who is an engineer and felt the roundtable conference was akin to having teeth pulled). Never was I so glad to fight traffic downtown. It was a magical time.

By the way, of which professor were you speaking? Unless my memory is failing me, I thought Charley and Stan Brod were friends...

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