Responding to what he sees as the blight of “reductive graphic design,” Ruedi Baur creates an interpretive, three-dimensional wayfinding program for The New School’s 16-story vertical campus in New York City.
Ruedi Baur is feeling contrary. The acclaimed Franco-Swiss graphic designer says of branding, “I’m critical of this idea that limits an institution to one sign. I’m more interested in how we make systems that have potential for expression and evolution.” Genius loci is another concern. “I have a problem with a design solution that can function anywhere, instead of specifying the cultural difference of a building and its city,” he notes.
If there is a theme that runs through his comments, it is that contemporary graphic design works too reductively. Where the discipline should celebrate or even enhance idiosyncrasies of client, program, or place, it glosses over uniqueness.
Baur uses environmental graphics to suggest an alternative to present-day practice, and his most recent project, a graphics program for The New School’s recently opened University Center in New York City, embodies this approach. It is not minimalist in the least. The system’s visual language morphs according to location, and it can be expanded to accommodate new wayfinding or identity initiatives by virtue of changes in color, shape, or material execution.
The structure and placement of these graphics is unassailably site-specific, as well. Letterforms are inspired directly by the architecture, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. And their visibility to both occupants and public passersby reflects The New School’s history of training socially engaged professionals, many of whom will be learning and interacting in the new high-rise.
The 375,000-square-foot building comprises dormitory as well as classroom spaces for The New School’s programs in art, design, and social research, as well as an 800-seat auditorium and other amenities. It is only the second building constructed by The New School in its 95 years. The University Center assignment is also Baur’s first commission in the United States. Officially the job was completed by Intégral Ruedi Baur, Paris, the oldest entity in an ever-growing consortium of European studios and think tanks that Baur has been overseeing since 1989.
“Mapping is a little bit of an obsession,” Baur says. Yet ask this obsessive about mapping an urban campus like The New School, and the contrarian in him is the first to speak.
Baur explains that academic campuses are oversaturated with wayfinding nomenclature. Besides physical addresses, campus wayfinding features “a building code, a building’s sponsor name, other donors’ names—you have all this complexity without really telling someone about the knowledge that’s transmitted somewhere.” For the downtown Montreal campus of Concordia University, in response he created directory walls seemingly splattered with these names and codes.
A closer look at the Concordia signage, completed in 2010, discloses the answer to the saturation problem. Names of academic and administrative offices are included within the abstract expression. A spatial logic presents itself, too: Larger words represent nearby facilities, while smaller ones stand for farther-away places. “This is an important element to me,” Baur says of the correspondence between letter size and the impression of distance. “How can you navigate a school not only according to numbers and codes, but in a way that is your own? Three-dimensional effects make natural orientation a possibility.”
In Montreal, Baur took on the condition he believes afflicts all building types—reductive branding. Baur accented the assorted wayfinding information with phrases like “Designing is not a profession but an attitude.” This motif was informed by a project for the Elisava School of Design in Barcelona, completed in the previous year, in which different interpretations of design and design practice were applied to a typographical entry wall.
Both the Concordia and Elisava projects are precursors to the University Center. Baur’s response to the New York commission includes academic and other programming text embedded within wayfinding, dimensionality for natural orientation, and editorial phrases.
Letterforms and architectural form
Baur’s first inspiration for The New School’s system was SOM’s design, which was substantially completed when provost Tim Marshall sought out Baur in early 2012. (The building officially opened in January 2014, and in the interim The New School installed an adapted version of Baur’s system at its Parsons Paris campus.) The 16-story scheme features a traditional dormitory tower for approximately 600 beds, placed over a 230,000-square-foot, seven-story academic base volume conceived as a vertical campus.
Circulation is key to the campus mentality in this academic component. SOM connected classrooms, studios, and common spaces via double perimeter stairways, of which a fire stair works in tandem with skip-stop elevators to move occupants up and down the building efficiently. Meanwhile, a broader communicating stair provides a more leisurely means of travel, especially as students alight on “sky quads” that include lounge areas and resource centers. These open, ostensibly unprogrammed spaces are meant to support and even impel collegial exchange.
SOM created an exterior equivalent to the interior organization. Hand-finished brass shingles, which evoke the cast-iron and brownstone facades of adjacent historic districts, enclose purpose-built rooms within the academic base. The bronze-colored walls are streaked in faceted glass that puts stairwell activity on public display.
“The parti was interesting,” Baur says of seeing the stacked stairways for the first time, calling their placement at the building edge “absolutely contrary to most buildings. We tried to react to this exciting situation, and to find a way to narrate The New School identity within it.”
His reaction is typographic. Working with Irma creator Peter Bilak, Baur superimposed Irma Light on Irma Black to create the effect of three-dimensional perspective—the contoured appearance of which he likens to “the glass boxing of the facade.” Initially the design team had proposed a similar layering with Gotham, but Bilak waived his licensing fee for the University Center project.
One prime location for the reinvented typeface is the very stairwell that prompted it. Baur selected titles of old seminars and lectures to apply to the ceiling of the fire stair, not unlike the typographic wall at Elisava. “I think seeing course names helps you understand The New School,” Baur explains. “These texts really show the school’s longtime social and political direction, and the many different academic programs it has had historically.”
The designer chose the ceiling for this historic ticker for its visibility from the street, so that even members of the public can engage in The New School’s legacy. He wants the ribbon-like element to make history, as well, so it will be painted by hand over the course of eight months.
In the meantime, Brooklyn-based Signs + Decal executed the customized Irma throughout the University Center. Approximately 500 room markers hang next to class and conference spaces, as well as dorm units. Made of oxidized bronze sheet metal and rectangular bar stock, the signs were produced in two standard widths; some are machined, milled, and threaded to hinge open and shut to accept paper inserts.
Signs + Decal President Babu Khalfan likens the prototyping and final development of these signs “to making a Swiss watch.” Project Manager Abbas Khalfan concurs. “It’s not an easy sign to fabricate, because of the three-dimensional prismatic effect.” To achieve it, the letterforms and corresponding Braille are reverse-etched from the bronze sheets, which were oxidized for a vintage appearance that evokes the exterior brass cladding. The letterforms underwent multiple screen printings, so that negative space between the printed portions suggests extra contouring.
For donor signage located in the main entry of the academic base volume, Signs + Decal etched letterforms with registration marks on bronze plate, and then water-jet-cut them inside a 6-by-12-foot tank. Characters—whose size corresponds with donation amount—were then mechanically fastened to bronze backers. Color was applied by paint, instead of via screen printing.
Adaptations for wayfinding
Baur says the dimensionality of the superimposed Irma fonts “understands the architecture.” A variation of the new typeface not only reflects SOM’s form making, but exaggerates its effect, to help University Center users orient themselves.
Because the reimagined Irma indicates perspective, it can be manipulated in one direction or another to focus attention or suggest space. Whereas at Concordia, Baur employed size to indicate proximity of destinations, he intensified Irma’s perspective effect as it moves from the ground floor to the 17th floor. The stretched-out characters that flank the academic volume’s uppermost sky quad have a balancing-act quality, while those at street level feel flat. At the top of the University Center’s dormitory tower, they seem downright precarious.
Not every wayfinding graphic sports this manipulation. Elevator directories, for example, portray the new Irma shapes straightforwardly, and employ a Sherwin Williams orange to indicate real-time location. (In another nod to Concordia, and to Baur’s desire for more programming information in general, elevator lobbies also feature academic directories.)
On the other hand, this signage does share a production method. After a stenciling attempt that yielded jagged lines, Signs + Decal produced a sharper image by screen printing the signs on site. Because of the prismatic shifts, “We needed one screen set-up for stair C on a floor, and different set-up for stair C on the next. There are very few repeats,” Abbas Khalfan says. Moreover, “We had to field-survey each and every location to check for obstacles. In the stairwells especially, you can run across fire-hose cabinets and standpipes.”
Even in uncomplicated locations, in-situ installation was defined by complexity. In the case of the 16-square-foot elevator directories, Khalfan says, screen printing “involved three people positioning the photo positive to match the elevation drawing. Each one of these signs would take two hours to screen print; we used hair dryers to speed up the process a bit.” And because crews worked in strips, “Once you have a set-up, you have to go back exactly to where it was aligned.”
Screen printing matches the vintage bronze color of the wall-mounted signage or, on colored walls, appears like white knockout type. On stone, sheetrock, and tack-up Forbo, it was largely completed in Speedball water-based ink in order to qualify for LEED credit. A die-cut 3M vinyl film applied by heat gun, usually intended for digital printing, substituted screen printing on concrete surfaces, and a more typical die-cut vinyl was placed on glass. Because the project team and client eschewed graffiti protection for color consistency, The New School is considering archiving photo positives in case of a redo.
On the second floor of the University Center, the faceted glass building skin frames a 5-foot-tall dimensional sign that spells out The New School. Plainview, New York–based Going Sign & Servicing shop welded eighth-inch aluminum sheets into individual letters, mechanically fastening them to the interior wall on aluminum backing via Z clips. A coat of red paint makes the installation appear truly integral with the architecture.
Here, Baur demonstrates the versatility of his distorted Irma. Instead of indicating height, the letters taper in depth from left to right, from 30 inches to 9 inches, to appear as if facing southward. Yet each letter sports a slightly different perspective, “so you don’t really know where the center is,” Baur says. Outlined in LEDs, he concludes, “this strong effect has to do with the visual culture of New York.”
As if this project’s architecturally inspired forms or its bright-lights centerpiece did not fully embody the spirit of the University Center already, there is this additional, quintessentially Big Apple aspect to consider: change. Already Baur and his collaborators are discussing expansions to the system, such as screen-printed words in the dormitory that effect an even stronger sense of New School identity.
--eg magazine No. 09, 2014
Editor's note: David Sokol is a New York–based writer and editor. His most recent book is Nordic Architects: Ebbs and Flows.
THE NEW SCHOOL SIGNAGE AND ENVIRONMENTAL GRAPHICS
Client: The New School
Location: New York
Project Area: 375,000 sq. ft.
Opened: January 2014
Design: Intégral Ruedi Baur
Design Team: Ruedi Baur art director, David Thoumazeau, Alexandra Bauch, Lisa Kitschenberg, Stéphanie Brabant
Fabrication: Signs + Decal Corp. primary fabricator, Going Sign & Servicing Co, Inc. main identification sign
Architecture: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, LLC
Photos: © Intégral Ruedi Baur (except as noted)