Designing a Biennial: ELLA
Chicago Biennial Bulletin 2019
Wednesday, September 18th 2019 5:00 pm
Chicago Cultural Center 1st Floor Lobby
Paprika! in conversation with River Jukes-Hudson and Stephen Serrato
ELLA are the designers for the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial.
River: 00:00 So you’re doing walkthroughs today?
Paprika: 00:04 Yes, we’ve walked and talked with the contributors around their work. With you we can decide more freely.
River: 00:18 We brought a catalogue so we can flip through it. We can also see a big scale of the graphic identity on the wall panels.
Paprika: 00:29 We’ll just be recording everything and then we will transcribe the interview.
River: 00:35 You’ll make us sound smarter.
Paprika: 00:38 Yes, including ourselves.
River: 00:38 The system of the graphic identity involves the logo type, the color palette and the textures that are applied at different densities depending on the surface and context. This is the framework—these blocks with unique corners. We wanted an identity that had some amount of potential for adaptation, reconfiguration, shift and motion. Each unit is unique because of how the corners are styled and when they come together these irregular negative spaces are made.
Paprika: 01:48 Did you approach it from a thematic view, considering the theme of the biennial?
River: 02:00 The curators gave us general guidelines, since when
we came into the project, they were still formulating their statement. It was driven by research and they had these different focuses, but there wasn’t ever going to be just one central theme. They needed an identity that spoke to all the core curatorial themes that they worked from, and throughout the catalogue they included their research material. Process was part of this documentation. The color palette came from the Jane Addams Nationalities Hull-House map. Therefore the color palette became rooted in the
research. So it’s a system that’s meant to lend structure but can also come apart.
Paprika: 03:54 How do you normally work in your design practice taking on a project like this?
River: 04:04 We do a lot of art catalogs. This was kind of a big leap.
Paprika: 04:09 Into architecture?
River: 04:11 The scale of this project, the number of moving parts, and people involved was challenging. We work very closely with curators and the artists themselves.
Stephen: 04:40 We’re always responding to the curatorial mission or an artist’s intention; we do our best to tap into that. Finding connections with their methodology or even formal categorization and so on. We’ve been very fortunate to collaborate with other parties too. PRODUCTORA handled the exhibition design.
River: 05:24 We were able to hire GrayBits, an amazing design team to do the website and we handed the identity over to them and they did a wonderful job bringing it to life. We worked with Michael Savona who managed wayfinding in the exhibition. Grilli Type let us use a beta version of GT Flexa, it’s really beautifully designed and that was exciting and very generous. We worked with Matt Eller on motion.
Paprika: 05:36 How was the experience different working with an architectural narrative versus an art narrative?
Stephen: 06:05 Well the thing about this exhibition in particular is the focus on socially driven aspects and that resonates with us. We are interested in inclusion, in diversity. We share the same language with the artists and curators we work with. Those are the things we are looking for.
River: 06:43 It seemed atypical of an architecture biennial. In that way, they were interested in pushing back against what was expected of them, similarly to art. I didn’t find there to be a noticeable difference.
Paprika: 06:55 This one does have something different to it compared to previous years. It has a lot of information that it wants to convey rather than spatial pieces. Especially for this biennial, communication and collaboration with those who know how to communicate graphically seems as if it’s been very important.
Stephen: 07:07 I’m happy that it resonates. At the very beginning of the conversation you have to ask, how do you speak to
the public? How do you make the didactics and the language you use accessible?
River: 08:06 And wanting the catalog to be a resource that people can use in their own research. That was a priority.
Stephen: 08:47 It does make sense in retrospect the title “…and other such stories” implies reading.
Paprika: 09:14 The whole project has a variety of mediums as in the digital website, the catalog, the wayfinding and so on—you need to take all of those into consideration making sure the graphic identity is malleable.
Where do you start?
River: 09:45 Honestly, we think about a lot of those things from the get-go, which can freak the client out sometimes. As we’re in the sketch mode very early on, we’re trying to imagine how it might play out on the website or in the publication and that can start to look finished in a way that worries people initially. However, we like to think about all those things and the potential for all those applications. Where you start really just depends on the project. For this, the catalog needed to be dealt with first. We knew that there would be this potential for it to shift and change and respond.
Stephen: 10:07 With other exhibitions we’ve designed for, we
usually start with the catalog. When you design a catalog you’re creating a new system, and you’re also thinking of ways to pace things out over space and about the spatial relationships. You can solve a lot of problems with the volume of the book.
River: 11:07 Another component of the identity system are the textures. Once you arrive to the biennial the color plays a very celebratory role. The textures however, were shots we took around the city of Chicago, and we
wanted to work that in somehow. The multiple palettes be it color, texture, or shapes play various roles depending on the application. I think it was great to work with curators that were not interested in us
stamping a logo on everything.I forgot to mention the link to the way the building is embellished with all the tiles.
Stephen: 11:53 There is this really nice synchronicity that happens with the context.
Paprika: 12:40 In such an ornamented building as well. It stands out with it’s simple, crisp lines and I think it’s very
Paprika: 13:50 It is interesting to discuss how the building starts to communicate. Perhaps there’s a tendency that the
architect seeks inspiration in graphic design and other forms of communication such as the written word;
we need to consider how do these disciplines come together in a mutual effort to communicate.
Stephen: 14:45 There are a lot of similarities in these professions. We both teach typography and communication design classes and we find architecture as a perfect parallel. The ideas of working with a grid system, negative space, rhythm, proportion, scale, spatial hierarchies. It is fundamental.
River: 15:22 I think a lot of architects want to do their own graphic design because they think, “well I can design a
building and there is so much complexity in that so I
can surely design a layout“ and that’s not always the case. I would love architects to bring in graphic
designers earlier on in the process. When something is coming into formation, we should already be talking about identity and communication in relation to the building itself. I don’t think it’s ever too early to start these conversations.
Paprika: 16:06 I completely agree. Especially in exhibitions such as biennials. It comes down to communication.
Paprika: 16:54 There is another demand for architecture to
communicate its contents as the building itself has a different speed of interaction.
River: 17:26 It’s important to bring in multiple perspectives on any project.
Paprika: 18:17 What other projects do you have coming up?
River: 19:29 We are designing a couple of catalogs for group shows at the Hammer and working on an identity for a small museum in East LA.
Paprika: 20:41 Sounds exciting. Thank you so much, it was lovely
speaking to you. Do you have any recommendations for what to see in Chicago?
River: 21:40 Thank you, it was really fun. It sounds touristy, but one of my favorite things I did was the architecture river tour. If you have time, you should do it.