MUTATIONS: The DNA of Twentieth Century Design

Presented by: Roberto Ventura

In February of 2010, an architecture museum hosted a series of lectures entitled “Modern Love.” Still the most successful program ever sponsored by the center, the four-week series described the philosophical origins of modern architecture, its pioneers, and the impact they had on the built landscape.
During the winter of 2012, the museum approached the lecturer about translating the series into an exhibit. Instead, a different show was proposed. Rather than focusing on modern architecture, an exhibit examining design more broadly could demonstrate to a wider audience how fashion, graphic design, and the built environment mutated, evolved, and mutually influenced each other during the last century.

design team
The lecturer, a faculty member at a local university, assembled a team of five undergraduates and one graduate student from three different design departments (interiors, graphic design, and fashion) to research, curate, design, and (partially) fabricate an exhibit encompassing twenty-eight important designers representing their respective disciplines in MUTATIONS: The DNA of Twentieth Century Design.

exhibit parameters
This collaboration called upon the strengths of each team member to give shape to the exhibit in a relatively short amount of time (three months) with an exceptionally modest budget (under $10,000, including fabrication, installation, and image rights) in a space with considerable limitations. 
The exhibit space at the museum, a beloved mansion on the city’s primary historic boulevard, served as a major revenue generator, as it is a sought after venue for social functions, especially weddings. Therefore the museum preferred that exhibit work be wall mounted in order to minimize breakdown and re-install during event rentals. To maximize floor space, the exhibit was also to project no more than three inches from the wall surfaces.

The team was tasked with designing the exhibit, curating it, and acquiring content. In addition to writing all of the exhibit literature, the team participated in photo shoots of rare garments and direct correspondence with designers featured in the show. Additionally, the team developed marketing materials and branding identity for print, web and exterior graphics. 

Design all shares a common DNA. Through research generated by team members, the parallel threads of philosophy, material, and the challenge of modernity that influenced design became the thrusts of the exhibit. Using A, G, and F tags as metaphorical DNA building blocks, the team established a parti based on the genetics shared by architecture, graphic design, and fashion.
Rather than develop a typical wall-mounted exhibit, the team broke the information into discrete panels which, when grouped by decade, read as complete units. The team felt strongly about having an interactive component to the project, but with the tight budget and infrastructural limitations ruling out a digital interface, an analog component was developed.
Designers are recognized by the journal they carry, so the team developed a metaphorical sketchbook for each subject in the show. This artifact was not intended to be precious; on the contrary, the exhibit invited interaction as a way for individuals to delve more deeply into the content.

Student members devoted significant time to the project as part of an interdisciplinary outreach studio run by the university, but they also volunteered numerous hours during the summer after their graduation to complete the project. 

The commitment the designers made to the show was evidenced by the extreme popularity of the exhibit. Selling out days in advance, the opening heralded the most successful exhibition program in the history of the center. Not coincidentally, the MUTATIONS opening was also the occasion for the announcement that the museum would be changing its mission to focus not only on architecture but on the breadth of the design professions.

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