by Chrystal Roggenkamp
As an art exhibition designer, I strive to create a dynamic experience for museum visitors that enhances the artwork without competing with it. This aesthetic balance, when paired with numerous technical and logistical challenges, calls for clever solutions no matter how simple the end result may seem at-a-glance. Luckily, here at the Cincinnati Art Museum, we have a great team of designers, carpenters, and art handlers who all come together to make the curator’s vision a reality.
The design for The Total Look, an exhibition featuring the work of fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, revolves around a collection of over 60 garments full of vibrant psychedelic colors and geometric patterns. While the curators and I typically establish the color palettes for exhibitions, the scheme for The Total Look was actually developed by Peggy Moffitt, Rudi’s very own model/muse and the owner of the garments. The task at hand was to accommodate the objects and color palette through a design that also keeps the artwork safe and corresponds to the exhibition’s narrative.
Initial concept sketches show an exploration of platforms composed of basic geometric forms, a nod to the patterns found in Rudi’s garments.
The sketches are then translated into a tangible design through the use of a digital drafting program. For this show, different combinations of platform shapes and heights were juggled around until we found a layout that both corresponded to the object groupings and presented the pieces in a visually stunning manner. We strategically applied Peggy Moffitt’s color palette to accent walls, leaving the rest of the exhibition neutral to allow the clothing to stand out.
We also integrated into the plan a dark room to accommodate the fashion film “Basic Black”, a display of magazine spreads from the era, and a section devoted to the work of hair stylist Vidal Sassoon. These areas are located within sets of staggered walls reminiscent of a fashion runway backdrop. Rather than presenting all of the garments at once in a large expansive space, these small niches help to break up the gallery and make for a more dynamic experience as you proceed through the space.
Once the final platform layout is set, we create fabrication drawings that explain the design and construction details to the carpenters. For this particular show, in order to accomodate the large-scale platforms, the carpenters built each platform in smaller sections and joined them on-site before applying a careful finish to make the seams disappear, a process that takes a lot of time and craftsmanship.
At this point in the process, the exhibition really starts to come alive. The walls are painted, the space cleared of debris, and the art installation begins. Our museum’s team of art handlers work with the curator to lay out the show and make final adjustments to the placements of mannequins and 2D artwork. Our team typically works diligently right up until the show opening when the patrons can finally experience the show.
After this behind the scenes look at the exhibition design process for The Total Look, I hope that our faithful blog readers can appreciate the show from a new perspective the next time they visit the Cincinnati Art Museum. Countless amounts of details go into the planning, design, and execution of an art exhibition. While this article reveals only a small part of the challenges and logistical considerations our team encounters along the way, we enjoy what we do and love the satisfying feeling we get every time we see our visions come to reality—and we love that we can share that with our community.