Lessons from Bernard Rudofsky

Topic: Art Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by everett katigbak

Published on June 04, 2008, Modified on October 21, 2011

  • Description and goals

    Lessons from Bernard Rudofsky, at the Getty Research Institute, was an exhibition about architect/designer/critic/curator Bernard Rudofsky. He is best known for his controversial exhibitions and accompanying catalogs, including Are Clothes Modern? (Museum of Modern Art [MoMA], 1944), Architecture without Architects (MoMA, 1964), and Now I Lay Me Down to Eat (Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 1980). He was also famous for his mid-20th-century Bernardo sandal designs, which are popular again today. The challenge of this exhibition was to display a large volume of objects with a wide variety of media, and to convey that they were created by one person while demonstrating Rudofsky’s contemporary relevance.

  • Development process and challenges

    The graphic identity was derived from his writings and theories of design and contemporary culture. In reviewing our research and highlighted notes, we were able to step back and allow the content to dictate the design, resulting in the typographic solution that emphasized the concept of “Lessons.” The limited square footage of the gallery encouraged us to think beyond the physical gallery, and to flow into the lobby, which made a unique introductory experience for visitors who are familiar with the space. The windows were tinted a transparent red, which created an ambient glow upon entering the lobby, as well as converted the buildings façade into a landmark visible from across the site. This approach underscored one of Rudofsky’s tenets of design in which he said, “Most museum visitors are repeaters. It is very important that they get new, fresh impressions every time. The highest compliment for the exhibition architect is when somebody says, ‘I don’t recognize the space.’

    To create a layered effect, we used wall murals as information, and hung corresponding artwork directly on top. A third layer is achieved through a dual-screen translucent projection that displays images, video, and text relative to Rudofsky’s concepts on contemporary culture. The exhibition’s brochure is itself designed to become a structural model that re-creates the gallery elevations in which the show hangs. These aspects of the installation are also reflective of another design philosophy of Rudofsky’s; “…to build an environment that resembles as little as possible…a conventional museum; to distract and intrigue the visitor with optical illustions and to display the objects out of context; to pamper his eye with shapes and colors…”

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    The lessons learned came directly from Rudofsky’s writings and the content of the show. He was a prolific exhibition designer and critic of contemporary culture, and in order to reflect his theories in the installation, they had to be studied and absorbed at a deeper level…

    Some influential Rudofsky"isms" that impacted the installation were:

    the goal is to create exhibition design with a sting. it pricks our complacency. it puts doubt into our heads…

    ii. sometimes it is not so important what is shown, but how it is shown

    iii. a good way to plan a show is to anticipate what the public expects, and then do the opposite.

    iv. exhibition design…cannot be solved with carpentry and lights alone. it has to start with ideas rather than props.

    v. most museum visitors are repeaters. it is very important that they get new, fresh impressions every time. the highest compliment for the exhibition architect is when somebody says, “i don’t recognize the place”

    vi. visitors are intrigued by shifting outlines, and wander around in search of more surprises. call this the [now you see it, now you dont] principle. since i don’t care much of animated exhibits, i rather try to animate the visitor; to make him move around, to attract him from a distance, to puzzle him.

    vii. to build an environment that resembles as little as possible…a conventional museum; to distract and intrigue the visitor with optical illusions and to display the objects out of context; to pamper his eye with shapes and colors.

Latest Comments (6)

Thank you

by Kathleen Mclean - June 10, 2008

for this description of such an interesting exhibition. I went online to see how long it would remain up at the Getty and found out that it closed last Sunday. Too bad!. I would have flown down to LA specifically to see this exhibition.

What I love about the idea of the exhibition was your use of Rudofsky’s comments and perspectives about exhibitions as the conceptual framework for your exhibition. The design seemed to mirror his pithy statements—great on the cafe tables as well. I want to know much more about Rudofsky and his work. Did you do any visitor evaluation? Was there a catalog?

Re: Thank you

by Everett Katigbak - June 10, 2008

Hi Kathleen,

Yes, the run dates seemed to come and go all too quickly. There is a catalog, Lessons from Bernard Rudofsky: Life as a Voyage.

The informal visitor information that I have at the moment, from our comment book in the gallery and anecdotal, was that it was very well received. The Getty Research institute seems to have a frequent core audience, that responded positively to the atypical installation. The exhibition link from the Getty’s website was almost the most frequented during the run dates as well as the brochure being downloaded from the site.

I’m not sure of the dates, but the exhibition will be installed at the Bard next, although I’m not certain if they’ll adopt the same presentation as we did at the Getty.

Now I Lay Me Down to Eat was fabulous

by Clifford Wagner - June 28, 2008

I saw this exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt and still talk about it. I’m adding this comment first before I tell you about it because I wrote a long piece that I thought i was adding and it vanished into thin air rather than showing up. So my real thoughts will be in the second comment I make. Anyone else had this problem? I wish I had written it in my word processor first and then pasted it in so I wouldn’t have to do it twice, but so it goes.
Clifford Wagner

Now I Lay Me Down to Eat was fabulous

by Clifford Wagner - June 28, 2008

Here’s what I still remember from seeing this exhibit in 1980. How many exhibits do you know of that you have seen that you still remember 28 years later? THAT is a good exhibit.
The title refers to the last supper of Jesus. The description passed along of the Last Supper says that John had his head in the lap of Jesus. So what do western painters of the last supper do? They show everyone sitting in chairs with John keeled over 90 degrees to fit the truth. But the truth was they weren’t sitting in chairs- they were reclining. (DaVinci had the chairs but no strange John pose. Did he not have the complete description? What other facts might the great DaVinci have ignored??! Would we have had flight 500 years earlier?)
So this exhibit was about juxtaposing western cultural ideas and artifacts with other cultures, blowing out of the water the theoretical superiority of western culture.
There was a Japanese bathroom and a western bathroom. This was very interesting. Rudofsky could have said look at your own bathroom or this museum’s bathroom and compare it to this Japanese one, but it was a lot more powerful to present the western bathroom as an artifact to study and contrast right in the exhibit. So he did.
But the story I tell the most from Now I Lay Me Down to Eat is my favorite static display of all time. It was a 1.75 meter square table with a Plexiglass cover. One half was painted red, the other, white. No Text. In the red half were about 100 different forks, from a plastic fork to the most ornate gold/ silver/ivory fork you could imagine. There was an electronic fork with a red and green LED that would time for you how long you should chew your food (It occurs to me I may be wrong that the case had no text- there must have been descriptions of the individual artifacts

Now I Lay Me Down to Eat Part 2

by Clifford Wagner - June 28, 2008

otherwise how would I have known what that fork did. But there was no text referring to the overall concept.)
Juxtaposing the forks in the red half was a single plaster cast of a hand in the white half, in a pose that gracefully suggested the holding of food.

You could not miss the unsaid message- Why forks? It made you laugh and think hard at the same time.

Juxtaposition can be such a good exhibit technique. Anyone have other good examples of it used in exhibits?

I would love to brainstorm an exhibit on Sustainable Well Being where we juxtapose doing this behavior to doing that behavior. Rudofsky did his part for trying to get civilization back on the rails. What can we do?

Clifford Wagner

Sixty-four buttons and twenty-four pockets

by Isabelle Corriveau - February 20, 2009

I had the pleasure of learning from Rudofsky as a guide when this exhibition travelled to the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Although not the same installation as at the Getty, his words and work still captivated and were still, today, engaging.

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