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The Art of Designing for Art Fairs

March 9, 2012

Two New York firms help organize the Armory Show and Frieze.

By William Hanley

SOM designed the master plan for the new Cornell campus on Roosevelt Island.
Photo © Andy Ryan

The Armory Show’s 2012 floor plan and social spaces were designed by Bade Stageberg Cox. Click to view additional images. slide show

 

SOM designed the master plan for the new Cornell campus on Roosevelt Island.
Image courtesy Frieze New York / SO – IL
SO – IL’s scheme for the first New York edition of the Frieze Art Fair. Click to view additional images. slide show
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As anyone who has spent time navigating art fairs knows, the endless rows of white-walled gallery booths displaying attention-grabbing work can drive you a special kind of crazy. While real-estate inside the show is always a major consideration, with dealers jockeying for prime positioning in the labyrinth of booths, until recently fairs had rarely hired architects to manage the experience of the space. But this year, two New York events have tapped two Brooklyn-based firms to mitigate viewer fatigue and boost sales by bringing some clarity to the aisles upon aisles of art.

The Armory Show, which opens to the public today and runs through Sunday, March 11, in 200,000 square feet spread over two piers on Manhattan’s west side, has enlisted Bade Stageberg Cox to configure the temporary walls that contain the exhibition. With fewer galleries to accommodate than in previous years—show organizers cut the number of exhibitors to 230 from last year’s 274—the firm started by enlarging the size of the booths where dealers set up shop. They also reduced the number of aisles from three to two, so that visitors browsing along one row, can return via the other knowing that they’ve seen every booth along the way.

“It’s an enormous space, and the vocabulary of materials is extremely limited,” says principal Martin Cox. “We had to determine how to put it together in new ways.”

Clusters of large booths abut smaller spaces, creating variation by mixing blue-chip galleries with smaller enterprises. The architects periodically interrupt the sequence of temporary white boxes with public spaces housing lounges, cafes, and at the terminus of one pier, a restaurant. Breaking up the fair with public spaces is not a new idea, but Bade Stageberg Cox gave each of the open areas its own identity by adding colored walls and carpet that derive their palette from New York City—taxi-cab yellow, construction fence blue—and stacking units from the fair’s wall system to create roughly finished towers that rise above the booth partitions. Painted in the same color as the public spaces from which they rise, they create points of orientation visible from a distance signaling the location of different neighborhoods of galleries. “They function like landmarks in a city,” says Cox.

The firm furnished the taxi-colored lounge with a mismatched group of chairs salvaged from city streets. Refinished in yellow to match walls, the found chairs add another distinguishing element to the space. “Not really having a furniture budget, we asked how do you furnish the fair in a very New York City way,” says Timothy Bade. “When you start looking, they’re everywhere on the street,” adds Jane Stageberg. The firm titled the project Street Seats, and at the preview, the chairs elicited spontaneous compliments from visitors.

While the Armory Show is a native New Yorker, the 10-year-old, London-based Frieze Art Fair will launch its first international edition in New York, May 4-7. The fair plans to stay true to its roots, housing the exhibition in a large tent on Randalls Island—a strip of fields and sports facilities located in the East River between Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx.

Frieze has hired another Brooklyn firm, Solid Objectives – Idenburg Liu (SO – IL), to turn a humble enclosure into a space worthy of an exhibition and exciting enough to coax collectors out to the remote location. (The fair plans to run ferries to the otherwise difficult to reach island, where Robert Moses once built a bunker-like office.)

Lead by Florian Idenburg and Jing Liu, the firm first came to art world prominence when they won the Museum of Modern Art’s Young Architects Program competition in 2010 to design an installation for the courtyard at P.S.1. For Frieze, they plan to break a 225,000 square-foot stretch of gable-sided tent into six rectangular segments. The segments are offset at acute angles from one another to create an S-curve in plan, and bands of tent material stretch like louvers over the entrances at either end of the snake-like form.

The architects intend to cover the exhibition space for 174 galleries in opaque material to protect the work from sunlight. The angles formed in between rectangular segments will be wrapped in transparent material. SO – IL plans to place social spaces inside the transparent wedges, which will have views to the river and Manhattan to the west.

“Every time we go to art fairs, I get claustrophobic after half an hour with the sea of people streaming at you,” says Liu. “It’s kind of like urban life, where there are so many things happening, so we approached it like city planning. You have blocks, but you also have these open spaces that are completely different from the galleries.”

The success of SO-IL’s design will be evident when the tent goes up in May. At the Armory Show’s opening party yesterday, most guests interviewed about the Bade Stageberg Cox plan didn’t notice much of a difference from previous iterations of the show. But earlier today, dealers were enthusiastic.

“It’s just nicer to move around,” says Andrew Freiser of New York’s Fredericks & Freiser, a veteran of many Armory Shows. “Everyone seems to like that there’s more space. I think people are very happy with the fair, and that helps sales.”

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