Frans Hals Prize Exhibitiondesign @ Items #8 1988

The Netherlands has a new design prize: the Frans Halle Prize for exhibition design.

The initiative deserves and receives much praise.

However, the elaboration of this new prize leaves much to be desired.

Carel Kuitenbrouwer takes stock now that the prize has been awarded for the first time.

Frans Hals Prize for Exhibition Design @ Items #8, Magazine for Design, Visual Communication and Architecture, 1 September 1988

Frans Hals
for Exhibition

The Haarlem-based Frans Hals Museum (F H M) has established the “Frans Hals Prize for Exhibition Design” on the occasion of its seventy-fifth anniversary. The prize was awarded for the first time on September 2, during a well-attended design day. The intention is to award the prize every two years from now on. This was the first time in our country that a prize was established for exhibition design. It is still quite uncommon to consider this occupation as a profession in its own right. The way in which the prize is awarded is also new for design in the Netherlands. It can be compared to the use of competitions in architectural circles. Plans can be submitted for a project to be realized in the future. The winner of the competition is then commissioned to actually supervise the execution of his plans.

The subject of the competition for the Frans Halle Prize was the design of the F H M’s anniversary exhibition: Hollywood in Holland, which deals with the Film factory Hollandia, a film company that was founded almost simultaneously with the F H M in Haarlem and that between 1912 and ’23 produced an unparalleled production of silent feature and documentary films. The prize consisted of a cash sum of f 7,500. In addition, an honorarium enabled the award-winning designer to realize his plan – in collaboration with the museum’s technical department. The results were on display in the Vishal until Oct. 23. Models and some sketches of the other competition entries were on display in the museum itself.

The jury of the Frans Halve Prize consisted of interior architect Marijke van der Wijst, designer of exhibitions at Museum Boymans-van Beuningen and the Stedelijk Museum, Jan van Toorn, graphic designer and head of the Graphic Department of the Rijksacademie, Anthon Beeke, graphic designer and Antoinette Visser, head of the educational department of the F H M and spiritual mother of the prize.

Forced by the short time frame in which the selection and execution of the award-winning design had to take place, an open competition was waived. On the recommendation of the jury members, eleven people were asked to submit work they had already made. This request was accompanied by written information about the Frans Halsprijs and the exhibition ‘Hollywood in Holland’. Nine designers responded and from these nine, six entries were invited to take part in the competition: the Amsterdam design bureau A&a, graphic designer Karel Kruijsen from Breda, architect Radboud van Beekum, industrial designer Paul Linse, both from Amsterdam, spatial designer Annelies de Leede from Rotterdam and designer Frans Vogelaar from London. An information day was held on April 14 this year, where participants could learn about the content of the topic.

Paul Linse, who graduated cum laude from the Eindhoven Academy of Industrial Design in 1987, was the lucky winner. According to the jury report, the jury had great difficulty choosing between two submitted designs. They were “the most appealing proposals in terms of design (…): those by Frans Vogelaar and Paul Linse.

Because there were doubts about the feasibility and use of materials in both designs, Vogelaar and Linse were asked to elaborate on their proposals on those points. That elaboration, however, did not bring the answers to questions the jury would have liked answered. In particular, uncertainty remained about the feasibility of Vogelaar‘s extraordinarily unusual proposal. Vogelaar’s plan consisted of three spaces: the “Blue Box” (intended as a “transition between reality and reconstructed history”), an introduction to the theme and the exhibition proper. The atmosphere of film and filmmaking was evoked in image and sound through film and slide projections, to the rhythm of an old projector, vibrating fluorescent tubes, “sucking and seductive sounds, etc. Vogelaar aimed for an ‘evocative’ presentation, in which all the material needed for the exhibition could also find a place. The jury called his design “a brilliant plan which, both by its spatial approach and its complexity, is a challenging answer to the idea of the exhibition,” but at the same time feared that the execution of the exhibition under his direction could not be accomplished within the available two-and-a-half weeks. She therefore chose the safe, but less adventurous route and awarded Paul Linse‘s design.

The choice between Vogelaar and Linse indicates one of the crucial issues surrounding the prize and its purpose: the multifaceted nature of this – otherwise praiseworthy – initiative. According to the description by the F H M, the intention of the Frans Halsprijs was twofold: on the one hand, ‘to provide a platform for promising new Dutch designers’; on the other, to initiate a discussion about exhibition design. ‘This discussion is interesting for Dutch design, for the Dutch museum world and for companies that have an affinity with and are producers of design in the broadest sense of the word,’ the jury knew. And as if this were not enough, the prize should also be ‘an impulse for innovative and, if possible, more efficient design’.

As recognized by F H M and the jury, there can be no platform for young talent without open registration. Especially if the intention is to give unknown talent a chance, it is impossible to rely on the nomination of individuals, even if they try so hard not to forget anyone.

The invitation to both experienced designers and young talent to participate also hopped on two thoughts underlying the competition. On the one hand, they wanted to approach new novice designers; on the other hand, exhibition design is a demanding business, perhaps too demanding for a designer who has little experience in exhibition design, the jury report defended. Who “one” is here, by the way, is unclear; the F H M or the jury? What is clear is that the two principles of the competition, to be both a talent show and a discussion platform, are difficult to reconcile. Stimulating discussion requires a different strategy than stimulating new talent. The discussion about the role of designers in the design of exhibitions should be conducted on the basis of the views already expressed on the subject by both exhibition planners and designers. The explanatory notes to the F H M’s grant application give an initial impetus: ‘In the current exhibition business, design is often no more than an aesthetic face-lift of the museum’s offerings. Color, graphic form and expression aim to create a certain unity. When design is given the much more complicated objective of explaining a concept, an idea, a message of an exhibition, the aforementioned aesthetic tools are often inadequate.’ Now none of the six designs excels in explaining a concept of content through design, with the exception of Frans Vogelaar‘s and Karel Kruijsen‘s designs. The latter’s plan may not have been worked out to perfection, but it is, in terms of content, a very well-thought-out proposal that elevates the exhibition above the level of local historiography. The compelling and effective routing and decoration of the spaces (box office, cinema, recording studio and set) place the subject – the Haarlem film factory – in the atmosphere and context of the time, the ’10s and ’20s. Compared to these two designs, the proposal by the eventual prize winner, Paul Linse, is much more of an “aesthetic facelift” than the F H M should have approved. Linse’s exhibition has an overwhelming visual effect, but the substantive justification for that form is meager.

In order to map out the field of exhibition design and explore its propositions, a competition could be a valuable tool, provided that experienced designers and decorators of various conceptions and signatures would participate in it. In this way, for example, the question of which discipline (industrial design, interior design or graphic design) is decisive for the design of an exhibition could be answered on the basis of concrete proposals.
With the inadequate presentation of the entries at the F H M, such questions cannot be answered. The proposals for the exhibition were difficult to compare. Besides the six models, only sketches of additional components, such as a catalog or invitation card, were on display from a single designer. Explanations of the designs were completely lacking.

Providing opportunities for young designers is at least as noble a goal as encouraging discussion in a field. But it is an entirely different matter. Giving a promising but inexperienced designer the opportunity to present his (uninhibited, original or daring) vision of the complicated profession of exhibition design and to test it against practice is by no means a simple matter. In order to realize this, such a young designer will have to receive a great deal of substantive cooperation and technical guidance in realizing his/her plans on a 1:1 scale. To prevent the positive effect of stimulating young peers from turning into its opposite through a frustrated collaboration and/or a disappointing result, the museum must be willing to allow the designer great freedom in his/her plans while doing everything possible to realize what he/she advocates. Even if this would mean that the exhibition would “fail” in the eyes of curators or museum management. Given the great risks involved in this premise, it is understandable, incidentally, that the F H M did not radically opt for this.

Too bad, though. Because precisely in this way the divergent starting points of the competition could be reconciled to some extent. It would especially stimulate the discussion about the cooperation and division of tasks between curator and designer(s) in the organization of exhibitions. As the prize is now organized, good intentions are frustrated by the practice and limitations of an enthusiastic but small museum.

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