de Young Museum

Skin Deep

The ethos of San Francisco’s de Young Museum is embedded in its copper skin and in architecturally integrated donor recognition.

San Francisco’s de Young Museum had been closed to the public since 2000 after being damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. After two bond issues for its reconstruction failed, it looked as though the museum might never reopen.

But Herculean efforts by a resolute fundraiser and donations from thousands of private citizens finally led to a triumphal reopening in 2005. Designed by Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron with local architects Fong & Chan, the 293,000-sq.-ft. structure reigns over Golden Gate Park once more.

The building’s most distinctive feature is its copper skin—a quilt of 7,602 panels that were individually cut, punched, and embossed to simulate dappled sunlight filtering through leafy trees. The skin, which required 950,000 pounds of copper, was the architects’ way of imprinting the aura of Golden Gate Park onto the building.

Debra Nichols Design, commissioned to create signage and environmental graphics for the museum, was inspired by the copper skin as well as by the donors who made the museum’s reopening possible.

For the museum’s exterior identity, Nichols’ intent was to integrate with the organic texture of the copper skin, imposing the name of the museum into the pattern on panels adjacent to the main entry.

“First we explored modifying the rasterized pattern to define the letterforms, but that proved too subtle,” says Debra Nichols. “Finally we realized the name would be more legible if the dot pattern was completely interrupted, becoming a paradigm of the museum as the introduction to the park.” The 8-ft.-high letters celebrate the building within the organic setting.

Just as the museum’s ethos is communicated in its exterior skin, donor recognition elements are embedded in its interior skin. The passage to the museum’s entry court, for example, is lined with floor-to-soffit glass panels carrying more than 6,000 names of donors from the community, many of whom gave as little as $1,000.

“It seemed philosophically appropriate to incorporate the names of donors into the interior skin,” explains Nichols. “Physically as well as symbolically, the walls of the building are comprised of the support of benefactors who made it possible.”

While it’s very unusual for a museum to recognize small donations so prominently, the wall has become a point of pride for many people not often recognized for their support, says Deborah Frieden, formerly the museum’s project director.

Even so, the signage program needed to express a hierarchy of donor giving. To minimize interruption of the clean, taut interior planes, Nichols opted for simple bronze lettering inlaid in wall surfaces. For the largest donor-named spaces, ½-in. thick, 4-in. tall bronze letters are embedded in waterjet-cut, bronze-finished panels inset in the walls. For lower levels of giving, bronze letters are embedded in laminated glass or in laser-cut Medite® panels.

The inlaid effect required precise measuring and cutting of the wall surfaces, says Mike Roberts, vice president of Thomas Swan Sign Co., the primary fabricator. “For example, we provided the contractor with Medite panels that had already been laser-cut with donor names. The contractor taped them in during drywalling and we filled the voids with the bronze letters, making sure they were flush with the walls. It all needed to look like part of the wall, not an add-on.”

The letters are as practical as they are elegant, adds Roberts. They’re backed with magnets, and spaces behind the voids are lined with steel sheeting. When painting or other maintenance is needed, the letters can be popped out with a suction cup and later replaced without damaging them or the walls.

--segdDESIGN No. 21, 2008

Jury comments

“Texture becomes typography in an exquisite and seamless blend of architecture and signage. Light, texture, and materiality together inform, perform, and transform.”

“This captures the true intersection of EGD, architecture, and interiors. Where one designer begins and the other ends is seamlessly woven into a delightful visualization and interplay of materials, light, and meaningful messages.”


Location:  San Francisco

Client:  Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

Client Team:  Harry Parker (director), Deborah Frieden (project manager)

Architecture:  Herzog & de Meuron, Fong & Chan Architects

Design:  Debra Nichols Design

Design Team:  Debra Nichols (design principal); Bill Comstock (managing and construction principal); Michael Healey, Joyce Ng

Fabrication:  Thomas Swan Sign Co. (interior sign fabrication, installation), TubeArt (exterior sign fabrication), A. Zahner Metals (building exterior skin fabrication); Swinerton (construction)

Photos:  Debra Nichols Design

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