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The exhibition was a joint project between Kristine Matthews’ Exhibition Design class at the University of Washington and her professional design studio, Studio Matthews (Seattle).
By Kristine Matthews
The University of Washington’s Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity was born in May 1968 after members of the Black Student Union and their supporters occupied the office of UW President Charles Odegaard, demanding greater diversity in the UW’s student body, staff and faculty. This iconic student protest led the UW to create one of the nation’s first office of minority affairs, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this spring.
Late last year, OMA&D approached Studio Matthews to design an exhibition to celebrate this cultural milestone. The exhibit was planned for a large atrium in Allen Library North on the University’s Seattle campus.
In spite of the tight timeline, I thought it would be a great project to integrate into my Exhibition & Installation Design class, which I teach each winter quarter to the University of Washington Design seniors. I proposed this approach to Jeanette James and Leilani Lewis at OMA&D, the organizers of the exhibit. They were very excited about the prospect of involving UW students in the work, as current students were the primary target audience they wanted to inspire.
Furthermore, I thought it would be a great chance for design students to realize how an exhibition project evolves from a concept on paper to a real, built experience—and one that would be on public display on campus during their graduation. The Studio Matthews team was excited to work together with and mentor the design students and seized the opportunity to “give back” to the community.
We kicked off the project in class by inviting in Jeanette, Leilani and most importantly, Emile Pitre, a founding member of the UW Black Student Union and a key participant in the 1968 protest and events featured in the exhibit. Emile spoke directly to the students about the events of 50 years ago that led to major transformations in UW policies on discrimination and equity. His words were clearly an inspiration in their design concepts. At this time we were given a timeline and set of historic and current photos, setting out the history of the OMA&D.
A mix of Visual Communication Design students, Industrial Design students, and Interaction Design students, the class worked out concepts together in mixed teams of three to four. They developed design concepts for a month, with input from the Studio Matthews design team—Matt Cole, Ian Campbell and Nicole Fischetti—a key part of the process.
The work needed to address some of the very real restrictions of the Allen Library environment, for example, nothing could hang from the walls, ceiling or be adhered to the floor. The students started by visiting the site, looking at different vantage points and approaches. They considered their audience—UW students, staff, faculty and visitors—and asked themselves: “What would interest me? What would get my attention and pull me in to see and read more?”
The Industrial Design students brought the most experience and know-how with materials and construction techniques, though most of their previous projects focused on product design rather than built structures. I advised the teams to initially set aside questions about fabrication (“How would this get built?” “Would this be able to stand up on its own?”) and instead concentrate on coming up with a wide range of concepts.
Their creative development lasted four weeks from start to finish and was punctuated by two all-class pin-up charrettes. Ian, Nicole and Matt joined me for critiques and team work sessions, providing feedback on concepts, compositions and practicalities.
The first crit required at least two significantly different sketched concepts by each team. Teams experimented with both physical forms and with story content, exploring how it could be effectively organized or themed.
I was pleased with the wide range of ideas, from a newsstand complete with traditionally printed newspapers, to a winding, dramatic table top displaying a narrative that “invited everyone to the table,” to a series of walls to be metaphorically (or perhaps even literally) broken down through the course of the exhibition. One intriguing idea featured a large set of chairs, each of which represented one of the sit-in protestors from 1968. The chairs were arranged into unexpected configurations, almost as data points, to illustrate different parts of the historic narrative.
At the end of four weeks, all teams presented their final concepts to a team from OMA&D, including Jeanette, Leilani, Emile as well as Rickey Hall, vice president. The OMA&D team were inspired to see the wide range of concepts and were extremely impressed by the student work. They reported having a difficult time choosing any one concept to develop because they “loved them all.”
I worked alongside my design team at Studio Matthews to consider how some of the best ideas could be pulled together into a workable and functional exhibit that could also be built for the fabrication budget. (Studio Matthews developed the project almost entirely pro bono, in order to put the majority of the budget towards fabrication.)
One student team that included Christen Miyasato, Monica Niehaus, Angela Piccolo and Samantha Spaeth had cleverly batched the exhibition content into themes that tied to the five demands made during the 1968 occupation of the UW president's office. Their concept was named “Tearing Down & Building Up.” Another concept, “Celebrate/Absorb/Reflect” by Dana Golan, Eva Grate and Jazmine Hoyle proposed a very effective dimensional design to activate what was otherwise very flat content. These two concepts provided the inspiration for the final design solution developed by the Studio Matthews team.
Cole led the effort to develop the final design solution. The five walls concept was expanded into 3-D framework structures. This approach allowed each “wall” to be freestanding and also provided an opportunity to affix imagery and text on different layers, creating a dynamic dimensionality similar to the student concept, “Celebrate/Absorb/Reflect.”
For fabrication, we partnered with Imagine Visual Services, with whom we’ve worked on many projects previously. Although Imagine typically handles more flat graphics than built structures, after talking through the design concept they agreed they could take on the whole thing: printing, fabrication and installation. This was a lifesaver with the tight budget because, although we had to cut out one interaction-focused structure and reduce the introductory structure by half, the result felt right-sized and very dynamic in the space.
The original student concept featured a very rough compressed particle board and though we investigated using the same material for the final installation, after discussing it with the client, we went with a more refined look and feel. Using a finer particle board also allowed successful direct printing to the material.
Direct printing meant we could avoid using PVC or other plastic-based graphics or films. Direct-printed MDF was used for all of the smaller panels, with stenciled titles and selected CNC-cut silhouette shapes. With exposed hardware fasteners and an open, “raw” framework, we embraced the student-suggested theme of honest construction.
The structures were test-assembled at Imagine, then disassembled and brought to the Allen Library for efficient assembly on-site with minimum disruption to staff and students. Simple sand bags were added for extra stability, then covered with a natural burlap to tie in to the look and feel of the rest of the construction.
The OMA&D team and Emile Pitre were thrilled with the final result. It was wonderful to see the design students witness the very real impact of their concepts and to see their ideas produced on a scale they could actually walk through! Thousands of students, staff and faculty saw the exhibit in its prominent location at the Allen Library during graduation festivities, May 1 through June 15, 2018.
To extend its public display, the exhibit was moved to nearby Mary Gates Hall, home of the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity.
Read more about OMA&D and its 50-year anniversary
Kristine Matthewsis the associate professor of design and chair of the Visual Communication Design program at the University of Washington in Seattle and owner + principal of Studio Matthews.