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“Total Work of Art”—Designing the Guggenheim’s Italian Futurism Exhibition

The fabrication and construction team created new, curving walls specifically for Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe. Photo: Kelly Cullinan © 2014 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

The fabrication and construction team created new, curving walls specifically for Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe. Photo: Kelly Cullinan © 2014 Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

A vitrine under construction in the Guggenheim's workshop. Photo: Kelly Cullinan © 2014 SRGF

A vitrine under construction in the Guggenheim’s workshop. Photo: Kelly Cullinan © 2014 SRGF

Another vitrine in progress within the museum. Photo: Kelly Cullinan © 2014 SRGF

Another vitrine in progress within the museum. Photo: Kelly Cullinan © 2014 SRGF

Installation view: Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 21–September 1, 2014. Photo: Kristopher McKay © 2014 SRGF

Installation view: Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 21–September 1, 2014. Photo: Kristopher McKay © 2014 SRGF

Installation view: Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 21–September 1, 2014. Photo: Kristopher McKay © 2014 SRGF

Installation view: Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, February 21–September 1, 2014. Photo: Kristopher McKay © 2014 SRGF

The title wall for Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe. Photo: Kristopher McKay © 2014 SRGF

The title wall for Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe. Photo: Kristopher McKay © 2014 SRGF

Surprising design is the signature of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, yet what visitors experience as they view the exhibition design for Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe will likely offer even more of a surprise than usual. From the imposing, curving bright blue wall bearing the exhibition’s title, that greets visitors to the rotunda floor, to the wing-like, curvilinear tables with embedded iPads in the reading room that crowns the ramps, Italian Futurism, 1909–1944 has a look and feel that sets it apart—so much so that, in her review for the New York Times, Roberta Smith called the design “brilliant.” “This is a show that people have not seen before at the Guggenheim,” says exhibition designer Kelly Cullinan, who designed the show along with Jarrod Beck. “Things are happening in it that are brand new.”

The concept for the exhibition’s design came directly from the Futurist movement itself. Says Cullinan, “The starting point was this idea of the ‘total work of art.’ It’s perfectly suited to the Guggenheim. Only in this building can the viewer truly be at the center of the artwork in a complete Futurist environment. To this end, we were thinking of Umberto Boccioni coming into the building. What would it look like if he took over the museum? How could we transform those gestures to become vitrines, platforms, stanchions, pedestals, and wall cases?”

The first element the designers addressed was the vitrine. The exhibition’s extensive checklist included many pieces of ephemera, books, and works on paper, so it was clear from the beginning that a large number of vitrines would be required to display those items. Cullinan says she and Beck “tried to get this feeling of lift-off. This introduced the angle as a way to lighten the walls and cases.” As Cullinan notes, these angled forms “can almost be thought of as the wing of an airplane—it’s aerodynamic.” The designers also tried to use materials for the cases that fit with the Futurists’ ethos. “We talked a lot about materiality,” explains Cullinan. “The Futurists experimented with many different and new materials. Aluminum was a favorite that turns up in details throughout the exhibition, from vitrines, to stanchions, to seating.” For four of the cases presenting books, the designers incorporated iPads to show some of their pages, allowing visitors to flip through and see parts of the books not on display.

Working off their designs for the ephemera vitrines, Cullinan and Beck developed cases for ceramics and other objects, and platforms to display furniture; they went on to determine how the walls that backed the cases should look. Says Cullinan, “We added new curved walls that suggest movement—there are lots of angles—and they reference each other as you go through the museum. We used them to tell the story and evoke this feeling of movement and speed.”

The “total work of art” approach necessitated that every aspect of the overall design be crafted with a similar feel, and all elements had to work in tandem with each other, regardless of scale. For instance, a dining room set by Gerardo Dottori was given a platform that fills its bay entirely, framed by its own purpose-built wall, thus giving the set “a new environment to sit in,” according to Cullinan. The effect of this retooling of the space on the Guggenheim’s ramps might be subtle, but as Cullinan points out, “It changes the museum up a bit when people don’t just see an object in our standard bay.”

Reworking the interior of the rotunda in this way was not an easy task, as the museum’s fabricators had to interpret and build a range of complex forms and ensure that each one meshed perfectly with the rest of the design. Says Cullinan, “It was a tough, tough build for the fabrication and construction team, and kudos to them for figuring this out. It was quite a feat, and they did a great job. Even more so than with other shows, all hands were on deck to get this built.”

The museum’s graphic designers also faced challenges, as they strove to weave the wall text and other graphic elements seamlessly into the overall design. “The exhibit itself was beautifully designed with many angles, and I wanted to continue that look with the graphics,” says Guggenheim designer Peter Raphael Castro. “I also wanted to add some flair to the wall texts to entice people to read them.” To this end, he incorporated the dynamic “uplift” of the exhibition’s built forms into his typography, breaking the paragraphs at soaring angles inspired by the angle of the museum’s web walls. Even more dramatic is his treatment of the exhibition’s title—the first thing visitors see as they enter the rotunda. The left-hand wall on the first ramp is used to display “Italian Futurism” in white Franklin Gothic type against a saturated blue background. The title sweeps above the subtitle, which appears on a separate wall below in grey lettering against a white background. “I made the title as large as it can be, and skewed it to follow the shape of the building and cropped the top portion to show it kind of busting out of the ‘box,’ in keeping with the Futurists’ ideals of being bold and rebellious,” explains Castro. “Splitting up the title and subtitle—something we’ve never done before—was also part of that same rebellious thinking.” The intended effect is for the lettering of the title to flow and shift as the visitor progresses up the ramps, adding to the exhibition’s encompassing impression of movement.

Castro points out that he and the Guggenheim’s other designers have learned to work with Frank Lloyd Wright’s building in this way. “The building has such an enormous presence that you have to use it to your advantage,” he says. In the case of Italian Futurism, 1909–1944, the museum’s architecture lent itself beautifully to the designers’ unified concept. “The Guggenheim’s rotunda fits so well with this idea because you can see everything,” says Cullinan.

  • http://www.pentalks.com/ Olivia Marina

    Interesting post. Thanks for it.

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  • serg78

    I’m actually going to make an effort and go NY in time for this exhibit. Nothing gets to me more than clashing concepts like futuristic nostalgia!