For an architectural practice specialising in directing the public, it wasn't easy finding its office at 20 Wharfdale Road in London's King's Cross. The fact that it has a huge bright orange front door with the number 20 in large numbers next to it might have given me a clue, except for the fact that it is actually on an entirely different street altogether - Lavina Grove.
That's architects for you.
I was here to meet RFK Architects to look at its proposals for the Tate's new 'Turner Whistler Monet' exhibition, opening today - but also to see how it got into this type of work.
Admittedly, exhibition design, just like interior design, is one of those professions that many architects believe they can do themselves without the intervention of a specialist, so I thought it would be interesting to find out what kind of specialism RFK brings to the table. Exhibition design is, after all, against the grain of the current trend in gallery design that says the architecture should be as important as (or in some cases, more important than) the art itself. In sympathetic exhibition design, the architecture form and layout is meant to enhance the art but not be intrusive, to assist the core goal of presenting art to the public but not to be part of, or usurp, the art itself.
Shared history RFK was founded by Alan Fairlie, an industrial designer trained at Central Saint Martins in London, and Debby Kuypers, an architect who studied at the University of Edinburgh. Fairlie describes himself as having had a 'varied career' before joining Stanton Williams Architects and working as senior associate on many of the practice's museum and gallery commissions - schemes as varied as Whitby Abbey Visitor Centre, the Ashmolean Museum and the Royal Observatory. Kuypers worked for eight years for Benson + Forsyth, earning her spurs on the Museum of Scotland (including the 'Scotland in History' exhibition) and the National Gallery of Ireland extension.
Both finally worked together in Stanton Williams Architects' offices on the fit-out of the Selfridges half of BDP's massive Marks & Spencer (M&S) store in Manchester. Half the store was demarcated to remain in M&S's orbit, highlighting interesting contrasts in attitude between the two client bodies. For example, even though both stores share fire-escape routes, M&S's fire strategy is to throw all the doors open to facilitate immediate escape, while Selfridges' strategy is to minimise the alert until a member of staff has checked out whether the alarm is genuine. This has as much to do with the financial value of each store's respective stock as with their desire to minimise alarm and casualties.
Setting up on their own just two years ago, the pair maintained their links with M&S and were rewarded with the appointment to carry out the fit-out for the experimental, muchpublicised, but ultimately ill-fated, M&S Lifestore in Gateshead, working directly with Vittorio Radice and John Pawson. They designed the stylish service equipment, displays, shelving cafeteria etc, working with lighting engineers, artists and graphics specialists and directing ideas. But, ultimately, the store proved unfeasibly expensive and closed after four months.
That project was a turning point, in more ways than one, 'an incredible learning experience, ' says Fairlie.
It was very interesting, he continues, that Radice put his head above the parapet and said what he wanted:
'[M&S] effectively designed in nine months what would normally have taken 15 years to bring to fruition. It showed us the importance of leadership? even though we were clearly part of a close team, to work well we didn't get involved in things that were not our specialisation.' This defence of specialist expertise is quite refreshing. It is certainly not that RFK has no opinion on what is the best option (and is happy to volunteer its thoughts on the matter), but it believes that 'designers are paid to design'.
RFK's work with commercial retail clients over the years has also provided it with valuable experiential and intellectual capital to adapt for other types of work. For retail clients like outfitter Fenn Wright Manson, RFK studies and advises on the necessary 'densities', ie the amount of stock displayed.
In a street market, for example, cheap clothing can be stacked in bargain bins at high densities, requiring people to rummage buy. Whereas Chanel sells relatively few clothes because its perfume is the profitable market.
Therefore, the clothes are there as markers to draw people in to try out the perfumes, and so the clothing 'density' for more upmarket stores is light. As Fairlie says, a cheap wine glass takes on a different meaning if it is stacked three deep on a shelf or mounted singly on a central display cabinet. The trick is to work out what end result and what psychological games are needed to achieve the best effect. RFK then designs the entire fit-out, down to the clothes rails and coat hooks.
Rather than employing academic sociology and predictive computerflow modelling, RFK prefers common sense and experience. It seems to do well at it, since most of its work is either repeat business or word-ofmouth recommendations. It has just completed a new M&S Lifestore in Kingston, for example.
The art of shopping The practice, says Kuypers, 'sees parallels between museum and exhibition designs and retail design'. Before I could argue that this consumerist ethic is crassly dumbing down art appreciation, they clarified that the comparison refers only to the understanding of people flows and encouraging people to behave in certain ways. While this is not about prescribing crowd behaviour, it is a method of directing crowds but with the sole aim of best displaying the artworks. So, in the same way that RFK displays objects as products in retail areas, it aims to display objects to their best effect in a gallery environment.
After its successful Pre-Raphaelite show last year, RFK has now immersed itself in the work of Whistler, Turner and Monet, and shows an impressive depth of knowledge of the artists, their history and their proximity (in sociohistorical and geographical terms).
Part of its task is to tease out connections in the artists' work and to downplay false connections. Its role is to play a part in the telling of a scholarly enterprise, rather than doing things for effect. The curator has grouped the paintings chronologically, but RFK is involved in making sure that this helps tell a story but doesn't accentuate the public's love of Monet at the expense of the other two.
Technicalities, such as displaying an oil painting (requiring 200 lux) between two watercolours (requiring just 50 lux) are handled with aplomb.
To explore layouts, each room has elevational drawings of each wall with the paintings sketched on - including details of the ornate frames, so that these can be taken into consideration in the final design of how paintings will sit next to each other - and background colours trialled. Models are made, lighting tests carried out and hand-coloured doodles added to the drawings.
The rich browns of Whistler's beautiful 'Nocturne' lithographs, for example, are echoed in the background wall without subverting their visual subtlety, and housed in a dimly lit room with a low ceiling that has been constructed en route, to try to ensure that they receive more attention and are not rushed past to get to the water lilies.
'We're not being tricksy, ' says Fairlie, 'but simply trying to ensure that these artworks are displayed to their best advantage. For example, when this exhibition was displayed in Toronto, the Canadian designers had set up a rather sham version of Ruskin's study tables, complete with olde-worlde wainscoting. RFK has opted for more modern, but simpler, white projecting easels to convey the idea that Turner's sketches need serious study, without sinking into pastiche.
After speaking to RFK, I will not look at my shopping and gallery experience in the same way again. Neither will I take for granted the beautifully simple decisions that go into making an exhibition memorable. A strong curatorial presence is essential, but it also means that architects would do well to learn from the colour choices, lighting levels, flow behaviour and low-key structural interventions in the exhibition 'experience'.