Most people go to exhibitions to look at the objects. Eggheads go to read the labels. Design geeks (and museum professionals like myself) want to study the installation itself. How are the platforms and cases constructed? How are the texts laid out? How are supplementary graphics handled?

Cooper-Hewitt’s new exhibition Design for a Living World was designed by Pentagram. The design team sought to make the exhibition conform not only to fire codes, ADA guidelines, and museum conservation practices, but to make the installation sustainable as well. Here’s how they did it.

How are the photo panels printed?
The exhibition features dozens of original images by photojournalist Ami Vitale. The photos are printed on aluminum panels that magically reflect light. Museums usually print photographic enlargements on paper or vinyl and mount them to foamcore or Sintra (a hard plastic). These materials are not biodegradable, and they can’t be recycled or reused. Pentagram used a process called direct-to-substrate dye-sublimation printing: when the ink is heated and transferred to the material, the ink embeds into the surface of the metal. The resulting print is durable and scratch-resistant, and each panel can be recycled (like a soda can).

How were the overlapping panels designed?
Overlapping the panels adds dimensionality to the graphics. The technique makes reference to shingles, a vernacular building method used around the globe. Jeremy Hoffman, a graphic designer on the Pentagram team, created paper models of all the shingled wall montages in order to test and calculate the overlaps.

Is this process significantly more expensive than using Sintra?
Direct printing on aluminum is slightly more expensive than traditional techniques, but it may be less expensive in the long run. Printing directly to a rigid surface eliminates the use of adhesives and a paper or vinyl substrate. It’s an almost a flawless process, so you avoid rejecting panels that have imperfections resulting from all of the handwork that comes into play with mounting and trimming traditional output.

What material is used for the casework and scaffolds?
The exhibition is designed to travel. Instead of creating solid temporary walls, most of the wall structures are made with exposed wood studs, reducing the use of materials. The open scaffolds also reference informal building techniques seen in many parts of the world. The wall structures and the legs of the casework are made of FSC-certified Spanish Cedar harvested from Bolivia. The wood thus comes from forests that implement sustainable logging practices.

What else makes the exhibition sustainable?
The aluminum panels are made from 94% recycled aluminum, and the decks of the cases are made of Medite II, a medium-density fiberboard manufactured from 100% recycled or recovered wood fibers bonded with formaldehyde-free resin. (Cooper-Hewitt often uses this material.) The exhibition catalog was produced with sustainable materials as well; for more info, see Chul R. Kim, “Green” Publishing.”

Exhibition photographs by Paul Warchol and Brian Raby

Exhibition Design: Pentagram Design / Abbott Miller, Brian Raby, Jeremy Hoffman, Kristen Spilman
Exhibition Fabrication: Design and Production, Inc.
Graphic Production: Mega Media
Lighting: Jeff Nash Lighting Design

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