Boxed in


POSTED: Monday, March 16, 2009

Gallery design involves skills important to most artists: a sense of space, an understanding of color, light and even graphics. But it also requires a command of interior design and an understanding of human behavior. The goal: engage the viewer with the art while keeping the design virtually invisible.

“;You don't want audiences feeling the heavy hand of the designer,”; says Lisa Yoshihara, director of the University of Hawaii Art Gallery. “;The primary job in designing a space is to enhance the work; it sets the stage for the work.”;

It falls upon Yoshihara to design the gallery for each exhibit, and her deft touch is evident in the space's latest show, “;The 10th International Shoebox Sculpture Exhibition,”; which displays 141 shoe box-size pieces.

Yoshihara started with a color scheme that she and her staff, with the help of UH art students, carried through not only the gallery, but in the design of the catalog and publicity postcards, creating a signature look for the show.

“;In November or December we met with Ricky Chan, a grad student and our graphic designer, who was putting together the catalog. As the creative director, I told him I wanted the cover to create a feeling of sculpture: boldness, heaviness. Think metal.”;

Chan chose for the cover image a cast iron and bronze piece from the show by Hanna Jubran, picking up on the colors in the work. In particular he selected an earthy, muted orange to use in some of the text.

“;When I saw that orange, I thought it was a wonderful accent,”; Yoshihara says.

That color became vital to her gallery design. Vertical strips of the orange, painted on the narrow sides (rather than flat sides) of the space's movable hanging walls, serve multiple purposes.

Because the works are small in scale, Yoshihara put everything on low-level platforms of two heights. “;People bend to get in close to the work, and they start to get a backache. The orange line prompts them to look up, to move and stretch,”; she says.

It also serves to help visitors move through the space. With more than 100 pieces in the show, all virtually the same size, the exhibit could have been cumbersome to visually navigate. But the strategically placed lines give the audience subtle hints of where to go next.

On a purely aesthetic level, the orange provide a vertical look to the show, which otherwise comprises low horizontal lines.

“;It's a juxtaposition of contrasts,”; Yoshihara says.

Beyond the orange lines, the walls of the gallery were also painted in tones from the catalog cover image. A perimeter wall was painted a darker shade than the other walls, providing a dark matte against which visitors near the entrance could see works well into the room. “;It provided a silhouette of the works,”; says Yoshihara.

The design crew decided on the wall paints by sifting through hundreds of swatches and visiting Home Depot and City Mill, where they bought small cans of various shades to test on the walls.

In deciding how to situate platforms, the group started with a 2-D computerized architectural model and eventually created a 3-D foam core model. The sculptures were loosely grouped according to themes.

“;We were constantly critiquing and dialoguing,”; Yoshihara says. “;We had discussions that lasted for days.”;

An added touch to the exhibit design is one open window, which looks out into a bamboo garden. This brings an element of natural beauty into the room while allowing visibility to passers-by outside. But as with everything in the design, this element is handled with restraint because “;too much bamboo would detract from the works of art.”;

An interesting tidbit: A 1960s psychological study of traffic patterns in museums found that Westerners tend to go right when navigating a gallery space.

That's not to say an exhibit can't be designed to steer visitors in a specific direction. After all, these designs appeal specifically to the subconscious and affect behavior.

In the case of “;Shoebox,”; there's an “;open flow”; design that allows the audience to go where they may. “;That's mostly to the right,”; Yoshihara says. To counter that tendency, she placed strong works to the left.

Yoshihara says gallery design work cultivates an artist's vision to “;become much larger.”; Rather than homing in only on their own art, designers must have concern for an entire body of work.

“;The hardest thing to teach is how a design feels,”; Yoshihara says of the gallery design course she teaches at UH. “;A good design allows (the art) to capture the viewer's attention so much that they lose sense of time.”;