2°C – the exhibition design


21 September 2015

Today sees the opening of 2°C, an exhibition about communicating climate change devised by Disegno, designed by Universal Design Studio and hosted at The Aram Gallery.

Curated by Riya Patel, 2°C invites leading practitioners from across design disciplines to reconsider the public communication of climate change. The exhibition’s central premise is that design might play a role in changing the way in which the public conceives of the issues surrounding global warming.

Disegno challenged Marjan van Aubel, Sam Baron, Maria Blaisse, Ilona Gaynor, Ross Lovegrove, Neri & Hu, Parsons & Charlesworth, PearsonLloyd, Universal Design Studio and Dominic Wilcox to all imagine provocative and challenging new ways in which climate change could be considered, discussed and presented.

A major part of this communication is the exhibition design itself. 2°C has been created by award-winning architecture and interior design practice Universal Design Studio. Each exhibit is contained within its own spruce plywood booth. The plywood has been CNC cut and the panels are secured in place by black ratchets.The plywood boards have been prepared using as few incisions as possible, so as to allow for future re-use.

In the following interview, Universal’s Hannah Carter Owers and Cathrin Walczyk discuss their design, as well as the pitfalls of creating an exhibition about climate change and the environmental issues facing the design and construction industry.

Can you explain the initial thinking behind the exhibition design?

Cathrin Walczyk With such a severe topic, the exhibition design required each piece to stand alone and be looked at individually, rather than showing them all together. We wanted the exhibition to feel quite impactful and not easy or pretty. It wasn’t going to be a pretty exhibition.

Hannah Carter Owers There was such a great variety in the tone of the contributions. From quite irreverent and taking a wry look at issues of climate change, to really quite bleak and damning pieces. I think it would have been quite difficult to curate them as a whole. They need to be enjoyed or investigated separately. We needed to think about how, in quite a small gallery space with many people, we could create space around the content, so that you could understand and appreciate each issue in isolation, but still within the the context of the overall theme.

The tonal shifts in the exhibition are really quite large. Also, nobody wants to suggest that any of the exhibited proposals are undoubtedly the correct approach or in some way definitive. So how do you deal with that as exhibition designers?

CW Each piece is exhibited in quite a neutral box. They are what they are: they’re not painted and are just bare plywood. It helps each exhibit stand on its own and talk in its own language.

HCO We haven’t done too much to the overall gallery space. The setting is normal, relatable and recognisable. It’s a lovely room, big windows with natural light and the world going by outside. It would have been difficult to design a space and stay neutral, because if you create a little envelope it’s somehow heightened. It would have been difficult to do that without communicating a way. Keeping the spaces contained as little vignettes in very neutral boxes lets you stand back and give a structure without influencing the appreciation of the visitor.

You had a challenge insofar as you had to make material choices for a climate change exhibition. It’s easy to lay yourself open to allegations of hypocrisy

HCO Cathrin was tearing her hair out.

CW We started off with a very big ambition of sourcing all materials from within a mile radius of the gallery, or the idea that we would steal, beg and borrow. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could make an exhibition out of bits that had been donated, borrowed, reused and so on? So we started off with our colleague Annie walking around the area and looking at where might be good for materials. Basically she got strange looks from everyone. It wasn’t very fruitful. One idea we had was to ask for hoarding boards from construction sites. But it turned out that hoarding boards are used over and over and over again, so the companies just said, “No way are we giving you them. We need them.” Ecologically, it’s good to know they’re not going to waste when a site is finished, but we realised that this ambition was going to be too difficult.

Where did you turn to next?

CW We tried to get reused material. Amazingly, one of the joinery workshops we’ve worked with before said, “Oh my God, this is such an amazing idea, we’re really aware of the wastefulness of our industry. We have 100 MDF sheets in our workshop that you can use for free.” Well that was it: That was what we were going to do. But then we looked into logistics. The sheets were quite damaged and different sizes, so we would have had to cut them all down, and paint them. There was a lot of work, transport and material going into this sheet material, which ended up proving prohibitive. Cost-wise as well; if you want to be green you probably still have to pay more than you do for virgin materials.

How easy is it to to reach an ecological conclusion about a material? There’s a huge amount of things to balance: transport, cost of producing it, reusability. It seems difficult to reach an answer as to whether something is environmentally friendly or not.

HCO It’s so complex. You have to try and take the common-sense approach, which is weighing up different travel costs versus the origin of material. But what Cathrin and I found, as two people working in an industry where we’re always talking about issues of sustainability with clients, was that we’re still short of information to make those common-sense decisions. If we can’t do it, God knows how laymen are meant to. This was such an interesting challenge for us to work on as designers: it highlighted what a mountain we have to climb before we’re at a point where we have all the information we need and can intuitively navigate sustainability issues.

You settled on plywood in the end. Can you explain that choice?

CW Until the very last minute it was between ply and recycled sheet material. Again we were afraid of shipping, as the recycled sheet was coming from Belgium. Would it still be greener? It was also about cost. Even with a discount, this sheet was a lot more expensive than the ply. Ultimately we settled on ply because we knew it can be reused. The cuts in the sheets are minimal and ply is a very versatile material. When the exhibition is over, we have plans of donating the boxes or reusing the ply.

Can you talk me through the design of the boxes?

CW The exhibition needed to be installed really quickly. CNC cutting the ply was the way we chose to do it, whereby you basically create a child’s puzzle in which the sheets fit together perfectly because the cutting is so precise. The shelves slot in and you can put up the whole box in five minutes. The ratchet straps around it to make sure it’s stable and doesn’t fall apart. No screws, no nails. It can be taken apart at any time.

The exhibition design conveys a lot of thoughts about climate change and responsible use of materials. How successful, in general, is exhibition design as a communicative tool?

HCO It depends on the exhibition. When we design exhibitions, the content is foremost in our minds and how best we can tell the stories around whatever it is that forms the exhibition. So ultimately we’re trying to be as quiet as possible. We're scene-setting and creating a mood that is inspired by the content and the object. Trying to give objects a voice. But having done this exhibition, I do feel slightly ashamed about what is perhaps a lack of rigour in past exhibitions we’ve taken on. It is absolutely possible to be much more on board with environmental efficiency. Often exhibition design is secondary to whatever the content is, but it needs to become commonplace that designers treat temporary design in terms of efficiency, reuse and recycling. I just think we will move forward thinking differently about how we approach a topic. It’s our responsibility.

You've said that there’s a lot of goodwill in the design and construction industry in terms of donating used materials, but what’s lacking are the systems to properly channel that. How might those systems might be developed?

CW The way I can imagine things developing is by virtue of materials being more scarce and material value going up. Then it would develop on its own, as we would be forced to reuse. We would realise that there is a need for putting systems in place. History has shown that these things develop and come into life because a need develops and I can see that happening in the construction industry. Perhaps somebody will have a business idea of setting up a warehouse for reused materials. Things like Kickstarter come from a need for something to work in a different way than it does. I can see there might be something happening in exactly the same way in the construction industry.

HCO Trends come quickly and I believe that it’s a monumental thing that has to happen. Once things gather momentum people will very quickly just get with the programme. Think how in the last 10 or 15 years people have changed their attitude in regards to food and nutrition. The information we demand from our products in terms of calories, fats, salt and all that sort of thing. We can do it, it’s just a shift in focus and a greater emphasis on the need.