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Ever-expanding Catalog Keeps an Exhibit Alive

There’s probably a very good reason people are passionate about objects made of wood and paper in a way that they just aren’t about anything else, one we don’t often acknowledge. These things – from the bulkiest coffee-table book to the humblest wooden bowl – were alive once. And the best of these things seem alive to us still.

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This is the subtext that runs through “Turning to Art in Wood: A Creative Journey” – an eclectic exhibition Oakland’s StudioSaal designed for Old City Philadelphia’s Center for Art in Wood – and the remarkable limited-edition show catalog they also crafted. Perhaps most remarkable of all is the difficulty one experiences deciding where the exhibit leaves off and the catalog begins.

Turning to Art in Wood into a Show
Philadelphia’s Wood Turning Center celebrated its 25th anniversary in November 2011 with a name change to The Center for Art in Wood – the aforementioned exhibition was meant to celebrate this milestone.

For those who’ve never had the opportunity to plan a showing of this kind, it can seem remarkably similar to designing a publication, but in a more challenging three-dimensional space.

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“To lay out the gallery, I just scaled up all the objects in Adobe Illustrator and positioned everything on a scale floor plan of the gallery,” explains StudioSaal Founder Dan Saal. “I had a list of existing pedestals and just made everything fit. I think about object groupings and sight lines that will create an exciting and enjoyable experience for the visitor. The Center’s staff then set up and positioned all of the walls, pedestals and artwork according to my floor-plan diagram.”

All of the signage was produced and installed by Old City Philadelphia’s Signarama following Saal’s detailed elevation drawings.

“There were also printed invitations and postcards to promote the exhibition and the 25th anniversary celebration event,” he says.

They took the wise move of creating a simple printed gallery guide for the event that listed each object and its relevant credits, rather than requiring visitors to buy the catalog.

“We obviously didn’t want them to have to carry a big book around in the gallery,” he points out. “But we also didn’t want to make the gallery guide too elaborate so as to keep visitors from buying the publication.”

So just how big was that catalog?

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Catalog as Living Document
StudioSaal’s guide to the exhibit itself – specifically the limited-edition portfolio of 250 hand-numbered copies – turned out to be a museum-quality piece that mimicked the Center’s own organic, ever-growing nature.

To begin with, the title is silver foil stamped on wood cherry veneer paper from Northern Sheer Veneer, tipped onto a 14-x-9.25-inch, linen-wrapped portfolio box. “The Center is about promoting wood art and I felt that there had to be some wood in the publication somewhere,” says Saal.

The title sheet on the inside of the box was also produced on the same wood veneer paper. On the inside front cover: a tipped-on signature plate individually hand numbered and signed by the authors.

The 284-page portfolio itself is divided into three sections:

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Historical essays. These are printed in duotones (with a metallic silver ink as an accent color throughout) on Neenah Paper’s Eames 100 lb. Painting text and Eames Solar White Vellum finish to give them a more “historic” feel. There are actually six bound sections, each by a different author about their experiences with the Center.

The 25th anniversary exhibition catalog. This is actually 52 cards, each boasting two large photographs of two different pieces in the exhibit. Printed on NewPage’s Centura 100 lb. Silk cover, the cards are designed to be viewed in any order, just as a visitor to the exhibit would examine each piece as the fancy struck them.

Catalog of the Center’s complete collection. An 80-page section printed on Centura 100 lb. Silk text, featuring thumbnails of more than 1,000 objects contained in the Center, in their order of acquisition. The genius bit: Those who bought the limited-edition portfolio will receive printed updates covering new objects about every three years, making this a truly living, organic document.

“The Center’s collection is always growing and we wanted to figure out a way to continually document this growth,” says Saal. “The idea was to create a container—which is exactly what many of the turned objects in the Center’s collection are—to hold all of the contents of their story.”

Turning-to-Art-in-Wood_entire-contents-portfolio

These printed supplements will take the form of 16-, 24-, or 32-page booklets, he explains.

“They will be saddle-stitched like the other essay sections in the book; the size and paper will be exactly the same. The Center has kept track of who purchases the limited-edition version and the supplements will be made available to them free of charge. The clamshell portfolio box was designed with a little extra height so the supplements can just be added to the bottom of the stack of booklets. There should be enough room to add quite a few supplements making it a viable container for many years to come.”

Balancing Limited and Standard Editions
As in any project, money was one of the biggest challenges when it came to bringing this unconventional approach to museum catalogs to life.

“The Center had raised funds for the book but the limited-edition version was very expensive,” explains Saal. “If we did the portfolio box idea we wouldn’t be able to produce enough books to be sold. The way we overcame this was by spending all of the budget on producing the 250 limited-edition versions and then having the standard hard-cover edition produced separately.”

Schiffer Publishing in Pennsylvania agreed to co-publish the standard hard-cover books, covering the cost of printing and distribution. This enabled the Center to finance the limited-edition version, printed by The Fox Co. in West Allis, Wis.

“The issue then became how do we produce two different publications without adding a lot of extra time and cost for design? My solution was to design the pages for each version exactly the same.”

The only problem: the limited-edition page size is 9 x 13.75 inches, the standard edition is 9 x 12 inches.

“The size of the standard edition had to meet Schiffer’s normal sizes for a regular case-bound book; they couldn’t produce a 9-x-13.75-inch book without the cost going up significantly,” he explains. “The layout for the limited edition had extra white space at the top and bottom of the page. This allowed me to convert the file to 9 x 12 inches and just make sure everything in the layout was positioned correctly on the new page. This took a very short period of time and allowed us to do two different bound versions of the book for little design cost.”

Like the wood pieces they celebrate, these books were alive once. And through their design and adaptability, they will live on and on and on.

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Author: Aaron Berman

A former writer and editor for USA Today, Aaron Berman is also the editor of PaperSpecs, and covered the newspaper industry for the Newspaper Association of America’s monthly magazine, Presstime.

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