Dawn in Pennyslvania © Heirs of Josephone N. Hopper, licensed by the Witney Museum of American Art.

An exhibition displaying Modernist works of art is a gift for a designer

Clare Flynn, Exhibition Designer at the Ashmolean Museum

The Ashmolean Museum’s 2018 summer exhibition, America’s Cool Modernism, explores American art in the 1920s and 30s. Many artists grappled with the experience of modern America by producing work that had a cool, controlled detachment and a smooth, precise finish. Much of what we see today is inspired by the cool simplicity of the Modernist movement.

It was my role to produce a design for the display across the three large exhibition galleries at the Museum. During the early 20th century, American artists and designers were looking to Europe for inspiration and modernist designers were breaking away from traditional values.

I wanted to avoid producing a pastiche of the art on display, and so I focused my research on American Modernist graphic design. Modernist graphic designers followed a defined set of rules notably - geometry and the use of sans serif typefaces. In this industrial age, typography was stripped back to simple unadorned letterforms.

Charles Coiner (1898–1989) was an American art director who commissioned work by successful artists of the period, including Georgia O’Keeffe whose work is displayed in the exhibition. In 1933 Coiner was commissioned to design an identity for the NRA (National Recovery Administration). The NRA logo was inspired by German designer Paul Renner’s Futura typeface (1927) which was derived from simple geometric form. Morris Fuller Benton was influenced by Coiner’s NRA logo when he designed Eagle Bold for American Type Founders. Heavy in weight it was readily used as a punchy headline font and is synonymous with American graphic design of the period. The chunky nature of Eagle Bold would be perfect for a striking American Modernist poster exhibition. However, I felt it was too heavy and would overpower if used for graphic panels in this exhibition.

Eagle Bold M

Futura was the typeface of choice of American designers during this period. With its appropriate historical context and the underlying geometry (round O’s and pointed M’s), I felt Futura was perfect for the exhibition graphics. Futura is one of the most popular fonts of the 20th century, and so by simply applying a considerable amount of kerning (letter spacing) to panel headings I ensured the font could be seen in a different way. This was especially true at a larger scale where the pared back, geometric nature of each letterform was highlighted.

Exhibition wall text in the Futura font

I endeavor to create the best possible experience for all visitors to our exhibitions. All too often a text panel is tucked away on a return wall in a corner, and key paintings or objects positioned in prominent areas of the gallery. I believe, however, that for many people the text is the first port of call, the way into the collection, and a means to aid your understanding and therefore heighten your experience. Through hearing the curators’ voice and being presented with the historical background, I think you are better able to form your own opinion and thereby develop a deeper understanding. Text needs to have presence in the space — it acts as a signpost beckoning you and leading the way.

I am not suggesting that key objects should not be positioned in less prominent areas. I believe we can strike a balance, presenting the text and then revealing the highlight or showing all in highlight areas. The architecture of a space can be a powerful means to achieve this. I wanted to create a bold visual statement for the introductory panel — the first thing you see. Eagle Bold, like Futura, uses the circle, square and triangle as a framework. I hit on the idea of using this framework as a structure within the space and a carrier of information.

Two overlapping triangles forming an abstract letter ‘M’ ties in perfectly with the abstract works displayed in the first gallery and the underlying geometry of works in subsequent galleries. The gap in the centre of the abstract ‘M’ provides a partial view into the gallery so you can see some of what is to come.

Wall display in the first gallery

The paintings in the main central gallery are almost exclusively industrial cityscapes and I needed to introduce additional walls in this space to accommodate all of the works. I wanted to create the sense of an exterior space, evoking the urban depictions in the paintings and prints. A sequence of high walls linked with struts forming an apex roof shape gives the impression of an imposing warehouse structure and was ideal for displaying key content. The introductory text formed part of this structure by being placed on a painted triangle which represents the throw of light from a street lamp on the wall above. This is seen as you enter the space with the key work of the whole exhibition viewed just beyond at the heart of the gallery. This approach to the exhibition texts continues the visual language used for the main introductory text and places the text in a prominent position as the sign post.

Design of wall display in the second gallery

Scene-setting continues with a painted frieze of a silhouetted industrial cityscape, positioned above the natural eye-line so as not to detract from the paintings. The colour scheme is inspired by old newsprint paper which looks particularly good against dark and bright, intense tones. There is a flash of red — commonly used by Modernists — for the main exhibition introductory wall and striking black edges to create emphasis on graphic elements throughout. The geometric visual language continues in the final gallery where you are immediately greeted by the introductory text which is displayed on a wall made up of two triangles joined on the hypotenuse.

Wall display in the last gallery

Since the exhibition opened I have been observing how visitors move around in the galleries. Gallery introductory texts are read by visitors when it is directly in front of them, or near and highlighted as they enter the room. Audience evaluation is invaluable for measuring the success of the design.

I set out to design exhibitions that interpret the content in an engaging manner. This is achieved through stylistic representations of the subject by integrating interior design, architecture and graphic design to form a connected environment.

For this exhibition, I feel the balance of design interpretation sits happily with the simplicity and precision of the paintings, giving an essence of the Modernist style and principles.

I like to challenge the theory that the art speaks for itself. It is paramount that it is easy for visitors to access the works on display, but the sensory and intellectual content absorbed before arriving at a painting can heighten the overall experience without overshadowing the most important component: the art itself.

Find out more about America’s Cool Modernism.

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