July 9, 2008. This weekend will mark the opening of the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee designed by Pentagram’s James Biber with a permanent exhibition created by Abbott Miller, also of Pentagram, and coinciding with the 105th anniversary of the iconic Midwestern company. Miller’s site-specific exhibition was designed simultaneously with the architecture and fits seamlessly into the building, showcasing the bikes as if they were art. Miller, who built his extraordinary career as a 2D designer, explains how he approached the 3D design of the show without an existing building. harleydavidson.com
How did the design of the museum exhibition fit with the design of the building, itself?
The building is very graphic and the exhibition design is very architectural. The architectural character of the exhibition design reflects the fact that we were “allowed” to think in architectural terms because we were designing the installation at the same time that Jim was designing the building. There are gestures here that rely on serious engineering and advance planning that one could never do in the context of a series of [already existing] generic boxes. Chief among these are the Engine Wall, which holds 30 massive, heavy engines and two complete motorcycles on a canted wall, a complex curved wall engineered to hold 4 “hill climb” motorcycles on a raked angle that replicates the nearly vertical slopes that hillclimbers raced up, and the “bridge,” a moment where the floor tilts up like a drawbridge to display a series of stunt bikes. This last element had to be supported 60-feet below grade, so required early commitment. These are all things you could only do if the design of the exhibitions is unfolding in tandem with the building. This aspect was what made this the most challenging exhibition project (and my first truly permanent exhibition design). It is designed to allow for some degree of change-out of artifacts, but the scheme is essentially permanent. And hopefully people won’t be able to see where the “box” ends and the “exhibits” begin, thanks to the early planning of the visitor’s experience and the integration of materials.
How is designing a building different from/similar to designing a book or magazine?
I’ve designed over 30 exhibitions (six of which I have also curated) so at this point I think of myself as doing about as much 3D work as 2D, especially because the exhibition work is so time-consuming! I think of exhibition design as totally parallel to editorial design. Herbert Bayer once wrote that exhibition design is most closely linked to advertising. I think it’s a totally hybrid practice that has elements of storytelling, image-making, and persuasion. I think Bayer made the connection to advertising because there is this need to guide and seduce people—the shop-window effect—but then there is this totally earnest aspect to learning, educating, and enlightening people. You have to first secure this level of engagement through the presentation, and then reward that attention with detail, depth, and intelligence.
Did you borrow any elements from the design of the motorcycle to apply to the exhibition design?
In the exhibition we consciously moved away from the fluid curves of the motorcycle in order to create a clear stage for that sensual language [in the objects displayed]. The platforms, railings, display cases and slatted walls refer more to the industrial vernacular of simple machinery and a “workshop” aesthetic, more the world of the garage and factory rather than the motorcycle itself. You can see this aesthetic in the choice of materials (wood, steel, glass, and silkscreening applied to alumininum) and in the use of simple and clear geometries and connections. A recurring motif of a flat bar element, tight radius corners create a visual throughline. The slatted walls were one of the biggest questions in how to create gallery spaces that were flexible but also defined. Our decision to use salvaged floorboards from a nearby factory created a rich visual and tactile moment in the design. We had always assumed we would sand and refinish the floors, but once we saw the original boards, with this fantastic texture of old paint lines and this rich color, we decided to keep this very textile-like density and color.