The Society of British Theatre Designers

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Telling Tales:

THE STORY BEHIND THE DESIGN OF THE EXHIBITION AT THE V&A
Nissen Adams is an architecture practice that was started in 2003 when I formed a company with Ben Adams who I met at University when I was studying for my diploma in architecture. It has slowly grown in size to the nine of us that it is today. As well as architecture I have also studied Theatre Design at the Slade, and so have tried to bring the disciplines of theatre and architecture together as much as possible in our work. Sometimes it has been about using theatre work as a test bed of techniques for larger works, and at other times it allows a different angle within the project to emerge.

This has been greatly added to by the continuous collaboration with the lighting designer Zerlina Hughes. She enables our work to become often overtly theatrical as she animates the spaces with changing and hidden lights – a different approach to usual architectural lighting. Our work together started in theatre, with FAUST for the ATC by Mark Ravenhill. We have now formed the lighting company ZNA Consultancy, headed by Zerlina. Currently it is working on several exhibition projects for the Victoria and Albert Museum, National Gallery and the Natural History Museum.

The Telling Tales exhibition at the V&A that opened this year in July marked an important new stage for Nissen Adams and ZNA as it felt like for the first time all different aspects of our company and collaborators were working together on equal ground. Much of the process was similar to a theatre project, with the objects being the performers – but the timings and procurement process was closer to architecture.

The process of design for Telling Tales
The progress of the design was made much easier by the collaboration with the curator – Gareth Williams, who after working at the V&A was leaving to become a senior tutor in Design Products at the RCA. Gareth has an extremely visual way of working, and he was keen that each collaborator maintained their voice; which made him an inspiring colleague.

Our initial brief from him was to design three stage sets to house a series of design objects including furniture, lightings and ceramics that had been brought together in three categories linked by a narrative told through their form or decorative device. Gareth created three themes: The Forest Glade, the Enchanted Castle, and Heaven and Hell. We wanted to design a series of rooms or pavilions which would be immersive, and have a distinct style and build technique. We tried to make the materials that we used and the associations from the way that it was designed, different in each case.
Early on we brought into our team the company Luminous Frenzy, led by the sound artist Frank Frenzy. We looked at how this idea of a narrative space could be enhanced and added to by creating a soundscape that picked up on the design ideas.

For each distinct space we also made a short film played on a continuous loop that acted like a trailer to the show and would be viewed at the beginning as you first enter. These films picked up on the themes of the exhibition and were a way of setting the scene – and linking the three spaces. Monitors were mounted within pedestals that were at different heights, so that they appeared as if they were people watching you, or guards at the entrance.

The first film was walking through a forest, the second a candle re-lighting, and the third a shadowy ambiguous moving world.

The initial concept was that through the three rooms we would create a pathway going in one direction…like Hansel and Gretel running through the spaces leaving notes to each other (the labels with the description of the objects on).

The Forest Glade

When we started designing this section we wanted it to feel as open as possible, and be like walking through a glade of trees into a clearing in the centre. As soon as we started plotting the objects to be included, the scale of these began to dictate the layout. The exhibition would take us through from open (the Forest) to interior (the Castle) to darkness (Heaven and Hell). After a re-design to decrease costs, we settled on using diaphanous materials that would cut across and line the spaces to give the feeling of being lost in a forest. Graphic panels of treated photographs (that matched the filmwork) represented walking through an apple glade in winter. As you progressed through the exhibition the trees would seem more and less dense spatially.

Two lines of timber created the edge of the walkthrough, like a child’s drawing of a pathway, and these practically became the base for the metal work holding up the graphics. We looked at hanging labels from ropes with clothes pegs to reinforce the idea of Hansel and Gretel, but decided that the graphics should become less visible.

Frank recorded in the New Forest with several microphones, and interplayed birdsong with creaking trees and footsteps. This created a slightly dark mood as a counterpoint to the optimistic birdsong and was extremely effective.

By Pippa Nissen

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Pippa Nissen is an international theatre set designer, and qualified architect who also works as a film maker. She co-founded Nissen Adams in 2003.
She has extensive experience of working on theatre sets in the UK and overseas, including: Northampton Theatre, The Tramway, Buxton Festival, Theatre Basel, Hannover Opera, the Almeida, The RSC Stratford, Aldeburgh Festival and Opera North. She has used film increasingly in her work, including backdrops to action on a stage or as an installation within a space.
Before setting up Nissen Adams with Ben Adams, she worked for a number of architecture practices that specialise in the design of theatre buildings.
She has taught over the last ten years at: Cambridge University, the AA, London Met, and is currently Senior lecturer at Kingston University where she runs a design unit for graduate students. Other awards include: she was Selected for ‘40 Under 40’ at the V&A, Nissen Adams was selected for inclusion on the Olympic Panel for the Athlete’s Village, and in 2009 she was selected for the Brent Council Design Review Panel.