Interview with Tomomi Itakura
Parallel [Design] Approaches
Tomomi Itakura is a founding partner of IKD. She was formerly the Director of Exhibition Design at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Tomomi holds a M.Arch from Harvard University and BA in Theater Arts and Architecture from UC Berkeley.
P!: You studied Theatre Arts/Architecture at Berkeley prior to pursuing a Masters of Architecture at GSD. What was the major aspect that led you to expand the area of your background?
T: I chose architecture after my undergraduate studies because I thought it would open more doors and give me a broader skill set. After grad school, it was by chance that I started doing exhibitions, but I found that design thinking in general applies to the practice of both architecture and exhibition design. Design thinking is about mapping a path to solve a problem. It involves taking in data and information through observation, research, etc., considering real-world parameters like project timelines, spatial conditions, and client needs, taking all of these things and distilling them to define the problems that need to be solved, then applying ideas for solutions, all while constantly shuffling and mentally organizing, prioritizing, and implementing the issues, ideas, and decisions in order to execute the project.
P!: If you were to describe the design objectives of exhibition design, what would they be?
T: First, I should clarify that my views on exhibition design are specifically in the context of fine arts museums, which is very different from exhibition design in science or history museums, or exhibit design for trade shows.
I’ve heard art museum exhibition designers say that their main objective is to “disappear” into the background, and that their work should go unnoticed. But I believe that the main objective of exhibition design is to enhance and elevate the viewing of artwork, which sometimes means that the design can take a more prominent role. Exhibition design is not only about making the art look as good as possible, but also about shaping or framing a visitor experience in order to enable a curatorial narrative to be told in the most engaging way. The art will always be the protagonist, but I think it’s valid for the exhibition design to actively and visibly set up a context for experiencing the art.
P!: Do you see exhibition design as a multidisciplinary field? How do you envision exhibition design changing in future?
T: Museums occupy an arena that is in between education and entertainment. It is a place to learn but it also has to be a place that people are excited to visit. I think art museums are putting more and more effort towards visitor engagement, and this will probably continue. Museum exhibitions have to be competitive in an age where we are inundated with visual imagery and have short attention spans. This means that in order to be engaging, we have to really think about how to make an exhibition relevant to a contemporary audience, and how to make a lasting imprint on visitors’ minds. Museum exhibitions are increasingly incorporating immersive and interactive elements. As an exhibition designer, I find myself thinking about how to design an exhibition to be more experiential or more theatrical, while still respecting the art. It’s fascinating that many of the art objects that you see in museums have been around for many years and will be around for many years to come, but how its display is designed and how it is talked about changes constantly. A hundred years from now, the same art will be on display, but in a completely differently designed context.
P!: What do you think the relationship between exhibition, installation, theatre arts, and architecture is? What do you think is lacking in architecture or exhibition design currently?
T: Architecture is about making space and designing how people move within a space. Theater is less about making space; it is a very controlled and framed visual experience, to help tell a story. Exhibition design is somewhere in the middle: it is about taking a curatorial narrative (i.e. a story), giving it visual form, and creating a choreographed spatial experience. A major difference between architecture and exhibitions is the fact that architecture is permanent while exhibitions tend to be temporary. In architecture, you don’t get as many chances to take risks. Because exhibitions are temporary in nature and happen a lot faster, there is a lot more leeway to experiment. This has allowed me to test different qualities of space and develop spatial knowledge over time, meaning that I’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t through actually designing spaces over and over again. I don’t think it means that something is lacking in the practice of architecture, but I think there is a benefit to having exhibition design experience in approaching an architectural practice.
P!: How do you envision your design practice in the future?
T: My partner, Yugon Kim and I have overlapping but different expertise. Before architecture school, Yugon studied sculpture and I studied theater. We are both generalists in the sense that we are spatial and visual designers, but we are also specialists in regards to our respective expertise. Our practice is based on bringing together our different backgrounds and thinking about design holistically. We have been fortunate in that we’ve been able to take on an interesting variety of projects in terms of both program and scale that aren’t typical to an exclusively architectural or exhibition design practice, and I hope that continues in the future.
P!: Finally, can you respond to a list of typical architectural design objectives?
T: All of the objectives you’ve outlined are valid. I think that the importance of each is different depending on the project. What I might add in terms of design objectives, at least in how it relates to our practice, is the element of poetics. In addition to the clear common sense goals of design, it’s important to weave in some aspect that “touches” the people you design for, whether it’s an element of drama or delight, even if its effects might be subtle or subliminal.