At Studio MUTT we design at all scales – from teapots to towers. Somewhere in that spectrum is exhibition design, which amounts to almost half of the projects the studio is currently working on. You may have seen Bags: Inside Out at the V&A, which we designed with curator Dr Lucia Savi. Exhibition design is historically overlooked in architectural circles, but here I’d like to share with you why we think it is so important and what designers do working behind-the-scenes at the V&A.
Creating miniature worlds
We believe that exhibition design is about storytelling. More than simply deciding where the objects go, exhibition design should create miniature worlds which support and enhance visitors’ experiences. It is a truly collaborative design process and designers are uniquely positioned to act as a mediator between the visiting public and the curator – having an understanding of the content and how best to display it, while also maintaining a certain distance that allows us to clarify the message by asking what, why and who.
The design concept for Bags: Inside Out playfully responds to how a bag can be both a private possession and a public statement. Take the red ministerial despatch boxes that are held aloft by chancellors on budget days. They are symbols of promised future prosperity while also being functional briefcases, photographed by the press with documents spilling out. We created two different design characters for the two levels of the V&A’s Fashion Gallery: downstairs, an intimate space was lined in colourful stretched fabric walls; upstairs, an expansive space in the dome with building-like cabinets arranged as a miniature cityscape.
Models, communication, and the collaborative process
At our studio we champion collaborative design, prioritising the voices of the many over any singular designer. The exploration of shared values often produces unexpected results and, ultimately, a richer design: for us, A plus B equals much more than C.
For the Bags: Inside Out exhibition, for example, we worked with curator Dr Lucia Savi; a fantastic team of researchers, conservationists and designers at the V&A; a design team consisting of ourselves, 2D designers (Heather Whitbread, V&A Design Studio), lighting designers (Studio ZNA), AV software designers (Cultureshock), AV hardware designers (DHD Service), project managers (Flemming Associates); and a fabrication team of setWorks (build) and OMNI (graphics).
How does this collaboration work in practice, across disciplines, responsibilities and priorities? For this exhibition it focused on a series of physical models and mockups through which the design was developed, tested and visualised. The largest of which, a dolls house-like card and paper model capturing the full exhibition at 1:50 scale, is on display as part of the Shaping Space: Architectural Models Revealed exhibition at the Building Centre.
The 1:50 model was a key tool in the design process and a centrepiece of most meetings and discussions, allowing us to clearly and directly communicate the complexities of three dimensional design. It reduces the need for collaborators to be able to read technical drawings and removes any ambiguity often found in CGI visuals.
The model itself was built in our studio using simple yet effective techniques. Etched, white acrylic laser-cut from computer drawing files was used for the permanent features such as floor plates and cores. Hand cut grey card was assembled and glued to build up walls and other existing gallery cabinets and features. Designed elements of the exhibition were shown in full colour to differentiate them from the existing architecture of the space. To represent the screen-printed fabric walls in the lower level of the show we used layers of printed tracing paper with hand-drawn details. Upstairs, the Makers’ Table featured miniature versions of leather hides and fabric swatches made from small pieces of coloured paper and card.
About Studio MUTT
Founded in 2017, Studio MUTT is an architecture and design studio working across culture and identity, placemaking and public realm. Our ambition is to create joyful projects to make everyday life better.