Often, museum graphics err on the side of anonymity, assuming that art needs a recessive frame to shine. Not so at the North Carolina Museum of Art, which will be dramatically transformed this year. An expansion building designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners opening in April will add 127,000 square feet of exhibition space to the museum's original 1983 building by Edward Durell Stone. Adjacent to the these buildings is a 449-seat open-air amphitheater; the entire complex is set within a 164-acre park filled with sculpture and walking trails.
Pentagram was asked to create a new signage and wayfinding program as well as a new graphic identity that would reflect the boldness of the museum's transformation.
Talking to the NCMA staff, Pentagram's designers realized a few things early on. 'First, this is a big project happening at large scale,' says partner Michael Bierut. 'The expansion building itself is exciting, but that's only one part of the NCMA experience. It's a place where people will go to classes in the 1983 building, concerts in the amphitheater, and bike riding in Museum Park.' This suggested the need for an identity that would be strong enough to bridge all these activities. 'Plus, we knew that the identity would have to work with the full 23-character name as well as the four-letter acronym.'
This led to the development of a custom alphabet based on the expansion building's most distinctive architectural feature: the oval-shaped skylights that will bring light into all the new gallery spaces. 'The distinctive form of these light wells not only contrast so beautifully with the right angles of Tom Phifer's expansion building, but also evoke the natural world of the park beyond the museum walls,' says Bierut. In developing the typeface, Pentagram's designers were inspired by another designer with North Carolina roots, Josef Albers, the legendary Bauhaus artist who taught in the 1930's and 40's at Black Mountain College in Asheville; his geometric studies are well-represented in the NCMA collections.
The custom alphabet then permits the NCMA spirit to infiltrate the range of activities the museum sponsors. The distinctive new look is arresting at first, Bierut admits, especially compared with its previous, much more anonymous, identity. 'But this is the year that the North Carolina Museum of Art is going to surprise people.'
Project Team: Michael Bierut, partner-in-charge and designer; Yve Ludwig, designer.