de Young Museum


Debra Nichols Design


Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

Project Vision

de Young Museum Signage and Environmental Graphics

San Francisco’s de Young Museum had been closed to the public since 2000 after being damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Designed by Fong & Chan and Herzog & de Meuron architects, it reopened in September 2005 on the same site in Golden Gate Park.

Environmental graphics were inspired by the building’s unique copper skin, a quilt of 7,200 panels that were punched and embossed to suggest light filtering through a canopy of leafy trees.

The environmental graphics program encompasses the 293,000-sq.-ft. museum building, sculpture gardens, and grounds. The scope included identity, exhibition display, wayfinding, exterior didactic and donor recognition, and code signs.

For the museum’s main identity, the design team’s 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. Designers first explored modification of the rasterized pattern to define the letterforms, but that proved too subtle. They 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.

The ethos for the rest of the project followed suit. The passage to the museum’s Entry Court is lined with floor-to-soffit glass panels carrying more than 6,000 names of donors from the community. Donations of all sizes were recognized, becoming a point of pride for many people not often recognized for their support. The names are a running pattern of copper leaf, allowing the graphics to become part of the architecture rather than an applied finish. Physically as well as symbolically, the walls of the building were comprised, in part, of the support of major benefactors, whose support made the building possible.

For interior gallery and donor-named major spaces, the team cut into wall materials to embed ½-in. thick, 4-in. tall bronze letters. Letterforms were cut into glass walls. Gypsum board walls had museum-grade MDF panels with waterjet-cut letter recesses taped in and painted out. Steel sheeting attracts magnetic tape on the backs of the letters. When a gallery needs to be painted, the letters can be popped out of the recesses, then repositioned after painting. The same technique was employed for code signs in public areas, minimizing the interruption of the clean, taut skin of interior planes. All of the signage is hand-finished bronze, matching the highest qualities of the building.


Project Details
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.
Juror 1
Design Team

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

Design Firm

Debra Nichols Design


Thomas Swan Signs (interior sign fabrication, installation), TubeArt (exterior sign fabrication), A. Zahner Metals (building exterior skin fabrication)