The Sell: Retail and exhibition design

On now at the National Library of Australia is The Sell: Australian Advertising 1790s to 1990s. It’s a simple and entertaining exhibition which serves up enjoyable doses of nostalgia (Life. Be in it.), laced with moments in history (the 1967 referendum). There are poster ads for politics, products, performances and public health.

I love exhibitions, and it’s hard for me to visit one without analysing the design even as I am taking in the content. The Sell is nicely put together, and the design sits back and allows the content to speak for itself. That content brought to mind something I have been mulling over for a long time—the strong links between retail and exhibition design.

I have worked in both these fields, starting with retail design and then moving into designing exhibitions. I think they share four fundamental elements that designers work with to create successful spaces.

The narrative

Each exhibition is telling a story that has been developed by the curators. It is the job of the designer to interpret that story and translate it spatially. In exhibition design, the story is laid out fairly clearly for the designer through the supplied content.

Retail has its own story that requires interpretation—the brand narrative. This can be easy for the designer to interpret (such as when you are working on store design for a well-established brand), or you may be designing a first store for a fledgling company who are just starting to develop their story.

In either case, the job of the designer is to interpret and embody the narrative in a spatial design that lets the visitor/customer understand it, enter into it, and (hopefully) embrace it.

The products

In a retail setting, the products are on display for sale. Within an exhibition, the objects and content are the products, and they need to be displayed just as effectively. In either case, the display method, the height and angle of display, the order, the labelling and whether or not they can be handled all need to be considered in detail. There is no point at putting products or objects at people’s feet, or up above eye level. The lighting must be right to enhance them and make sure that the labels can be clearly and easily read. It’s the designer’s job to put these items on show in the best way possible.

Visitor flow

This is one of those topics that has been studied endlessly, particularly in the retail industry. It’s fascinating and important on many levels in both retail and exhibition design. Ideally, designing a good layout means understanding and meshing both the way that people tend to move through a space, and the way the client would like them to move through that space. On top of that, there are safety issues to consider, such as the location and availability of emergency exits. All this is simultaneously a science and (still) a complete mystery (if you want to look further into this, read this interesting Malcolm Gladwell piece from twenty years ago. Everything and nothing has changed).

The flow options will of course vary from project to project, but you will always need an entry, an exit and a plan as to the order in which people will progress through the space. It’s also worth noting that in these days of capitalism and funding cuts, an exhibition layout will generally need to funnel visitors out via the exhibition shop. There’s the synergy right there!

Advertising and graphics

Once the spatial elements are worked out, it is the work of graphic designers to help get numbers in the door, and encourage sales or donations. I was amused by how many banners and graphics there were in the NLA lobby selling The Sell. It was way-finding and advertising all in one, and it’s a crucial part of both the retail and exhibition experience.

What are the implications of these fundamental similarities? A number of retail brands (particularly those projecting a high-end narrative) already borrow heavily from the museum playbook (single objects in cases, dramatic lighting, sparse layouts etc.). Meanwhile, museums are becoming more aware of the value in examining and altering traditional exhibition orthodoxies. Exhibitions are becoming more immersive, utilising technology and conceptual design to express the content and highlight the objects. Lessons from retail design can be used to push this even further, particularly around frequency of display changeovers to create impetus to revisit, and taking the idea of dynamic and enticing shopfront displays as a means of drawing visitors in. The similarities are strong, and the possibilities are endless.

Influence: Kingdom Home

Once feared and reviled, wallpaper has come back into its own in the last ten or so years. I for one am pleased to see it back, as nothing adds instant impact in the way that wallpaper can. The best wallpapers tell a story, set a mood and even function as art.

Kingdom Home was established by Kenneth King in 2014. It’s a boutique studio that makes wallpaper and fabrics to order, using both hand screen and digital printing . If you are looking for muted minimalism you won’t find it here. Kenneth’s designs are a gorgeous riot of colour, underpinned by some very clever illustrations. His is a talent I have seen at first hand, when we both studied interior design at the University of Technology Sydney. Right from the start, Kenneth’s illustrations were incredible, little stories within drawings that were always intriguing. His work shows a strong visual sense underpinned by a variety of influences. I asked Kenneth about those influences, and how he goes about creating a new design.

What particular periods or visual styles influence your designs?

Being of Asian heritage and having grown up in the west; art and design with cultural significance inspires me. I also love illustrations in any form and manga artwork.

Do your influences tend to change, or have some remained the same?

Always changing – it is important to understand trend and interpret it into your own designs.

How do you approach a new design? How long does it take from initial drawings to getting a design into production?

I break down the design, meaning I would look at it as if each colour or element is on its own screen. I will then draw up each “screen” and edit it in photoshop to create the element and experiment combinations of each element to create the overall pattern and repeat. Colouring will come last after the design is completed. It generally takes me a month to bring a design from concept to life.

How do you know when a design is working? How do you know when it is right?

Honestly, I don’t! I just do what I love and if I love it I hope others will too!

Flowerpool wallpaper by Kingdom Home

Flowerpool wallpaper in full bloom

Wallpaper at The Butle

Custom design for The Butler in Sydney /// Image credit: Katherine Lu, interiors by Luchetti Krelle

Wallpaper collaboration

A collaboration with Llewellyn Meija creates a intricate jungle

We love these bold and beautiful designs. In case you are thinking of taking the plunge, here are my top three tips for using wallpaper.

Treat it like an artwork

You wouldn’t buy an artwork that you weren’t sure about, so use that same discernment with wallpaper. Choose something that you love, and that lifts your mood whenever you see it. Follow your instincts, not anyone else’s.

Don’t try to compete with the star

A bold wallpaper is going to be the star of the room, so get out of its way and let it shine. Your furnishings should complement the wallpaper, without trying to compete with it.

Hang it properly

The key to success is to install it properly in the first place. Installing wallpaper is an art and a skill and not for the amateur. Don’t try and do this yourself, get a professional. Your wallpaper supplier should be able to provide recommendations of good installers in your local area.

Repairing the future

In the last couple of weeks, a research project and a restaurant have made me think about sustainability, re-use and repair in interior design.

Recently, a panel discussion was held to discuss Object Therapy, a project undertaken by Hotel Hotel, UNSW and the ANU as part of the Fix and Make program. Object Therapy began in May with a call for participants to bring in broken objects. Each object was then handed to a repairer, who could respond to the object in any way they chose. Thirty objects underwent this process.

Having seen the finished objects exhibited at Hotel Hotel, I thought I knew a bit about it, but the panel discussion really brought the whole experiment to life. I was fascinated by the stories of these objects before, during and after their repair, and by the underlying issues of ownership, repair and sustainability. It was clear that in many cases it was difficult for the repairers to divorce themselves from the owner, or the story that the owner had conveyed about the object, even if they had wanted to. In one case (Susannah’s fan, see images below), the object had a disturbing history that could not be ignored. The repaired objects ranged from the functional to the decorative to the conceptual with many ending up with an entirely different function to the one they started with.

Object Therapy

Elizabeth’s broken knitting needles /// Image: Lee Grant

 

Object Therapy

Transformed into a bracelet by Kyoko Hashimoto and Guy Keulemans /// Image: Lee Grant

 

Object Therapy

Susannah and her broken fan /// Image: Lee Grant

 

Object Therapy

The fan, repaired by Susannah Bourke to crank out and shred its own history /// Image: Lee Grant

The project appears to have had a similarly transformative effect on some of the repairers, with one expressing an intention to focus on modifying existing objects from now on, and not make anything new. This is an inspiring resolution, and it reminded me of the design of a restaurant I had just visited.

OTIS Dining Hall is located in Kingston, in what was previously the site of the Belgian Beer Cafe. When I walked in, I could recognise elements of the beer cafe, but the atmosphere was entirely revamped. In an out of the ordinary move, the owner Damian Brabender chose not to rip everything out of the space, but instead repaired and re-used what was there, adding only what was needed. Brabender and head chef Adam Wilson sanded and re-stained the flooring and the original timber wall panelling. They kept the bar, tweaking the colour and adding LED strip lighting and white tiling to define the area. The duo also restored the existing chandeliers, with the addition of a dimmer for better lighting control. Adding in some recycled timber tables, the space was transformed from European beer cafe to modern Australian bistro in a cost-effective, sustainable way. The result really works, not least by evoking echoes of what was once there.

Interior design, hospitality, restaurant

The main dining area /// Image: Martin Ollman

 

Restaurant, design, interior design

Repaired and restored atmosphere/// Image: Martin Ollman

In my experience, fixing and repair as a means of sustainability does not play a huge role in interior design, and that’s a shame. The pressure for up-to-the-minute, trendy fit-outs comes from many sources, and clients who hire a designer are usually doing so in order to get something new. Adaptive re-use tends to fall mainly into the realm of architecture, with old buildings taking on new lives.

Visiting OTIS Dining Hall and Object Therapy has inspired me to look for opportunities to re-use or transformatively repair elements of existing fit-outs in my new designs. It might be joinery, lighting, door hardware or a wall cladding. It could be a case of simply re-surfacing existing joinery, or using it in a completely different way.

Using re-use and repair as an interior design tool makes sense on many levels. It can aid the planet, it could help the client’s budget and, as shown by Object Therapy and OTIS Dining Hall, it can provide a meaningful new life over layers of memory for an object or an entire space.

Object Therapy will tour nationally in 2017.

To watch interviews with the participants, click here.

To book a table at OTIS and eat great food while you watch the interviews click here.

Influence

Welcome to Influence, an interior design blog about inspiration in all its forms.

I’ve been an interior designer for twelve years now, and started my own business, Design Community, at the beginning of 2015. I also teach interior design part-time, so I’m kind of surrounded by it! Apart from actually designing, one of my favourite things is to hear my students describe their ideas, and how they came up with them. What they are telling me then goes beyond the finished product, and lays bare their influences — the things they see, hear, read, watch, experience. Designers absorb all these things, and then use them to create something new, something that will in turn go on to influence someone else.

That’s the thing — influence is always on the move. It feeds into how trends come (and go). It inspires what we see, hear, buy and use. Designers influence and are influenced, it’s all part of the job.

I am going to explore influence in all its forms, and how it relates to interior design. There will be case studies, interviews, retrospectives, reviews, news and things I love which might just interest and inspire you. Keep watching this space, and please share your thoughts on what influences you. You might just spark something.

Getting the ball rolling, here are a couple of examples of the influences on two of my recent designs.

Shelving for an Indian restaurant

I love designing and detailing joinery, it’s always absorbing and gives me a chance to try out new ideas. For this project, I decided to give some simple wall shelving a twist, by taking inspiration from depictions of Indian gods.

Ganesha’s many arms inspired a shelf with upturned ends that could be installed in different configurations. The shelves are all the same size (keeping costs down), but they can look quite different depending on how they are laid out on the wall.

Interior design inspiration

Ganesha is the Remover of Obstacles, which is also an apt description for shelving

 

Custom shelving for hospitality design

The final product, eight identical shelves carefully set out for display or storage /// Image: Redzebra Photography

Donor plaques

For the donor wall at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, I wanted plaques that had a presence on the wall, with a tactile appeal. They had to look chunky and appealing. I liked the idea of layering materials to achieve this, and thought back to the old liquorice allsorts, a blast from childhood. Layers of colour, at different thicknesses, that make you want to squeeze them. Come to think of it, we probably all get our best ideas while eating lollies…

Licorice allsorts, inspiration

Hmmmnn

 

Finished design for the donor wall at MAGNT

Layers of acrylic, both clear and coloured, create a tactile display /// Image: Helen Orr