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Gensler (New York) was called upon to create a new museum and workspace in Manhattan that captures the essence of the American Kennel Club: recognized and trusted expert in dog breed, health and training.
While the American Kennel Club originated in 1884 primarily as a registry for purebred dogs, the organization does much more today—furthering the well-being of dogs through educational and philanthropic efforts. Founded in 1982, the AKC Museum of the Dog is dedicated to the collection, preservation, exhibition and interpretation of art, artifacts and literature about dogs for the purposes of education, historical perspective, aesthetic enjoyment and to enhance the appreciation for and knowledge of the significance of the human/canine relationship.
International architecture and design firm Gensler has had a relationship with the AKC for over 20 years, so naturally they were consulted on potential new office space for the club, which brought up questions about the existing AKC Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. With the impending New York office move, the AKC saw a chance to create a much more impactful museum space on the ground floor of the building that they were considering—a serendipitous opportunity to bring the museum back to the Big Apple and have the collection and office housed under one roof—at 101 Park Ave, just steps away from Grand Central Station.
Located on the fifth floor, the new workplace design Gensler introduced employs an open-floor layout that offers AKC staff new collaborative work spaces and ensures that all employees have access to ample natural light. Legacy furniture from the previous headquarters was repurposed for the new space, including the original AKC boardroom table and upholstered chairs in the office’s research library. The overall design balances tradition and progress by contrasting art from AKC’s collection with industrial elements such as concrete, black metal, and white lacquer.
The museum resides below on the first two levels of the building, the ground floor of which is double-height, and occupies about 11,230 square feet. The museum is a powerful example of a multidisciplinary design that bridges art, education and entertainment—very important in a cultural destination like New York. However, Gensler Creative Director, John Bricker is quick to point out, “In New York, dogs are wonderful connectors. We had a great foundation of subject matter to work with in partnership with the AKC to develop all of the content for the digital experiences as well as the more traditional didactic panels.” Staff, passionate about their dogs, were excited to participate in the project.
The Gensler team for the project was comprised of 27 designers across five areas of expertise who worked on the physical environment for just over a year. The goals of the space are to showcase AKC’s collection of canine fine art—including paintings, drawings, watercolors, prints, sculptures, and bronze and porcelain figurines—and to represent the organization’s identity as an advocacy, educational, philanthropic and research institution.
Gensler also developed a new logo, identity and guidelines for the museum—and in the tradition of MoMA and many other great museums, they created an acronym, MoD, for Museum of the Dog. “We wanted to create an identity that was approachable, and didn’t take itself too seriously,” explains Bricker. “We led the strategy around the brand and museum; the client was amazing in their embrace of it, considering how different it was from what had been done. Tying everything back to the mission of the AKC and what it means was incredibly important—that bigger narrative around dog ownership and the relationship between dogs and humans.”
Key to illustrating that identity were the innovative physical and digital touchpoints that the design team created and integrated throughout the two-story museum, which gave new life and context to the collection. The AKC’s art collection is the second-largest collection of art featuring dogs as the subject (the Queen of England claims the largest) with over 1,700 works of art. The Gensler team took a decidedly un-stuffy and custom architectural approach to displaying the vast collections—for ultimate flexibility in the use of space and collections, paintings are displayed on rotating walls and three-dimensional objects are encased in an engaging 34-foot-tall glass vitrine in the center of a winding stair. Beside the stair, an eight-foot-tall digitally modeled wireframe Labrador Retriever fabricated by Yellow Goat Design hangs from the ceiling, illuminated by color-changing LEDs to give a dynamic presence.
The team’s creative approach to the use of space extended to the AKC Resource Center—a library holding hundreds of canine-focused reference books that can be reconfigured for public lectures and educational events with an analog activity table for young visitors, where their creations are documented over time. The team even carved out a broadcast space for AKC.TV where the organization can film their video content.
The team created numerous engaging digital touchpoints for the MoD, to showcase the client’s excellent depth of content—not because it was a specific request, or as Bricker says “digital for the sake of digital.”
He asserts, “We wanted to ensure we were doing the right thing in the right location where people would take the time to interact and further, wanted that to be time well spent.” Prototyping and testing were absolutely critical to the team’s process: “You can conceive an idea and build it, but if you don’t get user insights and do prototyping, it’s all for naught.”
The first of these digital touchpoints is reached from the street, where Gensler placed a 60-foot-wide band—a digital art installation—consisting of a rear-projection screen that sits back from the façade about 24 inches playing a 10-minute loop of various breeds of dogs walking across the screen in silhouette over a white background. In silhouette, they’ve captured the character and personality of the dogs, while creating an effective source of surprise and delight—and a draw into the museum. Gensler employees’ dogs were the models for the piece, filmed on green screen using a small treadmill, certainly no small feat for non-Hollywood-trained canines.
The piece has been an instant favorite; there’s even talk of an augmented reality addition to the AKC Museum of the Dog app to identify the breed of each dog as they pass. The Gensler-designed app primarily displays information and videos about selected artworks, including AR experiences like the virtual, kid-friendly guide dog named “Arty,” a “Best in Show” vote from the Museum’s collection and AKC-related services.
One of the first things to do once inside is to “Find Your Match,” at one of two digital kiosks where visitors can have their face scanned and matched to a dog breed. Once they’ve been matched, they can email it to themselves, get a print, or share it to Instagram. (Sadly, dear readers, you cannot access this experience on the app.) “It’s the selfie, rethought; it’s a wonderful point of engagement, a whimsical way to start the museum visit—and very fun to watch others experience!” interjects Bricker. The idea came to him in a dream, he woke up in the middle of the night thinking about it and months later it was realized through developing a series of points for facial recognition and an assessment of how to best match it with breeds. Gensler worked with their internal digital experience experts, creative technologists and coders in addition to an outside partner on the backend.
On both ground and upper floors, “Meet the Breed” tables are access points for four people at a time to learn about the 193 breeds the AKC has registered. To learn more, a visitor can simply touch and pull the dog of their choice from a stream of breed choices into a dog house directly in front of them, then a “placemat” pops up with all the breed information—physical characteristics, personality traits, origins, and where that breed is featured in the collections. The tables use data pulled from AKC’s in-depth research and archives, making these resources more available to the public.
Next, the “Train a Dog on the Job” exhibit teaches visitors how to train a virtual dog with voice commands and hand signals. This digital experience is triggered by physical movement when standing in front of the large vertical 80-inch diagonal panel where visitors meet “Molly,” a Yellow Lab puppy, and are given prompts on how to train her using hand signals. Molly barks and chases butterflies like a real puppy but is rendered in a playful animation style. “There is no audio telling you what to do,” explains Bricker. “The instructions are written on the screen for users to act out.” AKC was instrumental in the creation of the training exhibit, bringing in a trainer and pedigree dog from Los Angeles to create the footage.
Additional touchpoints include an AKC story wall that displays and communicates AKC’s history and its current activities and initiatives, from analog and digital donor walls that celebrate the various donors and sponsors at the various levels, to a digital “Breeder of the Year” experience where you can meet the breeder of the year. “It’s a celebration of showmanship and all the events and elements that make up the dog expert community,” says Bricker. “We needed to make an acknowledgement of that.” The other piece that’s important to point out is that the design of this overall experience, he says, is that it needed to be appropriate for everyone, from the person who is an expert on dogs and the person that doesn’t have a dog—but likes the idea of dogs.
With its reinvented presence, the AKC’s Museum of the Dog and NYC headquarters share the organization’s mission with a new generation of dog lovers and visitors through memorable experiences and distinctive design. That’s pretty doggone good.
Project Name: American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog
Client: American Kennel Club
Location: New York
Open Date: February 2019
Project Area: 11,230 sq ft
Architecture Team: Jan Gross (principal-in-charge); EJ Lee (design director); Bevin Savage-Yamazaki (museum strategy, design advisor); Matt Piechowiak (technical director, project architect); Jessica Barnhouse (project architect); Rose Novak (project manager); Ju Hyun Lee, Brandon Smart (designers)
Experiential Graphic Design: Gensler
Design Team: John Bricker (creative director); Amanda Zaitchik (design manager); Adi Marom (digital experience design director); Ryan Miller, Kelvin Chiang (graphic designers); Hannah Huff (strategist); Miyeon Kim (designer); Eileen Moore (environmental graphic designer)
Fabrication/Digital Integration: Maltbie (exhibit fabrication), TriTech (A/V integration), Yellow Goat Design (sculpture), Goppion (custom vitrines), Amuneal (pivoting gallery walls)
Collaborators: AV&C (software development), Shen Milsom & Wilke (hardware systems design), Gramercy Tech (mobile app development), VVA Project Managers and Consultants (Cathy Dixon, project manager), Hillmann DiBernardo Leiter Castelli Inc. (lighting), Lord Cultural Resources (museum consultant), Milrose Consultants (expediting), VDA (vertical transportation), Gilsanz Murray Steficek (structural engineers), Syska Hennessy Group (MEP), Cerami & Associates (acoustics), Miller Blaker (woodwork), Structure Tone (GC)
Photography/Videography: © Eric Laignel courtesy of Gensler (photography); David Woo, courtesy of AKC (photography); Gensler (photography/videography)