Award winning Theatre Designer, Tom Piper talks to Director Will Jackson on his work......
Director Will Jackson recently caught up with award winning Theatre Designer, Tom Piper, about how his work in theatre translates to exhibition design as well as his recent work on the newly opened exhibition 'Alice, Curiouser and Curiouser' at the V&A.
You are a successful theatre designer who has also moved into exhibition and immersive design. What new skills did you have to learn for this shift?
When I work in exhibition design I am very lucky to have a brilliant collaborator Alan Farlie from RFK Architects. We first designed together on Shakespeare staging the World at the BM in 2012. Through discussions with Alan I began to understand the difference between an immersive theatre event and a museum exhibition, the importance of the objects as ‘actors’ in the narrative and also the way that an audience will move through the environments you create. In theatre you can control the pace at which the story is told, in exhibition design you have to try and encourage your audience to follow the narrative. I also had to become aware of the conservation requirements of distance , protection and light levels.
As a museum contractor, working in many other areas of the arts, we sometimes find that the competing requirements of conservation, curation, and security can limit the creative process. How do you deal with that as a designer?
The main impact I feel is on cost, in that the standards of curation and security cannot be questioned so whenever there are budget problems, as there always are, the design can be seen as non essential to the secure display of the object. I feel we are at an interesting point in the evolution of exhibition design where venues are seeing the benefit of engaging with designers who have a real understanding of storytelling and immersive environments, yet haven’t quite realised the costs associated with the enhanced scenic demands of creating these worlds
What can the museum world learn from theatre, and vice versa?
Theatre has a much more organic development process in which ideas are debated and challenged between the creative teams and the directors more fully before they are costed, these are often informal one to one meetings and not presentations around a large board table as often seems to happen in museums! Then as the ideas develop through rehearsal, we often adapt and change to suit the emerging ideas and needs of a production. Most theatre set builders are used to this process and factor it into their costs and build programme. The exhibition world sometimes feels closer to architecture, where there are very strict phases in the development process that are often signed off by committee. Changes are imposed through cost cutting measures without giving the designers a chance to revise ideas in a simpler /cheaper way that is a development of the original ideas rather than as a “value engineering ‘ exercise which often seems to happen without the designer . The exhibitions I have enjoyed working on have always had a strong curatorial vision, and the more museums allow their curators to have a full dialogue with the designers throughout the process, the better in my view. I have found it frustrating that often the design is passed up a chain of command within the museum, without the designers being present to discuss ideas.
The great thing about designing for theatre is that you can rely on the audience to use their imagination to transport them to the world you are creating, you don’t need to fill in all the naturalistic details as you would designing for film, for example. Exhibition work, as the viewer is right up close to the objects and their setting demands a level of finish and detail that we often don’t need in theatre. There is a rigour to the process of exhibition design which, although I have said I find constricting, does also challenge me as a designer to be clearer about ideas and what their costs might be. I enjoy how in exhibition design, the placing of objects and their relationships to each other, can tell such fascinating stories of connections.
What tips, tricks or sleight of hand/eye do you find yourself relying on when you design?
I try to still allow space for the audience's imagination to create the picture as they would in theatre, you don’t need to fill every space with either scenic elements or objects, so sometimes it is good to give room for the senses to rest and refresh. I often try to give an audience glimpses through one space to another, to help them understand the flow of the exhibition and how much is still to come, whilst also trying to create dialogue between objects and connect themes across rooms.
When working on the Alice, Curiouser and Curiouser Exhibition, how did you and the V&A decide what to include and what to leave out when you were designing an exhibition with so much potential material?
I relied on the curatorial team, led by Kate Bailey, who conceived the overall structure of the exhibition and have such an extensive knowledge of the subject and the V&A collection, which is the bedrock of the exhibition. We went on initial research trips together to Oxford to visit Christchurch where Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) wrote the books. Much of the exhibition design has come from those trips and the informal creative discussions they provoked. Kate has also shared interesting ideas for cross fertilisation between disciplines and we discussed how these elements would support the overall theme of each section. For example the Jonathan Millar 1966 film has inspired our collaboration with Luke Hall's video design on the Mad Hatter's tea party, but also found space for Heston Blumenthal’s Mock Turtle soup, made from dissolving the Mad Hatter's gold watch .
Winnie the Pooh, now Alice in Wonderland… What would be the next children’s classic you’d like to work on?
I have already worked on an exhibition at the Jewish Museum celebrating the work of Goscinny, the creator of Asterix- so it would have to be Tintin, another childhood favourite of mine.
Tom Piper is an award winning theatre designer with over thirty years of experience. He was Associate Designer at the Royal Shakespeare Company (2004 to 2014), for whom he has designed over 30 productions including the acclaimed Histories Cycle. He is currently Associate Designer at the Kiln Theatre. He designed the iconic poppy sculptures Wave and Weeping Window (working with ceramic artist Paul Cummins) and Beyond the Deepening Shadow: The Tower Remembers at the Tower of London. His work in exhibitions covers designs for the British Museum, The Story Museum Oxford, The Jewish Museum and the V&A, all in collaboration with Alan Farlie at RFK Architects Ltd.