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Architects as exhibition designers

Students play lead role in design and installation of Wright’s Larkin exhibit in Hayes Hall

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By Rachel Teaman

Published June 12, 2017

An assortment of turn-of-the-century artifacts from the Larkin Company and its Frank Lloyd Wright-designed administrative building rest upon the craftsmanship of UB architecture students in “Wright’s Larkin,” an exhibition on industry and the Arts and Crafts Movement, now on view in UB’s Hayes Hall. 

Through a partnership with curator and UB associate professor of art Jonathan Katz and PhD art student Jamie Disarno, students in a design-build lab taught by Omar Khan conceived, designed and then fabricated an exhibit that pays homage to Wright’s iconic building. The exhibit opened last week to kick off a city-wide celebration of Wright’s 150 birthday and runs through October 19.

“Wright’s Larkin” explores the emergence of the American alternative to the handcraft-oriented Arts and Crafts movement of Great Britain, according to Katz. “The American model – and its epicenter was squarely focused in the Buffalo region – was really about bringing technology and innovative design together through new forms of modernity.”

In an homage to this ethos, Khan’s students brought form, function and elegance together in a set of modular wood cases and vitrines that can be stacked and reorientated to accommodate the wide range of exhibited artifacts, many of them on display for the first time. These are arranged around a two-story interior image of the Larkin Administrative Building that fills the Hayes Hall atrium. The collection, assembled largely from Buffalo-area collectors, includes metal furniture designed by Wright for Larkin as well as sundries once produced by the mail-order giant: soaps, tonics, paint, motor oil, spices, pottery and even a self-assembly rocking chair.

Perhaps the highlight of the exhibit is the Larkin metal filing cabinet, designed by Wright to organize the company’s voluminous flow of mail order forms. The modular system of drawers can be reconfigured from flat files to vertical files in a range of widths.  

Omar Khan says the filing cabinet was the touchstone for the students’ exhibit design. “The Larkin cabinet is a prime example of a modular design aesthetic that emerged from the logic, technological efficiency and almost scientific management of industry at the turn of the century.”

Khan developed the course with Katz and Disarno as a way to engage students in what would be the first traveling exhibit to be installed in Hayes Hall’s atrium Gallery. Given leeway by the curators to conceive the exhibit framework, students categorized hundreds of artifacts into what would become the two sections of the exhibit – “office” and “home.”

“Wright’s Larkin” explores the emergence of the American alternative to the handcraft-oriented Arts and Crafts movement of Great Britain, according to Katz. “The American model – and its epicenter was squarely focused in the Buffalo region – was really about bringing technology and innovative design together through new forms of modernity.” Photo by Alexander Becker

Building on Hayes Hall’s existing exhibit system of stackable wooden bases and platforms, designed by assistant professor of architecture Julia Jamrozik, students fabricated 20 additional cases using the same framework and material – white oak – in different sizes and configurations. They also designed a new system of fasteners for Plexiglas casing and mounted a 25-foot simulacrum of the Larkin office interior using historic photos.

When flipped vertically, the modules resemble a kitchen or medicine cabinet, a fitting aesthetic for the domestic half of the exhibit. Positioned horizontally, the system takes on a more formal feel for the display of office artifacts – photographs of employees, advertisements, employee handbooks, and mail order catalogs.

The exhibit also features rare footage of a Larkin Company film advertisement for a self-assembly chair. A film of the Larkin Company factory floor, produced by Thomas Edison circa 1911-1912, would have been shown to visitors of the Larkin Company as part of their tour. That film was discovered at the bottom of a collector’s freezer.

The course created a unique design-build experience for students, who consulted with the curator client team throughout the semester to refine their design and the organization of its components. They also were required to work within a limited budget and an aggressive timetable for the final installation.

Zachary Nolan, who graduated last month with his BS in Architecture, said the course was a satisfying capstone to his time at UB. “Having designs that are actually built instead of just theoretical is a fantastic feeling; tangible objects come straight from the page.”

The course also engaged students from across the disciplines. Alexandra Korchynski, a graduate student in UB’s arts management program with particular interest in 20 century architecture, played a lead role in organizing the artifacts and incorporating input from the curators. “It was a fun course. I have a whole new appreciation for the fabrication and rendering,” she says.

The students that participated in the class included graduates Alexandra Korchynski, John Mellas, Patrick O’Brian, Pinelopi Papadimitraki, Nathan St. John, Shuiping Xiong, and seniors Hua Xia Chen, Bradley Davis, Yasmiry Hiciano, Katherine Martell, Mehmet Menekse, Zachary Nolan, Henry Saldana and Christopher Vicente.

For more information on Buffalo’s four-month celebration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150 birthday and the city’s role in the Arts and Crafts Movement, visit http://artsandcraftsalliance.org/events/. The festival will culminate with an international conference in UB’s Hayes Hall on Oct. 20 to 21.