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2019 Museum Publications Design Competition Winner: Painting the Floating World

Category: Alliance Blog

AAM’s annual Museum Publications Design Competition recognizes superior execution and ingenuity in the graphic design of museum publications. A panel of graphic designers, museum professionals, and publishers chooses winners for their overall design excellence, creativity, and expression of an institution’s personality, mission, or special features.

We recently had the opportunity to talk to the design team behind this year’s first-prize winner for exhibition catalogues, Painting the Floating World: Masterpieces from the Weston Collection, to learn more about the concept behind their prizeworthy design. The team—Cheryl Towler Weese, Tuan Pham, Emma Magidson, and Joel De Leon of Studio Blue, Chicago—told us everything we wanted to know about designing the book for the Art Institute of Chicago. To view a list of all winners from the competition, click here.

What was the initial design concept, or what did you want the book design to convey?

Several metaphors helped us define the project’s design direction:

  • Ukiyo–e: the impermanence of everyday life.
  • Artworks that were sacred, yet common: attainable, relatable works that reflected the world of ordinary people, as they wanted to see it.
  • The Tadao Ando room in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Weston Wing: accessible everyday materials put together in transformative ways; unassuming, minimal, uplifting.
  • Collector Roger Weston’s suggestion: “Mami (co-curator of the exhibition) and I want it to look clean and simple, like Japan.”

What were the key decisions that needed to be made in the execution of the design?

We tried to develop formats that would be easily navigable by scholars, yet also accessible to the general public. We considered how best to organize a wide variety of content on the catalogue entry pages, while keeping the text clear and legible. And we tried to establish means that allowed readers to choose whether or not to view the shunga (spring pictures) works.

Did the design concept evolve over time, and what prompted this?

Not a great deal—almost all of the design ideas used in the printed book were presented in the schematic design phase. The critical task throughout the remainder of the project was to incorporate the catalog’s complexity and rich scholarship without sacrificing its design voice, which relied on subtle but sometimes unexpected decisions.

How long did the design take, and what were some of the key details that needed to be managed and how?

The book’s design took a year. With the Art Institute’s publications department, we tested the printed fabric, tinted pages, and gray text. We also explored how best to utilize the parameters we developed for a typical page, in which text stretches from top to bottom in a kind of accordion fashion.

Who were the other stakeholders involved in the process? What questions did they help inform? Were there any sticking points?

Like many large projects, this catalog involved many stakeholder groups—a collector, two curators, the museum’s publications department, and our studio. Collector Roger Weston was a critical force in the book’s design, stewarding its spirit, attending numerous meetings, and remaining attentive to many of the book’s details. Curators Janice Katz and Mami Hatayama were patient and collaborative throughout the project, keeping editorial standards high while remaining receptive to our ideas.

The Art Institute’s publications department was a critical partner. They established a working process that allowed ample time for the development and execution of strong work; encouraged regular dialogue between all of the stakeholder groups; meticulously stewarded the book’s text, photography, separations, and production; and—through their deep knowledge of contemporary book design—shepherded and advocated for tough decisions that at times prioritized design over straightforward editorial choices.

Our studio has worked with the publications department for 27 years. Along the way, there has been a great deal of trust built—an almost unspoken understanding of the way projects can best move forward editorially and aesthetically, and this project was one outcome of that trust.

More broadly, what is the value and impact of great design?

In our projects, we often try to use design to encourage discourse. By simultaneously presenting multiple narratives and voices—in this case, developing a way to gracefully translate and juxtapose the voices of the collector, curators, and other authors alongside poetry transcriptions, artworks, mounting materials, and a range of artwork formats—we hoped the book’s design would encourage the reader’s participation and point of view, rather than impose a hierarchical perspective.

And, by promoting a spirit of wonder, participation, and connection, we hoped the book—in some small way—would foster an engaged and thinking public.

In retrospect, would you have done anything differently with the design?

Very little!

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