Collection and Writing: Mrs. Joanna S. Rose
American Folk Art Museum
Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the
competition, in which an esteemed jury
identified submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear,
compelling and accessible way. It serves as an example of how to explain design
thinking to clients, students, peers and the public in general, based on
The American Folk Art Museum contacted Thinc Design in March 2010,
inviting us to participate in a design competition amongst a small
number of firms. The written brief was incredibly short—less than a
page long. The museum asked for an installation design for 800
red and white quilts from a private collection. The exhibition would be
held over the course of five days in March 2011, and it would be the
largest quilt display devoted to a single color scheme ever presented.
The location would be the 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall of the Park
Avenue Armory, an 85-foot-high vaulted structure with distinct historic
character. The brief included the necessity for an integrated museum
shop and café area, and the entire exhibition needed to be able to be
installable in less than three days.
Through conversations with the curator, we learned that this was the
first large quilt event in New York City in nearly a decade, and, unlike previous events, it would be free to the public. We also discovered
that the installation would have a minimal amount of didactic
information. The collector wanted the quilts to appear as a united
vision: a spectacular overall view that included nearly endless,
explorable variation. The experience also needed to be true to
quilters’ passions and fully engaging to a larger audience.
We were challenged to show the collection as a collection, in addition
to successfully exhibiting the individual quilts, without overwhelming the
public. The quantity of quilts was one of the show’s defining
characteristics; the patterning array and the material volume were
breathtaking. However, visitors also needed to experience the quilts
without a feeling of relentless repetition—particularly those who were not
already passionate about quilts.
We were informed that we would be responsible for all aspects of the
display and installation, and the design needed to be “efficient and
cost-effective.” We were initially told that we would work with a
graphic designer of the museum’s choice; we instead proposed to provide
that service ourselves.
Throughout the course of the design execution it was determined that 651 quilts would be exhibited. The installation time was reduced to less than 72
hours so that the exhibit could remain open for an additional day.
Though the museum considered the primary target audience to be quilters,
and the sold-out adjacent programming supported this notion, the
collector, Joanna S. Rose, considered this installation a “gift to New
York.” Due to the influence of a strong collaboration with the public relations
firm Resnicow Schroeder and a growing audience attending arts
programming at the Armory, the installation was highly anticipated by the design,
architecture, arts and quilting communities.
Our graphic design scope expanded from the creation of street banners, a brochure and a single didactic
platform to include advertisements for both antique shows and the New
York Times. We also provided signage for the call-in cell phone tour
(which included perspectives from both the curators and our designers on
the creation of the exhibition) and graphics for an iPhone/iPad app
that allowed visitors to look at each of the 651 quilts in greater
detail. From the initial brief, throughout the design process, we
understood that this exhibition needed to be awe-inspiring in all
respects—from its vast, overall impression and scale, down to the
ability to view each quilt’s individual details.
Histories of the quilt and the 19th century rise in popularity of this
classic color scheme were provided by guest curator Elizabeth V. Warren
and the American Folk Art Museum. Although extensively researched, the pasts of many
of the individual quilts remain unknown. Other quilts—embroidered with
names of loved ones, birth dates, locations and more—offered a
glimpse at their makers within their very own threads.
In order to fully engage a space of such magnitude, structures were
studied through architectural drawings and digital models for both the
design and installation phases. In addition, to better comprehend the nation’s
quilting demographics, we consulted the Quilters Consortium of New York
State as well as the “Quilting in America 2010” study.
The first challenge was to show the entire collection as a whole without
overwhelming the public. Cylindrical pavilions, each formed of quilt
pairs that generated an inner and outer surface, snaked through the
exhibition hall, creating changing vistas. A huge sweep of quilts formed the
background of the exhibition, rising up over a large café. The most
detailed and important quilts were arrayed on a long, sloping arc that
provided close-up viewing while also forming a long bench along its inner
The second challenge was to create an experience with the quilts without the sense of
relentless repetition—particularly for those visitors not
already passionate about quilts. The varied pavilions created a variety of environments and
vistas that measured up to the variety of the quilts. Ample,
upholstered poufs at strategic vantage points allowed clusters of people
to sit, take in the view and talk with each other. The exhibition was
characterized by long stay times and very social, open interactions, even
among strangers. The lighting also engaged the eye and provided visual
relief. Each quilt was framed separately and the whole exhibition pulsed
subtly and gently, in waves.
The third challenge was to use the quilts themselves to convey a sense of the often-anonymous makers or communities of makers whose
creativity, skill and cooperation were literally stitched into the
quilts. The design team centered the exhibition on a ring of chairs
with a “tornado” of quilts rising more than 45 feet above them—a
representation of quilting circles and their prolific production.
Flowing outward and around this feature were cylindrical pavilions that
enabled intimate viewing while permitting people to take in a
breathtaking array of patterns crisscrossing the exhibition.
The fourth challenge was to develop a sustainable, inexpensive system of
display that would utilize the vaulted ceiling of the Armory, configure in a variety of ways and not call attention to itself, retain the quilts securely and safely, and be fully installed in a very short period of time. The
hanging system was designed as a straightforward sequence of
installation steps that could be reliably repeated by several crews
working simultaneously in the hall. A simple system of suspension cables
threaded through cardboard tubes mounted with binder clips held the
quilts. These were suspended from rented theatrical trusses, which enabled
the entire assembly to be done from the floor, in stages.
Each pavilion was raised independently; several crews worked
simultaneously from the top rows downward as the trusses were gradually
lifted toward the ceiling. These minimal materials, along with simple
MDF platforms (which included both display areas and benches), are fully
reusable, and the cardboard tubes were sourced locally. Once a
projected tour is complete, the materials will be recycled.
“Infinite Variety” was a spectacular exhibition of a private collection of
651 quilts, arrayed so as to enable the public to fully experience the
vibrancy, creativity and productive exuberance of the quilts and the
communities that make them. The thrilling experience was intended to be
true to quilters’ passions and fully engaging to everyone, even those
with no prior interest. We used the quilts both as display objects and,
collectively, as exhibition architecture on a grand scale.
an endlessly explorable landscape populated by six towering
(30-foot-high) cylinders that were made entirely of red and white
quilts. Suspended from the room’s wrought iron arches, these
“gravity-defying” cylinders appeared to float in a serpentine trail
throughout the room’s enormous volume. Visitors could move among, inside
and through the cylinders to view the quilts from both near and afar. A
45-foot-high spiral of quilts, embraced by two curved ascending walls,
created a breathtaking centerpiece. Located beneath the suspended spiral
was a circular arrangement of quilts draped on chairs, an evocation of
the countless communities of quilters who crafted these intricate pieces
of American folk art.
All of this was made possible by a simple system
of suspension cables threaded through cardboard tubes mounted with
binder clips that held the quilts. These were suspended from rented
theatrical trusses, which enabled the entire assembly to be done from the
floor in stages. Each pavilion was raised independently
while several crews worked simultaneously from the top rows downward as
the trusses were gradually raised toward the ceiling. A large plinth
with printed statements by the curator and the collector formed the
threshold of the exhibition, with the full array of quilts visible
beyond it. It was the only interpretation in an otherwise unmediated
exhibition experience. Together, these elements formed a breathtaking
first impression and a multitude of viewing possibilities.
Visitors could download an iPhone app with high resolution photographs of each
quilt, or borrow an iPad loaded with the app free of charge. The
exhibition was characterized by long stay times and very social, open
interactions—even among strangers.
In order to accomplish the rapid installation schedule, preparation was
extensive—structures were studied through both architectural drawings and
digital models, elevations detailed the placement of each quilt and
individual quilts were labeled and boxed based on location. Lighting
plots also determined the locations of over 350 light fixtures, all of
which were focused individually during installation.
Joanna S. Rose wanted “Infinite Variety” to be a “gift to New York City.”
Samuel Parker, in The Last Magazine, called the installation “an
abundant gift that keeps on giving,” and Martha Stewart described the
experience as “...the most incredible display of quilts that I have ever
seen.” Many visitors wept at the entrance. Quilters traveled from
around the world, describing the experience as once-in-a-lifetime and
reporting that their art form had been acknowledged and revealed as
never before. Many non-quilters returned daily. The six-day event broke
the Park Avenue Armory’s daily attendance records; press coverage
ranged from quilt blogs to national media outlets as far away as
Australia and China.
The quilter audience was ready-made; the American Folk Art Museum has a
strong reputation and a substantial quilt network. What we didn’t
expect was the vast range of visitors—of all ages, races and socioeconomic types, from anecdotal and press-related
no-admission-fee policy insisted upon by Mrs. Rose reduced the barrier to
entry for many, and the Armory’s massive Drill Hall welcomed the resulting enormous audience.
The simplicity of our installation construction was also recognized as
an achievement. Tom Freudenheim wrote in Curator: The Museum Journal,
“In a Mary Poppins or Peter Pan magical manner, the fabrics appeared to
float in the air, even while the designers made no attempt to disguise
the simplicity of the cardboard tubes and rigging that held it all
together. As with observing any great work of art, one was immediately
struck by the notion that there was no other way this could have been
done.” He continued, “…Visitors may not have been conscious of it, but
that sense of the perfect solution to an impossible problem was surely
what helped generate ongoing astonishment as they strolled in and out
and under the works of display.”
Angela Riechers, in her article for Metropolis, recognized that this
astonishment was generated from the design approach itself. “On all
scales, from architectural to intimate, ‘Infinite Variety’ is a 360-degree
immersive experience that fuses both the whole and the parts into a
transcendent example of the art of exhibition design.”
But the design was felt to be as human-scale as it was transcendent.
According to Simon Schama of the Financial Times, we succeeded in our
attempt to activate the human relationships in the space, by
creating spaces of openness and—within the pavilions—intimacy. “[I]n
an age when all our fingers seem to do is race across a keyboard,” he
wrote, “a different kind of digital handiwork done with steadfast grace
and exquisite vision can afford us a glimpse of heaven on earth.”
Martha Stewart, as a scion of quilter culture, blogged that she felt
that the installation was “simply breath taking!” Visitors confirmed
that we’d succeeded in our design intent: Nancy Mirman, a quilter,
wrote, “The way that you hung the quilts made each one stand out, made
the viewer go from section to section and really see the quilts, and
best of all, provided an exhibit that was so much greater than the sum
of its parts.” As exhibit designers, we were sincerely moved by the
outpouring of excitement and support. Quilters also sent us images of their
own quilts, inspired by Mrs. Rose’s collection. We continue to receive
emails and images even today.
In regards to Mrs. Rose’s goals, press outlets confirmed that New York
City residents felt that they’d truly received a gift. The
American Folk Art Museum has been in the process of investigating
turning the installation into a traveling, revenue-generating show.
The exhibit spanned the entire floor of the 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall. Of the 651 quilts on view (more than 23,000 square feet of fabric), 160 were exhibited at eye level. The hanging structures included more than 338 cardboard tubes and more than 2,500 binder clips. The six cylinders each rose 30 feet high, and the central spiral reached a pinnacle 45 feet off the ground. As of 2010, the total number of quilters in the U.S. exceeded 21 million.
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