Harry Ransom Center

Buried Treasure

Austin's Harry Ransom Center uses environmental graphics to unveil its mission and collections.

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the University of Texas at Austin’s renowned literary archive, is home to some of the world’s most valuable cultural treasures. Its collections include one of only 48 copies of the Gutenberg Bible, a rare first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and one of Jack Kerouac’s spiral-bound journals for On the Road.

Until recently, the 1960s-era, brutalist/modern building that houses the center crouched quietly, fortress-like, on the UT campus—revealing not even a hint of the treasures inside. All that changed with a $10 million renovation that includes new galleries, a theater, and reading and study rooms designed to welcome researchers and the general public.

Lake|Flato Architects (San Antonio) invited daylight into the building for the first time by recapturing two stone-clad exterior corners and encasing them in glass. “Our opportunity was to turn a very introverted building inside out by doing something that would tell passersby what was going on inside,” says Bill Aylor, project architect. Lake|Flato called on fd2s, inc. (Austin) to create environmental graphics that would pique visitors’ interest in the treasures within.

Initially asked to do the base building graphics, including room identification, wayfinding, and donor recognition elements, the fd2s team hit on the idea of etching iconic images from the center’s collection on the glass curtainwalls. “The collection is primarily paper and film—not things you can put on a pedestal or display in a traditional way,” says Suzi Poore, fd2s’ lead project manager. But the team could use such treasures as storyboard art from Gone with Wind, Dorothea Lange’s photography, and stop-motion photography from The Running Man to represent the collection on individual glass panels.  

Pieces of the puzzle

The center’s curatorial staff turned over “a truckload” of materials, including digital images and photostats of pieces whose owners were likely to grant permission for use on the walls. Then it fell to fd2s to curate and collage the elements on the walls, which each consist of two 25-by-25-ft. stretches of glass made up of individual thermal glass panels up to 4- by 9-ft.

“The museum director loves James Joyce, so we knew we needed to include something of his but, other than that, it was our job to figure it out,” notes Poore. Designers meticulously sifted through the images, choosing ones that were graphically interesting and would reproduce well in the etching process.

“The challenge was balancing all those disparate images and making them pleasing, living beside each other,” says Steven Stamper, fd2s principal. “It was like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, fitting the images into the shapes of the glass panels, balancing the densities, and also trying to inject a sense of humor into it by pairing images so they created a narrative.”

In total, approximately 90 images were captured for each entry wall.  After designers composed the elements, the fd2s production staff spent long hours digitizing the files and enlarging them to full size. Enlarging second-generation images was tricky, and required digitally recreating some areas and filling voids. “We had to get the completed files approved by the client for accuracy,” explains Poore. “The files were enormous and working with them was really challenging because the processing time was unbelievable.”

The laid-out digital files were turned over to Skyline Design (Chicago) for an eco-etching™ process that transferred the images onto the third surface of the ¼-in. thick thermal glass panels. “The ‘eco’ part of the process is that the media we use to abrade the glass is reclaimed and recycled over and over again and doesn’t go into the environment,” says Mark Toth, vice president of Skyline’s architectural glass division. Aluminum oxide and other materials produce finely detailed imagery in a half-tone effect. Tinting the finished images using a light gray Pantone color gave them additional pop. 

“The trick was that no two images were alike in terms of their density,” explains Toth. “Some read really well and, because of the nature of the artwork, others didn’t read as strong. So we had to apply the finish over it to balance everything out.”

Accident of light

During a visit to Skyline’s shop midway through the etching process, Poore took photos of each panel to show her team back in Austin. When she saw the photos for the first time, she got a big surprise. Viewed with a naked eye, all the images had looked positive. But the photos showed that, depending on the time of day and where the light source was coming from, the images could look positive or negative. The translucent panels allow in natural light by day, and at night, backlit by interior lights, become giant image lanterns. “It was a happy accident,” says Poore.

It’s an accident that visitors to the center have enjoyed, says Christine Lee, senior marketing associate. “Prior to the renovation, we didn’t have general audience visitors,” notes Lee. “One of the goals of the renovation was to bring natural light in and make the building more welcoming to the public.”

The windows provide a dramatic entry statement and a focal point for prospective UT students and their families, school groups, and other visitors. fd2s created a print visitor’s guide and legend that maps the panels, and images of the windows are also being used for the center’s visual identity and marketing materials. Sometimes visitors even take the images home with them: docents discovered that, using photosensitive paper laid over the images, visitors can create cyanotypes of their favorite panels.

Treasures on display

Elsewhere in the center, Pentagram’s Austin office was chosen to design permanent exhibitions for one of the stars of the collection: a rare copy of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed with movable type. 

To respect the historical importance of the Gutenberg Bible, printed in Johann Gutenberg’s shop in Mainz, Germany, in 1454 or 1455, Pentagram gave it a prime exhibit space between the center’s entrance and the entry into the main gallery.

The exhibit needed to draw visitors’ attention without impeding access to the main gallery. To provide a “sacred space” for the Bible, the Pentagram team conceived two freestanding curved panels that form an ellipse that is open in the middle. The panels were clad with horizontal strips of dark wood, evoking an environment that had grown naturally out of an existing one. The dark wood visually connects the exhibit to the floors of the gallery space beyond it. The exhibit is identified with individual letterblocks—made of wood but painted to look like metal— that resemble pieces of movable type.  Inside, the Bible itself is displayed in a simple glass case on a pedestal.

--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 19, 2008



Location:  Austin

Client:  Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin

Architecture: Lake|Flato Architects

Environmental Graphic Design: fd2s, inc.

Design Team: Steven Stamper (principal), Susanne Harrington (creative director), Suzi Poore (project manager), Shawn Harrington (designer), Wayne Johnson (production)

Fabrication: Skyline Design (etched glass panels)

Photos: ©2007, Hester+Hardaway Photographers



Location:  Austin

Client:  Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin

Architecture:  Lake|Flato Architects

Exhibit Design:  Pentagram

Design Team:  Lowell Williams (creative director/art director), Kim Toda (project manager, designer), Wendy Carnegie (designer)

Fabrication:  Austin Architectural Graphics

Photos:  Thomas McConnell

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