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Plaid Studio brings the ‘Tartan’ exhibition to life at Victoria and Albert Dundee

The London based designer-duo Brian Studak and Lauren Scully amplify the spirit of tartan through the exhibition design.

by Pooja Suresh HollannavarPublished on : May 01, 2023

The Victoria and Albert Museum in Dundee (V&A Dundee), is Scotland's first design museum. Since its opening in 2018, it has been dedicated to presenting the brilliance of Scottish creativity and the best of design from around the world. So, it is only fitting that it welcomes its fifth anniversary with Tartan, a first of its kind major exhibition in Scotland, in the last three decades, that is dedicated to the beloved textile and pattern.

  • Transcendental Tartan: The Tartan gaming console | Tartan| V&A Dundee| STIRworld
    Transcendental Tartan: The tartan gaming console Image: Courtesy of Plaid Studio
  • Innovating Tartan: The Tartan shoe design | Tartan| V&A Dundee| STIRworld
    Innovating Tartan: The tartan shoe design Image: Courtesy of Plaid Studio

Curated by Kirsty Hassard, Mhairi Maxwell, and James Wylie, the exhibition takes a holistic approach towards the history of tartan and demonstrates its place in the world through examples of fashion, architecture, graphic and product design, photography, furniture, glass and ceramics, film, performance, and art. The eclectic collection of over 300 objects ranges from the oldest known piece of tartan found in Scotland to architectural drawings and gaming consoles.

  • The exhibition boasts an elaborate collection of over 300 pieces | Tartan| V&A Dundee| STIRworld
    The exhibition boasts an elaborate collection of over 300 pieces Image: Ruth Clark
  • The right isometric showing the holistic exhibition design | Tartan| V&A Dundee| STIRworld
    The right isometric showing the holistic exhibition design Image: Courtesy of Plaid Studio

Such an elaborate collection of materials required clever and considerate exhibition design. To that effect, Brian Studak and Lauren Scully of the serendipitously named Plaid Studio, create an environment that tells tartan’s story in a linear yet non-chronological way. The directors of the London-based studio have designed an experience that spatially relates to the different underlying themes of the exhibition and have achieved this by using a very thoughtful selection of textures and colours to illustrate the overarching theme of the tartan grid.

The exhibition is supported by the bespoke typeface developed specially for the exhibition | Tartan| V&A Dundee| STIRworld
Tartan's grid pattern of interlocking horizontal and vertical bands influenced the exhibition layout and also bespoke typeface by Atelier Carvalho Bernau and David McKendrick Studio Image: Michael McGurk

The aesthetics of the exhibition are supported by the bespoke typeface, developed by David McKendrick Studio in collaboration with Atelier Carvalho Bernau. The designers take inspiration from the Scottish slab serif from modern Alexander Wilson & Sons type foundry.

The exhibition focuses on the iconic textile and pattern | Tartan| V&A Dundee| STIRworld
The exhibition focuses on the iconic textile and pattern Image: Ruth Clark

Between the pieces on display behind protective glass, interactive technology, multimedia elements, and the storytelling, the exhibition strikes the right balance between orderly and fun. The attention to detail in the design, from the lighting to the aesthetic of the space, further enhance the overall visitor experience. The Tartan exhibition is an excellent example of how effective exhibition design can educate, entertain, and inspire.

The design amplifies the spirit of tartan | Tartan| V&A Dundee| STIRworld
The design amplifies the spirit of tartan Image: Ruth Clark

In a conversation with STIR, Brian Studak and Lauren Scully, founders of Plaid Studio, expand on their experience of designing the iconic exhibition.

Pooja Suresh Hollannavar: The inspiration behind the exhibition design is very clearly the tartan grid. How did you zero in on that as your core concept? How did you then execute it spatially?

Brian Studak and Lauren Scully: We have a tendency to use grids in our projects as a way of connecting an existing architecture to the exhibition architecture (which often needs to relate to the human body) and the museum objects that they display. In other words, it’s a way of synthesising scale within the exhibition—so there is a wholeness (or direct relationship) between the scale of the gallery, and the scale of the often small objects being displayed. In this case, we were also influenced by an architect displayed in the exhibition, Hans van der Laan, a Dutch Benedictine monk who used tartan grids extensively in his starkly minimal architecture.

The gallery in Dundee is really two galleries which are joined together (separated by a lowered bulkhead). The first one larger and almost square in plan, the second one a narrower slice—a rectangle about a third of the width of the first gallery. We knew we wanted the first section of the exhibition—where the idea of tartan is expressed through the concept of the grid—to form a sort of heart in the exhibition, and ideally to share a border with the other sections in the exhibition so there would be a physical connection or permeability between the sections. We overlaid a grid onto the larger gallery and divided it into nine equal parts, placing the first section in the middle. The visitor would then spiral around this tartan room, it acting as an anchor in the middle of the space.

Tartan and the grid | Tartan| V&A Dundee| STIRworld
Tartan and the grid Image: Ruth Clark

The grid allowed us to create a clear organising device, one that is logical and transparent, but also one that is mutable and can disorient and surprise. The 'folded' nature of the journey allows us to revisit content, which is viewable from two different areas, certain ‘pivot’ objects (interdisciplinary works by contemporary artists and designers) which straddle more than one section or have several ways of being read. The grid rotates through 45 degrees at a certain point in the exhibition, creating a dynamic shift in momentum and atmosphere.

Overlay is central to the plan—where ideas intersect and how the context shifts the reading of an object. We wanted the visitor to have a '360 view' of certain ideas and objects, and to understand the role in which context plays in an object’s reading.

The grid view schematic | Tartan| V&A Dundee| STIRworld
The grid view schematic Image: Courtesy of Plaid Studio

Pooja: Despite being organised into five themes, there is no harsh division of spaces. The movement across the exhibit seems very fluid. Could you tell us more about how you designed the circulation?  

Brian and Lauren: The exhibition is not a chronological journey, but a path through five curatorial themes: Tartan and the Grid, Innovating Tartan, Tartan and Identity, Tartan and Power, and Transcendental Tartan. We wanted each section to have its own distinct feel, but we also wanted to avoid creating a series of static rooms. This pointed us towards an architectural solution which was permeable and active. This transparency provides moments in the exhibition where objects in separate sections can interact and create new readings. We want visitors to have the freedom and agency to explore the exhibition in their own way without feeling like they might accidentally miss something.

We also wanted to pull visitors through the space by creating visual interest in each of the sections. Visitors are drawn into the exhibition from the museum atrium though a passageway with three large and colourful AV projections. From this vantage point Donald Judd’s series of tartan prints and Louise Gray’s spectacular tartan outfit are in view. From the grid into Innovating Tartan a large wall-based artwork by Jim Pattinson catches the eye. The third section, Tartan and Identity is where we start to let loose with colour for the exhibition setworks, and Tartan and Power has two large AV moments, along with an Alexander McQueen display and a tartan ‘reliquary.’ Transcendental Tartan is where the tartan becomes fully immersive and visitors leaving the darker and more reverential Power section slip into Balmoralisation—an Alice in Wonderland-like reflecting corridor of infinite tartan.

The design has several points of visual interest | Tartan| V&A Dundee| STIRworld
The design has several points of visual interest Image: Ruth Clark

Pooja: The collection on display has a very eclectic and large mix of over 300 objects, ranging from possibly the oldest tartan discovered to an actual car. How did you ensure equal visual access to every part of the exhibition?

Brian and Lauren: It is indeed a difficult process. All exhibition objects need to be balanced with each other and with the exhibition environment. This requires us to understand and work with the curator to determine what they want to communicate and marry that with what kind of energy each object will have on the space around it. This requires a studied phenomenological approach to connecting visitors and objects.

There is a balance in how objects are displayed through the galleries | Tartan| V&A Dundee| STIRworld
There is a balance in how objects are displayed through the galleries Image: Ruth Clark

Pooja: Lighting design plays an important role in any exhibition, but more so in one composed of objects of different materials from different time periods. Are there any sections of the exhibit that needed special treatment in terms of the lighting design?

Brian and Lauren: The entire exhibition required special lighting treatment. From a technical point of view, with an exhibition consisting mainly of textiles we needed to keep light levels below 50 lux, which indicates an ambient light level of around 25 lux to provide contrast. This is really quite dim. This low light level also needed to be balanced with large A/V projections and smaller monitors. Thankfully we worked with DHA lighting design on the lighting who provided the exhibition with a balance of existing gallery lighting as well as integrated new lighting into our built elements to highlight both the exhibition architecture and the objects. DHA even threw in a few unexpected touches which helped to bring the concept into focus—using gels they projected tartan patterns onto the floor in the entrance area and in front of the large AV projections in Innovating Tartan.

The lighting design changes with space and object requirements | Tartan| V&A Dundee| STIRworld
The lighting design changes with space and object requirements Image: Ruth Clark

Pooja: What was the easiest part of the design process?  

Brian and Lauren: Probably signing the contract. Everything else was quite a challenge—but enjoyable none the less. This is an interesting question, and you could say that the answer reveals how we work creatively together. Lauren and I have an exceptional creative partnership where a difficult area for one of us is often the easy or easier part for the other. It also helped that the team at V&A Dundee were brilliant, kind, and super easy to work with.

Evolution of Tartan and the grid | Tartan| V&A Dundee| STIRworld
Evolution of Tartan and the grid Image: Courtesy of Plaid Studio

The exhibition 'Tartan' is on display at V&A Dundee till January 14, 2024.

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