This Wednesday I published an interview with Elizabeth V. Warren co-curator of Infinite Variety, an exhibition of over 650 quilts by The Folk Art Museum at The New York Park Armory. The interview was the first in a two part series which I talk to the professionals behind the incredible show. Today, in the second part of the I speak with Tom Hennes at Thinc Design, about the exhibition design.
Paddy Johnson: How far does the vision extend in terms of the projects you were managing. I know there was an iphone app amongst other things. Do you have a hand in that or is it just strictly the exhibition design?
Tom Hennes: We do the exhibition and we managed with PRG, our installation and fabrication partner the installation of the exhibition. Sherry Wasserman worked with the folks who did the app and supplied them with some elements but that was a separate entity.
PJ: Can you talk a little bit about the spiral design and whether the patterning of the quilts influenced that design?
TH: Yeah. The spiral originates with an idea that Sherri Wasserman brought into a design charette early on in the project. We were trying to ground the design in some clear identifiable aspect of the quilts themselves and rather than focusing on the way quilts are used she brought in the idea of really focusing on the people who make the quilts. And the idea that quilts are made by individuals and people working in concert with each other. So the notion of the quilting circle or quilting bee became our central focus hence the circle of chairs at the center of the exhibition. And rising out of that we thought about a spiral as representing the fervent creativity that mostly woman bring to the making of the quilts and the extraordinary prolific production of these communities. We called it the tornado of quilts and that then became the grounding thesis of the project. And the cylinders that radiate out of there and move through the space become a kind of organizing concept around the idea of communities, of multiple communities that work together making quilts.
PJ: And you wanted them to be seen together at the same time more or less that was also part of it, was it not?
TH: We wanted to be able to offer people the ability to both take in the exhibition at once and to always be able to orient themselves so having spaces between the quilts where you could see through and being able to see around and among the different structures that are formed was one aspect of it. And that was not only our objective that came from Mrs. Rose and the Museum they very much wanted to somehow be able to behold the entire collection as a thing. But in creating the cylindrical structures we also wanted to be able to create a sense of intimacy with the quilts so that either walking around outside or being inside one you could get up close and personal with a selection of the quilts. And the curator Liz Warren suggested about 140 quilts she thought should be prioritized low to the ground and those then got placed at eye level or just about eye level through out the exhibition.
PJ: Did the size the quilts themselves influence the structure in any way or was the structure flexible enough that this was not really a consideration.
TH: The structures proved to be highly flexible in the sense that the size of the quilts is not necessarily smaller quilts below and larger quilts above. It has more to do with if the interest in a particular quilt is in seeing it up close or whether it's the larger over all patterning which is clearly visible no matter how high they are. So it wasn’t' necessarily that the best quilts were down low and simply that she regarded the ones that benefited the most from close examination to be low and those that could be easily understood from greater distance would be up higher. And then all of them are on the iphone and ipad app so that someone who wants to can look at any of them close up.
But the size relationship is more front to back because each of the structures with the exception of the back wall which curves along the back wall of the Armory, each of those structures is two sided. We wanted to match quilt sizes front to back on each tube so that was a puzzle of matching sizes among the various sub categories so that you wouldn't have a big quilt and a little quilt opposite each other except in certain intentional circumstances but for the most part they'd be matched front and back so you'd always be aware of the quilt you're looking at not the quilt that's behind it.
PJ: When you were putting together the display, were there points at which you felt like your concerns in putting together the show might mirror some of those that the women making the quilts might have. Certainly there is a lot of math involved in both (though that seems a tenuous connection). Did you have a better understanding of quilts and maybe their fabrication by the end of the project because you’d spent so much time with them?
TH: Certainly we move from a general appreciation a much more indepth feeling about the quilts and understanding although I can't say any of us are experts in any way shape or form but the design of the exhibition wasn't really influenced by the geometry of the quilts themselves except in the sense that we really felt that creating a quilt of quilts that the quilts themselves should be the architecture with as few other physical elements in your way as possible. So creating a very simple hanging structure. Creating a very straight forward way of hanging the quilts so they could be managed efficiently and hung in a very clean almost unnoticible manner but that the quilts themselves would be become more visible as a result of the exhibition structure being very very minimal. That was primary. But the structures themselves were not based on the quilts, but two things. The communities as I mentioned before and the quilting circle as a kind of symbol for that and the rhythem of open space and intimate space that we think greatly enhances people's ability to see these objects because the truth is without varying the scale, without varying the rythem looking at 651 of anything whether it is as one blogger put it a Picasso or a Rembrandt of course there aren't that many those, but looking at 651 one of anything no matter how wonderful is exhausting. So giving them the opportunity to sit down, giving them the opportunity to let their eyes wander and begin see a different dialogue between the patterns in different areas of the exhibition, to feel the enormity of the collection without having to flip through it one by one all these things were factors in the way we thought about the design. And it's not as has been characterized in some places a question of whether they are high art or not high art, that's irrelevant but it's whether human beings walking into a space and looking at any kind of intricate object over time”¦how to lay those things out in a way that continually refreshes the eye and the mind in a way that allows people to enjoy it as fully as possible.
PJ: It seems like one restraint is that there's a 72 hour install time. You’re doing this at The Park Armory, a commercial space — it's not like you have a museum where you might have more time to install. I assume that influenced the design as well?
TH: Certainly, the time of installation was about 2 ½ days and happily we didn't have to work all night any night. One of the criteria was to create a design that could be very swiftly installed and a way of hanging the quilts that could happen very quickly. There were ten people hanging quilts and steaming them and they had to be able to do each one in just a couple of minutes in order to successfully get the exhibit up. So that was definitely a criterion. We had an enormous crew. PRG, the company that built the elements and supervised the installation and does major theatrical installations and trade show kind of stuff and they are incredibly effective at this kind of —if you will assult. It's a carefully planned very well executed operation of moving into an empty space and creating something there and they did an amazing wonderful job.
PJ: It sounds like someone had to think that if you we have 72 hours to install we need the hang time of each quilt to be approximately x minutes for this to work. Which is fairly precise timing.
TH: Yes and as it turned out we were actually very close to it. We had 14 hours of overnight time that was our buffer and I think we only used one of those hours. So it worked out quite well and was completed almost to the dot. Probably about 45 minutes after our paper goal and a good half hour or so before live humans walked into the place. So it was a tightly scheduled and well planned piece of work and PRG gets a lot of credit for that.
PJ: Perhaps this is a question best answered by the curators, but perhaps you know why the museum didn't want the show arranged by pattern or date or style?
TH: It is best asked of Liz, but I know in particular Mrs. Rose felt that way about it because she really wanted the diversity and the wonderful difference among the quilts to emerge. And to let people meet them on their own terms rather than arbitrarily arranging them in a way that dictates that you say ah this is where the red ones are, this where the white ones are, there are the geometric ones are there are the polka dots there are the Hawaiians. Rather than categorize them that way she wanted people I believe to encounter them as she had as these wonderfully diverse works and you can make up all kinds pairings in your own mind as you go through it depending on what catches your eye..And I think she wanted to maximize the potential for people to meet these things on their own terms and in ways that are enjoyable and meaningful. And I think largely the randomness succeeded in that certainly my own experience is that I have looked at far more of these quilts in detail than I anticipated in the exhibit mainly because different clusters keep jumping out at me as I walk through and every time walk through I see different things. I think that experience would have been diminished by a more academic clustering.