Case Study: Our Global Kitchen
Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2013 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 14 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments.
“Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture” is a 8,800-square-foot traveling exhibition that presents food from a wide variety of angles, closely examining the place it holds in our cultures, the politics of its production and distribution, its origins and how it is prepared and enjoyed worldwide. The exhibition’s scope encompasses the science and anthropology of food, as well as issues like abundance and scarcity.
The exhibition opened in the competitive New York exhibitions market on November 17, 2012. It will travel within the U.S. and abroad for five to ten years, so all graphics are designed to accommodate two languages for bilingual venues. It targets a wide range of ages—from children to seniors—and levels of scientific sophistication.
The challenge for the exhibition graphics was to give physical form to complicated stories using very different exhibit techniques. In some places, the graphics play a supporting role, explaining life-size dioramas or objects. In more content-heavy areas, the graphics themselves become the primary exhibition experience, acting as the objects themselves. Therefore, our graphic strategy had to move back and forth between these two different contexts.
For example, a 60-foot curved corridor graphically articulates the ways in which foods have been shaped by human selection for yield, taste, shape and adaptability. Diverse growing methods are brought to life with miniature models layered with oversized environmental imagery. Map-based case studies of modern global markets are juxtaposed with an ancient Aztec marketplace diorama. Elsewhere in the exhibition, tables set with food serve as a graphic space and place for the visitor to physically examine the meals of iconic and historically important figures from different cultures worldwide. In object-oriented sections, traditional label decks and vertical signposts orient the cases.
Because of the very different physical and conservation requirements from one section to the next, even the materials used had to be adaptable—from inkjet prints on varied substrates to conservation approved digital C-prints.
Designers shared the responsibility for extensive content research with the editorial and curatorial teams in addition to conducting their own visual research, which centered around vernacular food graphics: food carts, farm stands and supermarkets.
In the more content-heavy sections, such as the 60-foot wall showing how humans have shaped food over time, the graphics take center stage. The emphasis here is on movement and change, showing the “before” and “after” stages of a piece of engineered food: 12 eggs a year for a wild chicken versus 364 a year for an industrial chicken, for example. These graphics are punctuated by three-dimensional models mounted directly on the wall itself, while graphic standoffs add greater depth and dimensionality. A large cod, an oversized apple and 364 eggs stacked from floor to ceiling bring both a layer of physical infography and an air of whimsy to otherwise very dense content. The friendly language of supermarket fliers is introduced here via a brushstroke typeface and a graphic burst that also permeates the remainder of the show, even in the more sedate, object-oriented sections.
Where models, objects or living specimens are featured, the graphics “step back.” The language of arrays predominates in a section on cooking, which includes a wall of utensils and a wall of cookbooks. Here, relevant graphics are layered over translucent plexi that acts as a veil. Open windows cut through the plexi reveal featured objects. With photos and type often printed directly on the plexi itself, shadows are manipulated to maximize the feeling of depth while also preserving legibility. The coolness of the plexi is offset by intro panels and standoffs printed directly on MDO, a plywood faced with a kraft paper. Edges are left raw. The material is meant to evoke the cardboard boxes and palettes used to contain and ship food, bringing a certain organic warmth to the show.
We faced several key challenges in developing materials for “Our Global Kitchen.” The use of very different exhibit techniques from one section to the next meant that the graphics had to be tailored to each location; economies of scale were not possible. In addition, many of the ideas did not inherently have strong visuals: an array of potatoes, for example, does not an exhibit make. Moreover, the graphics had to fill in the gap between mundane objects with important stories and stunning displays with more peripheral stories.
The graphics in this exhibition succeeded in making some abstract ideas visual, like the notion of change over time. They were able to unify a very diverse collection of exhibitry, lending the show a sense of cohesiveness that was not a given at the outset.
To date, “Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture” has generated a lot of buzz and received a great deal of positive press. In a review published in November 2012, The New York Times called it an “ambitious feast of a show.”