By Bruce Tharp
The Gravity Free 2007 conference was held May 14-16 at the swanky W hotel in the heart of Chicago. As a regular conference and trade show attendee across many design-related disciplines, I have already seen a lifetime's worth of exhibition design, but this was my first exposure to an Exhibition Design event.
Gravity Free is the brainchild of EXHIBITOR magazine publisher and event producer, Lee Knight, who actually launched the first conference in 1991 under a different name. Despite its success with speakers such as Ralph Caplan (then of ID magazine) and Clement Mok, it wasn't until last year--15 years later--that the conference returned with the likes of Tucker Viemeister and Massimo Vignelli at the podium. While Lee is a self-confessed non-designer, he is a true fan and advocate of design's power and influence, especially within the sometimes-spurned trade show industry. And he is smart enough to know that what's most interesting, and best fosters innovative thinking, is multi-disciplinary thinking.
The true joy of the Gravity Free conference was that it was not an "exhibition design" conference at all, but instead drew upon a wealth of other peripheral fields such as automotive design, Hollywood production design, toy design, computer science, shoe design, ethnographic research, and even molecular gastronomy. As exhibition design stands at the intersection of interior architecture, product design, and graphic design, these disciplines were also represented, but the overall balance was carefully crafted so that, as with a great culinary dish (like with deep-fried cotton candy), there was a subtle foundation that allowed the exotic to pop in exciting but coherent ways.
Hitting the limits of the W's conference capacity, the sold-out crowd of 200 created a nicely sized collective--big enough for variety but small enough so as not to overwhelm or alienate. The sense of community was also fostered through speaker roundtables (attendees could engage in informal and even off-topic discussions with guest speakers) and at two special off-site events (a dinner and private baby-Beluga-whale viewing at the Shedd Aquarium; a breakfast and exclusive sneak-preview of the new CSI: The Experience exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry). And one more feature that I really like: Gravity Free does not have concurrent speakers; they are all worthy of "the big room," and everyone experiences the same conference together (and you are saved from the sinking feeling that you should have chosen the other speaker).
At $1650, this conference is a little pricey for individuals or small firms, but certainly it would have been difficult to attract so many top-rate speakers otherwise. And at least it felt like a pricey conference--the venue was hip, the off-site events were special and nicely-catered, the conference literature had some of the best design and production values I have seen, the between-the-speakers snacks were overly tempting, and even the conference t-shirt was nice and wonderfully understated (usually they go straight to my Salvation Army box).
Below are some images and commentary; for a full list of speakers and bios, check out the Gravity Free website.
Lee Knight, Gravity Free founder and owner/CEO of EXHIBITOR Magazine Group.
Henry Beer, Urban planner, on Why do clients fire designers? "Experts can find the answers, but outliers ask the best questions."
Jeanine Oppewall, 3-time-Oscar-nominated Hollywood production designer (LA Confidential, Sea Biscuit, and Pleasantville) on What is cinematic storytelling? She gave a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the production of the sets for The Good Shepherd (starring Matt Damon). Much of it was filmed at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, combining the magic of green screen and computer animation with good old-fashioned set design (like making blue foam bricks--image at right). In her early years she worked for the Eames studio, and, as a personal homage, she inserts some Herman Miller furniture into each of her movies.
Paul Budnitz, founder of Kidrobot, on Can we be creative on demand? At right he charts our creative development over a lifetime.
Cameron Sinclair, Co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, on How can design make the world better for five billion people? He told the story of how at the age of 23 (he's now 33), he called up the United Nations regarding the dire housing situation in Kosovo, suggesting an architecture competition as a place to start. He now heads "the world's largest non-profit design organization" with 4500 active designers across the globe, striving "to treat people not as victims, but as clients." But the really great person will keep on going and find the key, the underlying principle of the problem--and come up with an elegant, really beautiful solution that works.
Larry Keeley, of the Doblin Group, a favorite speaker of mine, on What matters most to people now? He took the audience on an articulate and fascinating ride, showing companies and products that have tapped into something special--GE locomotives, Otis elevators that generate electricity on the way down, Chinese solar cells, and high-quality $25/night hotel rooms across India. He claimed that "all great innovation comes from the fringe."
Richard Saul Wurman, architect, cartographer, information architect, and author of 81 books, on Why do the great cities of the world have no comparative data? The consummate abrasive contrarian, he began by stating, "I don't work for anybody, I don't have any clients, and I don't give a shit about people." He does give a shit about cities though, and discussed his 19.20.21 plan to gather comparative statistics on the world's 19 largest cities with populations over 20 million in the 21st century.
Frank Stephenson, designer of the 2001 MINI-Cooper and the BMW/X5, on Why is emotion the next battleground in design? Several years ago I had heard the story about the tailpipe on the MINI looking like a Coke can. Well, Frank gave us the inside scoop: at 4am, while finishing the final model of the MINI for presentation at 10am, they realized that they had forgotten to design a tailpipe. Thinking quickly, Frank modified a Budweiser (not Coke) can and worked it into the model--and that is how it looks today. His boss, Chris Bangle, was impressed with the presentation but said that he should never put so much time/money in to a small feature like a tailpipe. Frank to us: "I was embarrassed because it only took four minutes."
Karim Rashid, on How do you make the boring better? This was Karim's same shtick if you've seen him speak before: design-ocracy, "how boring the world has become," and "embrace the human sensorial condition." When later asked about how he reconciled environmental issues in his work, he responded with these wonderful little pearls: "It's a big issue...the world is complex...[and] we have this idea that manufacturing is bad."
Jim Gilmore, co-author of The Experience Economy on Why is "real" important in contemporary culture? Insightful and energetic, Jim introduced his upcoming book, Authenticity in which he "attack[s] the paradigm of marketing." His thesis is that during the agrarian economy the purchase criterion was availability; with the industrial economy it was price/cost; with the service economy it was quality. And now, in an experience economy, it is about the real and authentic.
Homaro Cantu, restaurateur and molecular gastronomist, on Why do we eat the way we do? In addition to the edible menu at Chicago's MOTO restaurant, he brought us deep-fried cotton candy.
The Gravity Free logo--a floating balloon and anvil--captured the conference perfectly. On their website, the balloon and anvil float across the screen horizontally, rather than rise or fall; an exciting tension between the two creates an unexpected equilibrium. The conference, similarly, was an accomplished balancing act between the topics related to exhibition design and those peripheral, between the on-site and off-site venues, between the value of what the audience and the speakers had to offer, and the balance between the structure and the freedom of the activities. My hope is that they are able to keep this magic alive amid a likely increase in popularity.While the theme for next year's conference is set--Confessions of a Dangerous Mind--the location is still "up in the air." (It's probably down to Minneapolis or Boulder.) Keep a lookout for the announcement on their website as well as for more images and reporting from Gravity Free 2007.
Bruce M. Tharp is currently Assistant Professor of Designed Objects at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He and his wife, Stephanie (also a professor of industrial design, at the University of Illinois-Chicago), also run a Chicago design studio, which focuses on domestic objects that are both useful and critical.