Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Envisioning Dreams --- An Interview with architectureisfun

Sharon and Peter Exley are the dynamic principals of architectureisfun, Inc., an award-winning firm based in Chicago that specializes in "educative design."

They were kind enough to answer a few question for ExhibiTricks about their creative work:

What are your educational backgrounds?

Peter has degrees in architecture from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and the University of Pennsylvania. Sharon started the architecture program at RISD but saw the light and transfered to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has a BFA and a masters degree in art education from SAIC. Coincidentally, Peter is an associate professor at the [Art Insti] 'Tute.

What got you interested in Museums?

As a child growing up in Yorkshire, Peter's loved going to the Castle Museum in York to exploring its Edwardian Street reconstructions, and spent endless hours in the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth.

The Pump Museum in his hometown of Harrogate had a sulphur spa. It stank. You could drink the water from it. They had a collection of titillating risque Victorian postcards (some of which transformed when backlit!)

Tell us a little bit about architectureisfun, and how it got started?

Architectureisfun began with a commission from Chicago Children's Museum to design their early childhood exhibit at their new Navy Pier location. Sharon and Peter had been volunteering at places that valued the things that their young daughter, Emma, appreciated. CCM was one of those places. Instead of garnering their first design project from a relative looking for young, enthused, affordable architects, Peter and Sharon's first client was a paradigm challenging, internationally respected museum for children.

Everything snowballed from there. Within a couple of years, architectureisfun had several exhibit projects in for museums throughout the Midwest - Louisville Science Center, kidscommons in Columbus Indiana, and a new building for the Exploration Station in Bourbonnais, IL among them.

What do you like to do when you’re not designing museums/exhibits?

Rock 'n roll. Travel. Footie. At the moment, Indian food is irresistible. Mention anything to do with Japan, and you have our complete attention. We seem to hang out in a lot of museums.

How do you bridge the interface between architecture and exhibit design?

We don't. In our perfect world, architecture would be a lot more collegial, collaborative, participatory, and community driven. We don't see our projects as architecture projects, or as exhibit design projects. We see them as educative design projects that realize the dreams and ambitions of a community. It doesn't matter whether it's a building, or some other interactive device. It's something that has relevance and meaning for the people that spend time with it.

What are some of your favorite online (or offline!) exhibits and design resources?

Paul Orselli's wickedly helpful resource list! Oh and a few design blogs to keep us insightful (Crib Candy, Design Sponge) and many great relationships with our product representatives - tell them about what you do and see what they can find for you! We really nurture and appreciate the relationships we have with the collaborators (it doesn't seem very respectful to call them vendors) who bring great products to our attention.

We are very fortunate to have places like the Merchandise Mart close to us. Chicago is a magnificent creative resource. A lot of stuff is made, invented, or hits the ground running here. We try to make it our business to be the first to discover it and devour it Personal relationships enable that to happen.

What advice would you have for fellow museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in developing more eco-friendly exhibitions?

Eco design is not real. Responsbility, stewardship, and advocacy are real. Set real goals. Establish realistic budgets and schedules. Realize the potential of good design to bring value to your mission. Learn that good design costs less than bad design and good sustainable, long-lasting,durable products often cost more upfront.

Make sure your designers are good listeners. Trust the experienced professionals you engaged to give you good answers to your hard questions. Good design has always been sustainable and responsible. Eco-friendly is more than LEED, a green roof, and stuff made from hemp.

What do you think is the “next frontier” for museums?

For a while, children's museums were the next frontier... The next frontier is shifting all the paradigms - bridging the gaps between school, museum, community, and child. We need to take calculated risk - there must be challenge, there must be interest. Museums must be accessible in ways we haven't dreamt of yet.

We aren't Davy Crockett anymore - there really aren't any new geographical frontiers. But we need to bring back the wilderness, the challenge, the risk, the interest. We need to create museums which are accessible in ways that would make Davy Crockett's head spin. Unfortunately, such concepts (along with undervalued "subjects" like art and design) make a lot of people in America a bit nervous. Perhaps the right brain is the frontier we need to rediscover.

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions?

Peter loves the Museum of Jurassic Technology. You can't go wrong with Museums in LA (get a load of the new LACMA addition) or New York. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago is fabulous, and has the best shop of any museum. The Tate Modern is wild. And all of the museums we have ever worked with. They're brilliant. Sir John Soane's House just round the corner from the British Museum is one of the most magical places there is.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?

We are helping Young At Art Children's Museum in Fort Lauderdale grow. They are about to prove to us all that Art is the Answer. We are working with a start up museum in Topeka. Beyond the museum world, we continue to work with libraries, churches, and other communities who value children and family. We have a project in Rio de Janeiro to design a park for festivals and parties for children. We have a lot of dreamy projects for dream clients.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” exhibit project be?

It would be great to have a children's museum in our office or if we were some elaborate charter lab school, we could better develop and implement the ideas of a community with its constituents. In the meantime, our dream projects are those that entrust us to design pivotal places, spaces and experiences critical to building community - we love envisioning dreams and then turning the blue sky ideas into reality.

Thanks to the dynamic duo of Sharon and Peter from architectureisfun for sharing their insights with ExhibiTricks readers!

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