By Jenny Kutnow
Philadelphia may be the “City of Brotherly Love,” but the last few years have seen that love turn to uproar over the relocation of The Barnes Foundation. The new building for this expansive art collection was designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and is currently under construction on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the creative heart of center-city Philadelphia. While the Foundation has received much public and private support, many opponents have criticized the move as a politically-driven initiative that directly conflicts with the wishes of Dr. Barnes. But construction continues and the museum is slated to open on May 19th, 2012. The Barnes Foundation recently sent out a press release, giving viewers a first look at its new graphic identity.
Designed by Pentagram partner Abbott Miller, the identity pays tribute to the legacy of Dr. Barnes and visually encapsulates the essence of both the collection’s original location and its new home. A native Philadelphian, Dr. Albert Barnes amassed his wealth by developing an antiseptic drug in the early 20th century, enabling him to acquire a staggering assortment of art and artifacts; his collection includes several pieces by Cézanne, Matisse, and Renoir, as well as a vast array of antique tools and hardware. Barnes displayed his collection in a specially designed building in Merion, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia.
The exhibition spaces were designed by Barnes himself and are unlike any other gallery in the world, making no distinction between “fine art” and “objects.” Rooting each wall display in formal and conceptual symmetry, he presented everything together in an intricate, organized cacophony.
With respect to the specifications of Dr. Barnes’ wishes, the architects have paid the utmost attention to every detail of the Merion building, re-creating each room in the new building to scale and methodically organizing every object to the exact location chosen by Barnes. This same level of attention and respect has also defined the design process for the museum’s new graphic identity. Through an intensive research process, Miller and his design team pored over numerous records from the Barnes archives and surveyed the Merion building, researching its rich visual history. Considering several options, they sought the most meaningful solution, familiarizing themselves with the existing graphic history and working with forms that captured the essence of the Barnes Foundation.
The final logo is an iconic row of rectangles that houses the wordmark “Barnes.” The logo is a direct reference to what Miller views as “the DNA of Dr. Barnes’s vision,” the museum’s signature symmetrical, axial hangings. “It was like a musical motif that echoes all throughout the building and became a compelling graphic signifier for us,” Miller says. “The ability to include his name in a way that plays with positive and negative perception, foreground and background, was very much related to his idea of the act of seeing, to see how artists see.”
While Miller wanted to avoid referencing specific works of art within the collection, he was intrigued by the bold oranges in Henri Matisse’s Joy of Life, one of the most famous paintings acquired by Barnes. With this assertive orange as its chief color and softer neutrals as accents, the identity’s color palette is unexpected, modern, and refreshing.
In addition to the logo, Pentagram also designed the signage and way-finding system within the museum and around its exterior. Graceful and restrained, the signage is approachable and engaging, inviting visitors into and around the space without impeding their experience. Dr. Barnes was “very anti-elitist,” Miller says. “He believed art should be a part of everyday life.” The exterior signs have been designed as clean, enameled bronze markers, while the building interior features quiet moments of wall-painted room numbers, subtle light projections in place of typical flat screens, and quotations from Dr. Barnes delicately carved into the walls. By bringing a light touch to the environmental graphics, Miller maintains an approach that is consistent with the aesthetics of both the Merion estate and the new building: “Although we were dealing with a historic institution, there was a very modern character to the new building and we had to be a companion to that spirit in the graphic identity and the signage. We knew we were in a modern framework.”
A key graphic element is a wall in the garden that will feature one of Dr. Barnes’s layout sketches engraved into the stone elevation. “I really loved this drawing by Dr. Barnes, where he was plotting out notes about where things would hang,” says Miller. “Once we got on this ‘DNA of Dr. Barnes’ it seemed like this should be connected in some way. It becomes a real storytelling moment.”
Cultural institutions are not unfamiliar to Miller, who has worked with several renowned museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum. But unlike most cultural design projects, where the graphic designer is enlisted near the end of the process, the Barnes Foundation provided a rare opportunity for Miller to participate from the beginning. For Miller and his team, it was “the most total kind of view that we have been able to take on a cultural project.” From discussions ranging from the use of media to interpretation approaches in the galleries to the graphic identity and signage, Miller’s team has been involved in the design process every step of the way, promoting the consistency of the visitor experience and the overall vision of the institution.
But no one contributed to the idiosyncratic nature of the identity more than Dr. Barnes, who died in 1951. His spirit and personality permeate every facet of his estate, from the tile designs on the Merion facade, to the layout of the galleries, to the juxtaposition of door hinges hanging next to Cézannes. While cultural institution design projects typically receive direction from the ethos of their resident director and staff, every design decision at the Barnes Foundation depends on the lingering authority of its namesake. Dr. Barnes still exercises his influence and Miller and his team brought a deliberate sensibility to the project that strove to create a design “entirely consistent with Dr. Barnes’ interests, concerns, and his gift to the world by building the collection.” Miller says. “It’s a legacy and it has certain attributes that we had to be mindful of. We asked ourselves at every point, are we being true to the specificity of what he created? If he were around today, how would he want the institution to be perceived? That is a latent responsibility that everyone feels, knowing what he did and trying to be a good steward of that in the present.”
Jenny Kutnow is an MFA candidate in graphic design at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She has worked as a product and graphic designer for architecture and planning firms in Miami and Philadelphia. Jenny embraces design as an interdisciplinary collaborative process and strives to blur the lines between design, architecture, and fashion.