By the Book
PenguinCube’s donor wall for a non-profit art school shows that big ideas can be better than big budgets.
The Ashkal Alwan Home Workspace is a unique, scholarship-driven contemporary arts school and artist residency space that opened in Beirut in 2011. It provides a tuition-free program for 15 young artists and cultural practitioners to work for 11 months alongside a resident scholar.
The initiative, including the design of the building, is entirely funded by donations from organizations and individuals. Giving proper thanks to those donors, and encouraging others to contribute, is important to keeping the school alive.
“We didn't have a space before, so we simply honored donors on our website and in our communications, in the order of the amount they gave,” recalls Amal Issa, assistant director of the school. “But since we were embarking on a big project that was going to require continuous fundraising, and we were targeting private donations on a big scale for the first time, we wanted something that would encourage and invite support, without coming on too strong. Something that would fit our image as a serious and innovative non-profit for the arts.”
The donor element also needed to fit visually with the school’s new home, a former furniture factory in a heavily industrial Beirut suburb. Given its location and its focus on contemporary art, research, production, and education, PenguinCube SAL (Beirut) looked for a solution that would sync with the stark, unfinished look of the space.
The concept of a bookshelf emerged from the idea that each of the donations is an important contribution to education and research. What better way to represent this than through one of the oldest and most grounded methods of providing education—the book?
“We opted for wooden blocks, which are inexpensive to make and engrave, and require no maintenance,” recalls Mia Azar, PenguinCube senior art director. “We also wanted something that would be usable for another five years, so wooden blocks of all permutations have already been cut and put in storage. Any time there’s a new donor, we just have to engrave and fill the name and it’s ready to go up.”
To subtly indicate levels of giving, the team designed “books” of varying sizes and woods that are shelved in a simple system: one shelf per year, each shelf displaying the donations given that academic year. In addition to the size of the books, six different types of wood—from walnut and cherry to acajou and pine—were used to represent, in a subtle yet effective way, the different categories of donations.
“What is brilliant about the Bookshelf project is that it acknowledges our donors in a subtle yet warm and friendly way, without spelled-out categories or levels of giving, which can be a bit tacky,” says Issa. “And the empty shelves ready for the coming years are inviting, just waiting to be filled.”
“We had long discussions about the wood’s histories, their geographic origins, and their specific qualities,” recalls Bassam Matta, general manager of Bassam Matta Est., the project fabricator. “We also explored different thicknesses for the shelves in order to keep the mountings hidden.”
Donor names were engraved on each book. Again, inspired by the rawness and simplicity of the space, the PenguinCube team opted for a mill finish on the blocks and a basic engraving technique. They selected Fedra Sans for the text because it is part of the Ashkal Alwan identity.
“Usually traditional wood engraving is not complicated. In this project the designer wanted to keep the wood natural without any varnish or coating,” recalls Garbis Deyirmenjian, general manager of Peter’s Brass, the engraver. “After engraving nonvarnished wood, it's not possible to fill in the engraved area with color or paint, so the challenge here was to keep the wood natural and fill in the engraved areas with paint. This technique requires special procedures and experience.”
Issa says Bookshelf has been well received by visitors—and potential donors. “People often come and say, ‘So what do I have to do to get my name on there?’ Everyone likes it and is amused by it. It’s very witty and also really warm.”
--By Jocelyn Short, eg magazine No. 02, 2012
“The project is a brilliant combination of clarity, purpose, and place. Its simple and familiar design gives the standard donor recognition wall an intimate presence that also reflects the character and principles of the space. It's a brilliantly compact statement.”
Client: Ashkal Alwan, Lebanese Association of Plastic Arts
Project Area: 7 by 2 meters
Open Date: November 2011
Design: PenguinCube SAL
Design Team: Mia Azar art director, Josette Khalil creative director, Tammam Yamout project director
Fabrication: Bassam Matta Est. wood sourcing, fabrication, and installation, Peter's Brass lettering engraving and filling with ink
Photos: PenguinCube SAL