Parts of the Process — BOB Design on creating the 2D graphics for an extensive Frida Kahlo show at the V&A

Posted 20 June 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Arguably one of the most revolutionary and striking figures in art, Frida Kahlo requires little introduction. Famously married to muralist Diego Rivera, when Kahlo passed away in 1954, Rivera locked away her possessions in the Blue House, Mexico City for over 50 years. But earlier this month, the V&A opened the doors to Frida: Making Her Self Up – an exhibition designed to showcase a selection of these previously unseen artefacts – many of which have never travelled outside of Mexico.

Alongside an evocative exhibition design by stage designer Tom Scutt and architects Gibson Thornley, the team at BOB Design were brought on board to bring the 2D graphics of the exhibition to life. We spoke to BOB’s creative director Mireille Burkhardt and designer Apsara Flury to find out more about the year-long process. From guide books to object labels, captions and wall panels, they detail how they created a sophisticated and deceptively simple visual language, that is not only intriguing but wholly inclusive. Here, they talk typography, working with a huge team and how exhibitions can tell a story.

Client

Tom Scutt and Gibson Thornley; The Victoria and Albert Museum

Duration

June 2017 to June 2018

Team

Exhibition Curators: Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa
Content Advisor: Professor Gannit Ankori, Brandeis
University Research Assistant: Ana Baeza Ruiz
V&A Exhibitions: Manuela Buttiglione, Robyn Earl, Claire Everitt, Natalia Ferreiro, Sarah Scott
Mount Making: V&A Conservation and Technical Services
Exhibition Design: Tom Scutt and Gibson Thornley
Graphic Design: BOB Design 
Exhibition Editor: Maria Blyzinsky
Lighting Design: DHA
Video Design: Luke Halls
Studio Composition and Sound: Ben and Max Ringham 
AV Hardware: DHD Services
Exhibition Contractor: setWorks
Exhibition Graphics: BAF Graphics
Technical Project Management and Quantity Surveyor: Focus Consultants

Brief

Bring to life the 2D graphic design elements for the V&A exhibition, Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up

Project background

In terms of how we became involved in the project, we already had a relationship with Gibson Thorley, the architects who worked on this exhibition. They called us and said they were bringing together a team for a Frida Kahlo show, were looking for a graphic designer and were we interested? We said we were, and then we had a week to prepare for a pitch, to be presented at the V&A. 

We pitched as part of Tom Scott and Gibson’s team, showing some examples of past work as a credential check. So, in a way, we were almost subcontracted by them. It was really quite exciting because we’ve never worked in that constellation before. There was a good connection between all of us. Tom presented his vision; showing sketches of the space and the different rooms. Then the architects explained how they would make it all happen.

A photograph of Frida, painting in her bed

I think the V&A were impressed – they felt like Tom and the architects understood what they wanted to do with this exhibition. Tom really understood Frida, her mission and her life. And that was really how they wanted it to be seen. The exhibition encompasses her entire life; it’s not just fashion, it’s the Mexican Revolution, her family and indigenous people. 

“The exhibition encompasses her entire life; it’s not just fashion, it’s the Mexican Revolution, her family and indigenous people.”

As we came onto the project quite late, our research started after the pitch. Besides reading online, we watched Frida [the 2002 film starring Salma Hayek] and the V&A gave us a reading list. But one of the architects, Patrick Berning, from Gibson Thornley actually went to Mexico. So a lot of research was shared in discussions with the V&A, the architects and Tom. Much of our own preparation came from sitting in those big meetings with everyone.

One of the things that made this different than any other project is working in such a big creative team; there were so many interesting people involved. This also meant that, at times, it could be quite time-consuming. A lot of meetings were held to align our thoughts with theirs. In these meetings, people would show photos of what they’d been working on. It could be as specialist as the hands of the mannequins wearing the clothes. It was amazing to see all these different elements come together.

A photograph of Frida, painting in her bed

Concept development

With such a big exhibit, you have to keep up, so we followed the RIBA stages of architecture, which defines stages for concept, design and development. This was a little different to how we normally work, but it helped make things clear for us. But otherwise, we approached this like any other project – by starting with the concept.

The content of the exhibition; the objects and artefacts being displayed became a kind of design brief. And from the beginning we were given a very detailed hierarchy of what was required; including sections like front panels, sub-section panels, captions, object labels and so on.

“We wanted to use this concept of angles, applying it throughout the graphic design of the exhibition.”

Then, using Tom Scutt and Gibson Thornley’s pitch documents, we started to pick up on certain visual cues to form the base of our own design brief. For example, a lot of the time, Frida would use her clothes to help conceal a broken body, so the architects were looking at ways of both revealing and concealing things.

When she was painting, she was also bed-bound, and would draw by looking up at a mirror on the bed. So part of the exhibition design used beds to display some of the objects, like her corsets. They were already playing with this idea of perception and duality – using angles, mirrors and reflections. We wanted to continue with this theme, using this concept of angles, particularly triangles and applying it throughout the graphic design of the exhibition. 

Images from the pitch documents

Images from the pitch documents

Images from the pitch documents

Images from the pitch documents

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Making it inclusive

Considering that Frida Kahlo spent much of her life in a wheelchair, Tom and the architects also wanted it the exhibition to be really inclusive. We found a set of typefaces [GZA and Gråbenbach] with elements that echoed the angular shape we were looking for, but we then had to consider how the type would look and read to someone in a wheelchair.

The V&A actually held focus groups where people would come and look at the object labels while sitting and standing, to gauge at what level it was readable. They also conducted interviews with people in wheelchairs to help define the hanging heights of paintings and labels.

The contrast of the typography also needed to be high enough to help people with reading difficulties, who need a very distinctive start and end when reading something. There was quite a lot of requirements. We received documents detailing all the different type sizes, to make sure we didn’t go below or above certain measurements.

Initial mock-ups

GZA

Gråbenbach

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Early type experiments

Telling the story

An exhibition works like a story, things have to make sense together. If there are curatorial changes and an object moves to a different room, the text has to change as well, because it will be sitting next to something else. And because every room has a different colour, the colour of the caption has to change as well. While this sounds simple, the process was quite tricky.

The captions went through 12 proofs; they were written, re-written and then written again. So there was a lot of back and forth. Our designer, Matthew Lewis also created small iconographic drawings of all the objects, to be used as a key alongside the captions. We ended up working on the captions solidly for three months. It’s not always glamorous work!

There was an astonishing attention to detail and a lot of fact-checking to ensure, for example, if a certain interior is more Spanish or French. Plus, credit lines needed to be added for people that borrowed things from the museum, for example. We had to make sure all of these were correct. I don't know if this is something we’ve experienced with other exhibitions, at least, not to this extent. 

“An exhibition works like a story; things have to make sense together.”

Caption boards

Caption tests

Signage tests

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Mock-up layouts

Sketches for the iconographic drawings to accompany the captions

Testing and Making

In the beginning the main tool we used was a scalpel. Then foam board and tape. We always thought it was quite funny that we were brought on to be 2D designers but everything we ended up making was 3D.

The process was very physical to begin with, which was very important, especially if we're talking about making it truly accessible. If you are disabled, for example, we wanted to make sure everything worked on a human level. It took so much testing to get the angles just right. We made models and tested them in an ‘exhibition room’ we built in our studio. This meant we could see how things looked on the wall, take photographs, assess them and then make changes.

Sketches of the panels

Sketches of the panels

Early panel tests

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Early panel sketches

Early panel mock-ups

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Panel mock-up

Testing in the studio

To try and get a sense of radiance from the back of the panels, we also experimented with light sources (iPhones!) in the space to see how they radiated. It might have been easier to digitally render the panels, and we had someone in the studio who could do this, but this was something which needed more than a computer. Had we decided to do something really flat, we wouldn’t have needed to go through such a physical process. 

“We always thought it was quite funny that we were brought on to be 2D designers but everything we ended up making was 3D.”

Initially in the testing phase, we made everything out of paper, which of course produces very sharp angles. We even made paper prototypes for the angled wall titles, and filmed how certain angles behaved in the space. Then we had to find a material that could withstand specific factors; it had to be fireproof, work with the humidity in the exhibition and also fit into the budget. It took a lot of researching materials and testing eventually settle on Dibond [an aluminium composite]. Sometimes it was too thick, sometimes it would break. The mirror vinyl was sometimes too mirror-y. It took a long time to get it right.

Testing radiance qualities with an iPhone

Testing panels

Testing panels

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Realisation and Build

After we created the artwork, it needed to be checked by the V&A. And when this was approved we could send it to print.

In May, things started to be made. There were so many people involved in the build that it was almost out of our hands when someone else had to pick up that specification and work with it. That was a bit nerve-wracking. We would get pictures from setWorks [the contractors] for us to check. When the vinyls arrived we also had to go on site and compare things like colour. On site, and in the light of the exhibition, they looked completely different, so we had to change colours again. Everything had to be specced really thoroughly, for which had Excel spreadsheets.

Blueprints for the 3D type

Blueprints for the 3D type

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3D type testing

3D type testing

3D type testing

3D type testing

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Delivery

We can’t claim any ticket sales solely on the graphics, but we definitely got a lot out of it – it was a learning curve. As it’s such a huge exhibition, so many people were involved both in Mexico and here, which meant we also got to meet several new collaborators. So the experience of doing it, and creating it, has definitely been a success. 

It was so exciting to go through the backdoor before opening and see it all coming together. To see all the different people, objects and artworks fill the space and have it all fit. It worked really well.

You don't want the design to overpower it. It's almost better if people don't notice the exhibition design. Because, in a way, that means it's done its job. But ultimately, success lies is how the client perceives it, and the V&A were quite happy with the solution. We had some really nice feedback on the design being very thoughtful.

The exhibition being installed

The exhibition being installed

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The exhibition being installed

The exhibition being installed

The exhibition being installed

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The exhibition being installed

The Final Result

Photography by Jack Hobhouse

Photography by Jack Hobhouse

Photography by Jack Hobhouse

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Photography by Jack Hobhouse

Photography by Jack Hobhouse

Photography by Jack Hobhouse

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Photography by Jack Hobhouse

Photography by Jack Hobhouse

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Photography by Jack Hobhouse

Photography by Jack Hobhouse

Photography by Jack Hobhouse

Posted 20 June 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Photography: Jack Hobhouse
Collection: Parts of the Process
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Design, Event Design
Mentions: BOB Design, V&A
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