Youthful Curiosity Becomes Art at de Youngsters Studio

Read Time: 5 minutes

2019 SEGD Global Design Awards Merit Award-winning project de Youngsters Studio came about through a collaboration between the de Young Museum and award-winning firms Fuseproject (San Francisco) and Tellart (Berkeley, Calif.).

The de Youngsters Studio is an interactive environment in the family gallery of San Francisco’s world-renowned de Young museum that uses state-of-the-art technology to engage children and their caregivers in a participatory fashion, encouraging both physical and digital interaction in a new way—and by building on their natural curiosity.

Fine Arts Museums of California describes the role of curiosity in the development of the exhibition thusly, “The de Youngsters Studio is founded on the principle that curiosity is innate. According to a 2007 study by Chouinard, Harris, and Marastos, toddlers and preschoolers ask an average of 76 questions per hour, as their natural curiosity to understand the world coincides with their blooming language capacity. Developmental scientists, educators, and policy makers agree that maintaining and developing children’s innate inquisitiveness is critical to school readiness and beyond. Positive early-learning experiences carry a predictive power that extends beyond elementary school, wiring children’s brains for conceptual thinking and sustained interest. As many children reach school age, formal expectations and social pressures challenge their intrinsic motivation to learn, and as a result, their natural curiosity can diminish…A child’s environment—both the social environment and the experience—matters significantly in whether curiosity remains robust as a child grows. Of particular importance is the active role adults play in encouraging and promoting curiosity in children.”

The exhibition is located in a free-to-the-public area of the museum and is open to all ages, but is specifically tailored to ages three through eight to explore with an accompanying adult. Designed in accordance with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, technology components critically yield open-ended outcomes when used with the help of an adult.

“The de Youngsters Studio provides an opportunity for our youngest visitors to understand the components of art and to draw new connections in engaging with works in our collection,” remarked Sheila Pressley, director of education at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Building on FAMSF’s history of award-winning programming for children, families, and teachers, this space allows us to reach the next generation of art lovers and museum enthusiasts.” 

The fuseproject and Tellart design team’s objective was to connect users of the space to the museum’s content and art housed within with a dynamic permanent space that allows children to explore five core artistic concepts: color, composition, shape/form, texture and sculpture. “I am excited about the de Young’s vision to create a permanent space for children to get directly and physically involved with creative concepts,” said Yves Béhar, founder and chief designer of fuseproject. “We designed the de Youngsters Studio as an evolving space that integrates the environment and the arts contained within the museum. The result is an environment that is both permanent within the prestigious Herzog and de Meuron building, and also brings constant change by integrating new museum content.”

 Béhar continued, “The central structure is made of five [wooden] cubes opened and permeable in difference ways to allow discovery and physical interactions. Each cube [module] houses a unique creative challenge, from experimenting with color, texture and sculpture. We designed unique digital experiences that involve the kids physically: with their hands, body and mind they explore their own creative practice and understanding. To me this represents the possibilities of physical and digital learning at the service of future artists and designers.”

The first module consists of a digital column that employs sensor technology so that children can mix and combine primary colors. They do this by dragging their fingers across the column, creating digital pigments. It’s an open space that allows for interaction as kids move around the column exploring color mixing and blending their designs and sharing ideas with one another.

Four light tables at different heights invite children to create a piece of art by using simple acrylic forms for “composition.” As they work on the forms on backlit tables in front of them, the kids can see overhead projections of their compositions on the interior and exterior walls of the module. The larger projection increases a child’s ability to understand scale, while making their creations visible to their parents and other visitors in the surrounding area.

Live cameras capture children’s movement on a two-sided wall surface for “shape & form.” The human form is abstracted as a line, but when two kids’ outlines on the projection meet, intersecting patterns occur. Children work together to discover the various shapes that can be made with the human body. It is an interactive activity about movement and play and encourages physical use of the space.

In “texture,” physical tiles with textural features are placed on large digital touchscreens, creating a canvas where textual patterns are then drawn. Drawing with texture rather than lines is a new experience that makes novel artworks from elements derived from the museum’s fine art collection. Kids “paint” with texture, effectively extracting a 3D representation from a flat surface.

Collections of magnetized blocks are available in a variety of geometric and organic forms in “sculpture.” Kids make sculptures with the blocks and then place them into an augmented reality platform that captures the image in real-time and inserts the creations into an environment of their choice, inside and outside of the museum, like various galleries and the outdoor sculpture garden. Once projected, the dimension and scale of the image can be manipulated, giving kids the experience of creating an object and placing it into the world.

 SEGD jurors were quick to note the masterful use of technology and materiality: “This combines the use of a restricted color palette and simple shapes with technology serving as an opportunity for children to learn, grow and explore at their own pace,” and, “Clever incorporation of various interactive technology to consistently engage the young audience—beautiful.”

Project Name: de Youngsters Studio
Client: de Young Museum
Open Date: December 2018
Exhibition Design: fuseproject
Fabrication: Tellart (design-build partner)
Photography: Cesar Rubio (photography), Fine Arts Museums of California (videography)