THE NEWEST TREND the newest trend in art fairs has less to do with artists and more to do with engaging visitors in a creative experience. In recent years, in a response to the “fairtigue” that inevitably comes from drifting through an Ikea-like maze of stark white cubicles, organisers and sponsors are commissioning designers to create spaces that are more accessible and inviting – and, above all, that involve visitors.
The overall design concept for this year’s elegantly minimalist Art Basel in Hong Kong, for instance, comes courtesy of Amsterdam-based architect Tom Postma, who began his career as an artist and sculptor, and then turned to design and architecture in the late 1990s.
Postma specialises in art- and design-related exhibitions, with a portfolio that embraces The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht and Art Basel in Miami Beach and in Basel. The fair’s design concept is a reflection of Hong Kong, says Postma. “We use a strong design language that on purpose is in contrast to the architecture of the building. We designed the public concourses in such a way that they become transition spaces from the city to the fair itself.”
The design is not, however, simply an aesthetic exercise, explains Art Basel Director Asia Magnus Renfrew. “Tom Postma Design has attended the show in Hong Kong since 2011 to analyse the visitor flow. Its developments have been designed to create space to allow the art on display to breathe, while creating focal points to drive traffic and attention to all parts of the show floor.”
An understanding of the nature of the art-fair audience has also driven the design, says Postma.“ At a good modern fair you can not only buy the best art, but it’s also a social gathering where you can meet, have good food and attend lectures. The social aspect of the fair becomes more and more important. This requires strong attention for routing, clear entrances, restaurants and public areas.”
Renfrew says the design of art fairs is akin to urban planning: “There’s a need to marry functionality of space with aesthetic content, and to break up the show into logical parcels that ensure easy navigation.”
According to Postma, the single most important design element is the floor plan. “It seems like a futile thing, but the most important thing to keep the visitor engaged is to ensure the floor plan is the absolute best. It’s a meticulous task and it takes up most of the design time, but if you crack it, it pays back.”
The halls – in this case at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre – should receive the least attention possible, he suggests. “The fair design should never try to compete with the art. The visitor should be able to freely focus on the art and not be conscious of the building.”
Postma’s solution to the long narrow rectangular shape of the centre was to create two “content areas” across the halls, dividing each into three blocks. Open wide squares connect all aisles and feature multiple large works that “give the visitor moments and locations to orientate himself“.
This focus on design is part of a growing aesthetic awareness within the art world, especially among fair sponsors who often create their own design-worthy lounges.
One of the most notable at last year’s inaugural Art Basel in Hong Kong was a space for Swire Properties created by local creative studio marc & chantal. The designers took inspiration from Hong Kong’s elevated urban streetscape, creating an intriguing space that “added to guests’ perceptions of the city” through an abstract topographical installation.
“When we first saw the design brief we realised we didn’t want to create a classic lounge, so instead proposed a sculptural piece that could be inhabited. It was about hidden spaces in building networks. We were very pleased with the creative outcome of collaborating with the designers on our space at the fair,” says Swire Properties Chief Executive Martin Cubbon. “We worked very closely with them so they understood our core values, which is critical as the lounge should represent our company and reflect our brand. That said, you have to trust your creative instinct and give them enough design freedom to be truly innovative.”
Marc Brulhart of marc & chantal says the design for Swire’s space this year plays with the notion of “how you go from one day to another with little things that change in the city – it’s about expectations”.
The installation features a series of vertical periscopes that give the impression of looking straight ahead but in fact give views of the space ahead or backward. “The installation will also involve a series of filters with different colours to help modify reality. Only when you go through the periscope will you see reality,” explains Brulhart.
Elsewhere at Art Basel, French designer Mathieu Lehanneur reflects on the pristine beauty of alpine forests in a spectacular nature-inspired lounge created for luxury watchmakers Audemars Piguet. Renowned for his humanistic projects, Lehanneur employed cutting-edge technology to cast exact replicas of rocks near the Piguet home in Le Brassus in the Vallée de Joux. The replicas form a new version of nature at the art fair.
“I am inspired by nature and technology, and the possibilities in design they both present,” explains the designer.
The innovative space provides a subtle backdrop for a specially commissioned film produced by Austrian artist Kurt Hentschlager depicting scenes from the same valley, again reflecting the “the coexistence of nature and technology.
Not to be outdone, Absolut has kept in step with the creative design theme with an intriguing cocktail bar at the Collectors’ Lounge serving artist-designed cocktails using Absolut Elyx vodka that the company famously produces from single-estate wheat from the Råbelöf castle in Sweden. Our personal favourite is Black Dog, an inspired concoction by Hong Kongbased contemporary artist Nadim Abbas, who has also designed one of the most interesting satellite spaces during the fair.
The art fair background may still be a conservative shade of white-on-white, but with creative cocktails and periscopes to peer through, the fair’s future already looks a shade brighter.