Open Book

Graphic Thought Facility is the subject, and designer, of a new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

When the Art Institute of Chicago decided to put together its first exhibition devoted to the work of a single design firm, it reached far beyond its Midwest­ern confines and across the sea to Britain. The London-based studio Graphic Thought Facility (GTF), founded in 1990, has been delighting the public and the design community there for years. Known for its eclecticism and bold use of materials—such as the mull gauze that clings to the exterior of Tord Boontje’s 2007 monograph—Graphic Thought Facility has produced a variety of playful projects, including the Frieze Art Fair, an annual extravaganza in Regent’s Park for which it created, among other things, an ingenious temporary way­finding system based around colorful cardboard signs. “We’ve got quite a mag­pie approach to picking up on existing design languages,” says cofounder Paul Neale, one of GTF’s three principals along with Huw Morgan and cofounder Andy Stevens.

Graphic Thought Facility: Resourceful Design runs through August 17 and is the first of a series planned around young or emerging firms. In this case, curator Zoë Ryan says, “I really wanted to bring in a graphic-design firm that was lesser known in the States but had a real substantial body of work.” She cites GTF’s love of both digital technology and “the handmade mark” as one of the main reasons it was chosen. Among the projects included in the exhibition are “Stealing Beauty,” a binderlike faux-handmade catalog that was part of a 1999 show at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts; a collection of gorgeous electroluminescent lamps created for a permanent exhibition at the Science Mu­seum, also in London; and various aspects of the studio’s work for Shake­speare’s Globe Theatre.

The selection of GTF is telling for other reasons too. Founded in 1879 as both a school and a museum, the Art Institute is making a concerted push to internationalize its architecture and design exhibits, and it’s currently building a major new modern wing—designed by Renzo Piano and set to open in May 2009—that will house 65,000 square feet of gallery space. Resourceful Design, housed in one of the old wing’s smaller spaces, a long corridorlike room, posed significant challenges for Ryan and for GTF, which designed the exhibition. The narrowness of the space required that the works be hung on the walls, a limitation that inspired GTF to study the way information gets displayed on the street and in other public thoroughfares. The designers then developed a series of bespoke bulletin boards—“much like public notice boards,” Neale says—onto which the works are pinned or otherwise attached. Everything is presented in riotously colored glass cases, in which GTF has deployed some other clever devices: for example, metal arms hold several copies of a single book, each opened to a different spread.

“There’s always a problem with displaying graphic design in a gallery,” Neale says, “especially things like books—objects that are designed to be held in the hand, not looked at on a wall or seen from a distance. Generally speaking, graphic design doesn’t make for the most dynamic museum exhibits.” This time it looks like that won’t be true.

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