A Tribute to Those Who Build Our Stuff

By Elie Glyn
January 10, 2023
A woman in a black shirt cuts a display mount with a hacksaw, with a work cart next to her
Senior exhibition production specialist Jill Comer prepares a display mount for a Japanese fan. Photo: R. Leopoldina Torres.

One of the great joys of being an exhibition designer is the opportunity to watch skilled professionals at work as they translate ideas into reality.

At the Harvard Art Museums, we have a robust schedule of exhibitions, monthly gallery changes, and special installations. Since art by nature is infinitely varied in size, format, style, and medium, and because we often have specific aesthetic goals for our presentations, we are frequently building custom furnishings (such as pedestals, mounts, and cases) to house and protect the objects on view. All this means that there’s usually plenty of work for the many talented individuals we rely on to build our stuff. 

Visitors in a gallery view a series of painted hanging scrolls.
Visitors to the exhibition Painting Edo: Japanese Art from the Feinberg Collection (February 14, 2020–June 6, 2021) view Sakai Hōitsu’s series Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months in custom-designed casework. Photo: Joshua Duttweiler.

Professional designers like myself are, in many ways, in an advantaged position compared to the builders who produce our designs. We typically get to work in climate-controlled offices, sit in comfortable chairs, and end the workday with clean hands and without aching muscles. When we make mistakes, often we can fix them by pressing “Control + Z” or by spending some extra time revising earlier drawings. Seldom does an exhibition designer’s error result in bodily injury, damaged machinery, or an expensive pile of wasted material. 

With the designer’s position of privilege, however, comes certain professional responsibilities. Foremost among them is our job to ensure that the creative decisions reflected in a final design are the right ones, however that is defined. (These would be decisions that affect how art is displayed and how visitors experience the space.) We are responsible for the accuracy and consistency of all dimensions and specifications provided to the builder. Additionally, I believe a higher responsibility should inform a designer’s work: to create products that honor, or at the very least acknowledge, the skills and wisdom inherent to the building process. 

In a gallery, a man on a ladder and a woman standing nearby adjust a hanging scroll on a wall, while a man at right looks on.
Glyn looks on while exhibition production specialist Sean Lunsford and curator Rachel Saunders install a hanging scroll in the Painting Edo exhibition. Photo: Tara Metal.

Let’s look at several recent examples of collaborations between designer and builder that resulted in superbly crafted exhibition furnishings in our galleries. 

A Stage for Japanese Folding Screens

In December 2021, our newly renovated East Asian gallery opened to the public with a wide variety of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean art. The renovation was generously funded by Robert and Betsy Feinberg, whose collection of Japanese art is a promised gift to the museums. Thanks to their help, we built many new display cases specifically tailored to various painting formats, such as handscrolls, fans, and hanging scrolls. The largest addition to the gallery is a new platform for displaying Japanese folding screens.

Two six-panel folding screens depicting landscapes in a gallery on a large platform.
A pair of six-panel folding screens, painted by Kano Sansetsu, on display in the newly renovated East Asian gallery.

The surface of this platform represents a modern interpretation of tatami, a type of woven mat flooring composed of adjoining panels used in traditional Japanese buildings. In this adaptation, we are evoking the outward appearance of tatami while substituting white oak planks for the original woven straw. Because folding screens are meant to sit on one’s floor, this platform strikes a balance between tatami and the dark oak floorboards you’ll find in galleries throughout the museums. 

  • The interior of a room, with sliding doors and tatami floor panels.
    of Example of tatami-style flooring in Daitoku-ji Temple complex, Kyoto, Japan. Photo: Elie Glyn.
  • A painted scene looking into a residential interior that shows eight women, who wear kimonos, either sitting or standing and chatting with one another.
    of Detail of Utagawa Toyoharu, Pastimes of a Spring Afternoon (c. 1780), showing a residential interior with tatami floors. Promised gift of Robert S. and Betsy G. Feinberg, TL42391.16.
  • In a gallery, two six-panel folding screens depict several dozen figures with mountains in the background. The screens are positioned on a large platform.
    of The new Japanese folding screen platform, featuring a white oak surface. Photo: Elie Glyn.

We entrusted the construction and installation of this platform to Rhode Island–based woodworkers Joseph Gulezian and Jeff Pizzi. If you’ve ever sat on our gallery benches, then you’ve already encountered their handiwork. I knew that Gulezian and Pizzi could achieve the high degree of quality that the design of this folding screen platform required. They needed not only to grapple with its large size but to source the highest quality white oak and to expertly mill, join, and finish it. With such a simple overall appearance, meticulousness was essential. 

Two men stand in a woodshop between a table saw and a band saw.
Jeff Pizzi (left) and Joseph Gulezian (right) in their woodshop. Photo courtesy of Joseph Gulezian and Jeff Pizzi.

To reinforce the idea of translating woven wefts of tatami into wooden planks, I specified that the oak be rift-sawn—that is, the boards extracted from their logs so that the annual growth rings are arrayed in parallel straight lines. It takes well-connected and experienced woodworkers to be able to source and recognize lumber of such quality.

Two technical drawings, one on top and one on bottom, show a diagram of the surface (top) and interior detailing (bottom) of a custom-built platform. Several notes and measurements are written on each diagram.
Joseph Gulezian’s shop drawings for the Japanese folding screen platform. Courtesy of Joseph Gulezian.

The other key design feature, for which I relied on Gulezian’s and Pizzi’s expertise, was in the two contrasting wood finishes. For the outer framing, we wanted the oak darkened to match our gallery floorboards and benches. For the inside panels, however, a lighter tone was desired, similar to the pale straw color of tatami. Though most wood finishes will impart a deeper brown hue, Gulezian and Pizzi figured out how to provide the protective benefits of a topcoat while maintaining something like the raw appearance of white oak. 

Two side-by-side gallery images show (left) a man tilting in a segment of a finished wood panel onto a platform near where another man is standing and (right) two men adjusting the outside border of the platform.
Joseph Gulezian (in the white shirt) and Jeff Pizzi (in the purple shirt in the image at right) assemble the platform in our gallery, assisted by the museums’ exhibition production specialist Sean Lunsford (in the brown shirt). Notice the two tones in the finish of the white oak. Photos: Elie Glyn.

We invite you to visit the gallery (2600), sit on one of the benches made by Gulezian and Pizzi, and view beautifully painted folding screens on the new platform. We hope the experience will impart a sense of warmth, balance, and intimacy—in short, that both you and the artwork feel at home together.

Concrete Monoliths for Delicate Porcelain 

In July 2022, in our Busch-Reisinger Museum galleries on Level 1, we opened a special installation conceived by American sculptor Arlene Shechet, Disrupt the View: Arlene Shechet at the Harvard Art Museums. Visitors encounter the artist’s own ceramic works interspersed with the museums’ historical collections of German and Asian porcelain, presented in a variety of unconventional ways. We have several dozen plates mounted three-dimensionally in constellation-like arrangements; cups and bowls displayed upside down and stacked; and an assortment of figures playfully interacting with each other. In addition to selecting and arranging these porcelain objects, Shechet also specified the gallery furnishings and fixtures that support them in their final configuration. The plate constellations are held aloft by welded armatures of blackened steel, and the cups, bowls, figures, and similar objects rest on concrete pedestals. 

A gallery interior with a variety of porcelain objects on concrete pedestals or mounted to a steel armature. The display is next to large windows looking onto a ramp and a patch of grass.
Disrupt the View: Arlene Shechet at the Harvard Art Museums, on view through June 2025.

Concrete is not commonly used for display furniture in most art museums. Pedestals are typically made of wood and metal, with vitrines made of acrylic (Plexiglas) or glass. Thankfully, Shechet had a concrete craftsman in mind for this project: Kingston, New York–based artist Johnny Poux. I learned a great deal about this unique medium by working with Poux on these pedestals. With woodworking, parts are methodically cut and gradually assembled, but with concrete it’s all about preparing for the moment when the piece is poured and cast. Though a successful casting is a well-controlled process, the appearance of the finished piece can never be fully predetermined. This is part of the appeal of cast concrete: the uniquely marbled surface and galaxies of air bubbles remind one of naturally occurring minerals like coral or limestone. 

Two side-by-side images show (left) a man wearing a blue shirt and jeans sits on a wooden bench in the shape of a surfboard and a base is made of cement and (right) several porcelain figures sit on three concrete pedestals in a gallery. Two of the pedestals have a vitrine over the objects.

Johnny Poux. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Concrete pedestals in Disrupt the View. Photo: Elie Glyn.

I translated Shechet’s pedestal designs into technical drawings for Poux. He then built outer molds of the overall pedestal volumes, plus internal plywood cores that are the same volume, minus one to two inches all around. It’s in that gap where the concrete would be poured. There were several rounds of concrete samples, which Shechet approved for color and my museum colleagues used to test mounting porcelain objects on them. With all these preparatory steps completed, it was largely in Poux’s hands to orchestrate and carry out a successful casting. 

  • Alt text: In a gallery, porcelain objects sit atop two round concrete pedestals and one oval concrete pedestal. The pedestals are positioned in front of a stained glass window, which hangs on a larger window, through which can be seen a brick facade and grass.
    of Two round pedestals (in the back) and one oval-shaped pedestal, all made of concrete, in Disrupt the View.
  • Two technical drawings for a round concrete pedestal; the top design shows the circular shape, with concrete on the outer ring; the bottom design shows a rectangular frame. Several typewritten notes accompany each drawing.
    of Section drawings by Elie Glyn of the two round concrete pedestals showing the internal plywood frame.
  • Two round cardboard tubes fitted at the ends with plywood discs sit on the floor of a woodshop. The tubes are covered in a silver material with the word “Sonotube” printed on it.
    of The internal cores for the two round concrete pedestals, seen here in Johnny Poux’s woodshop. Photo: Elie Glyn.
  • Two molds for round pedestals, with a wooden outer frame, sit on the floor of a woodshop.
    of The outer molds for the two concrete pedestals. Photo: Elie Glyn.

There’s something magical about how the porcelain objects look on the finished concrete pedestals. Porcelain and concrete have certain attributes in common: both are hardened mineral composites that are formed while still wet. But while porcelain is superfine in consistency, carefully sculpted and glazed, and delicate in appearance, concrete is coarse, monolithic, and robust in appearance. Yet neither material is necessarily “better” or more “noble” than the other. Thanks to Shechet’s vision for this gallery, we have the chance to see, compare, and appreciate superb examples of work in both media.

A small porcelain figure sits on a concrete pedestal in a gallery. On a dark gray wall behind the object is the museum label, in small white type.
Venus and Cupid in a Chariot displayed on a concrete pedestal. Late 19th–early 20th century (copy of an 18th-century original). Manufactured by Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, German (founded 1710). Designed by Johann Joachim Kändler, German. Hard-paste porcelain decorated in polychrome enamels and gold. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Nettie G. Naumburg, 1930.330.

A Daring Craft: Oval Frames

People who build stuff for a living are subject to the same economic forces as the rest of us, leading them to embrace newer materials and fabrication methods that promise to save time, reduce labor, and be more accurate than traditional options. For example, a common feature of most mid- to large-size production shops is the use of computer-guided machines that read digital vector drawings and cut perfect shapes out of boards of engineered wood. Therefore, when an opportunity arises to engage a craftsperson working in an old-fashioned method, the experience scratches a certain nostalgic itch.

I recently had such an experience when designing the exhibition Dare to Know: Prints and Drawings in the Age of Enlightenment (on view through January 15, 2023). One special feature in this exhibition is a selection of 18th-century ephemeral materials—such as pamphlets, currency, and tickets—in an oval-shaped wall display case. Ovals were a favorite shape of neoclassical architects and designers: think of the Oval Office or the cameo-like image of George Washington on one dollar bills. 

An oval-shaped display case with a wooden frame hangs on a blue gallery wall.
An oval-shaped wall case in the exhibition Dare to Know: Prints and Drawings in the Age of Enlightenment, on view through January 15, 2023.

Acting on a tip from a colleague, I reached out to the Old Schwamb Mill in nearby Arlington, Massachusetts. Part historic site and part community center, the mill continues to operate a woodshop whose specialty is producing oval frames. The man keeping this art form alive is wood turner David Graf. (A wood turner uses a spinning lathe and a variety of carving tools to shape objects that typically have a round profile, such as bowls, tool handles, or spindles.) Graf walked me through the steps of his process and introduced me to the original 19th-century elliptical lathes his shop continues to operate for projects such as ours. For our ephemera wall case, the frame we needed was about 6 feet wide and 4 feet high, one of the largest the mill has produced in recent years. During my first visit, Graf literally dusted the cobwebs off their largest lathe, which he would be using for this project.

Two photographs side by side show (left) the red-paneled exterior of a building on a sunny day and (right) the interior of a woodshop, with several oval frames hanging from a post.

The Old Schwamb Mill in Arlington, Massachusetts. Photos: Elie Glyn.

A typical lathe spins on a single axis and is used to produce round objects. An elliptical lathe, however, spins on two axes. As the workpiece spins, the center point pivots left to right, so that the turner can stand on one side and remain stationary while carving the desired form. It is very mesmerizing to watch an elliptical lathe in action!

Video of a man giving a large disc of wood a spin on an elliptical lathe.
David Graf demonstrates the operation of the mill’s largest elliptical lathe. Video: Elie Glyn.

The profile of our frame was designed by An Hoang, a graduate intern at the museums who studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. She based the design on her research into neoclassical precedents. With Hoang’s design drawings in hand, Graf first milled eight planks of solid red oak, cut finger joints into each end, and assembled them into a rough oval form. He then clamped the form flat to the lathe’s faceplate, and from there proceeded to turn it to the desired dimensions and profile. (The finger joints are beautifully articulated by the undulating frame profile and are a telltale indicator of a handmade frame.) The finished frame was then mounted as a facade to the oval display case, which was produced by our main casework vendor, Mystic Scenic.

  • Two technical drawings of an oval-shaped wooden frame: the top drawing shows a front view and the bottom shows a section profile. Several measurements are noted in each drawing.
    of Design drawings for the oval frame by Elie Glyn and An Hoang.
  • A man standing at a workbench cuts finger joints into an arc-shaped plank of wood using a special powered saw.
    of David Graf prepares to assemble the rough oval by cutting finger joints into the end of one of the eight segments. Photo courtesy of the Old Schwamb Mill.
  • A man stands in a woodshop behind a pile of sawdust, carving a large spinning piece of oval-shaped wood.
    of Graf carves the profile into the oval frame, which is clamped to the faceplate of the elliptical lathe. Photo courtesy of the Old Schwamb Mill.
  • A detail view of a carved wood oval frame with a deep brown oil finish.
    of A close-up of the frame being finished. Notice the finger joints where two segments meet. Photo courtesy of the Old Schwamb Mill.
  • Art installers hang an oval wood frame onto an oval-shaped display case on a blue gallery wall.
    of Exhibition production specialists Jill Comer and Steve Deane mount the oval frame to the wall case. Photo: Elizabeth Rudy.
  • An oval-shaped display case with a wooden frame hangs on a blue gallery wall. Several objects, such as prints, are inside the case.
    of The display case of 18th-century ephemera, with the finished frame installed.

Continual Craftsmanship

Most of the display cases throughout the Harvard Art Museums are less conspicuously unique in their design (after all, we want your attention on the art, not the furniture), yet they are equally well-engineered and built to fulfill their function. As enjoyable as it is to work with specialty craftspeople on these custom products, for most projects we work with larger companies with a broad range of production capabilities. I would be remiss not to acknowledge the many carpenters, welders, painters, powder coaters, and others who, though we’ve never met, receive my design drawings and do their best to interpret and carry out my intent. Finally, we are fortunate to have our own small-but-mighty production shop team—until recently, captained by lead carpenter Erik Lindahl—to build display blocks, wall panels, graphic fixtures, video kiosks, and countless other odd items whenever needed.

Two side-by-side images show gallery views. The image at left shows portraits in glass-covered pedestals and wall cases and the image at right shows black and white photographs and books in glass-covered table cases and on the wall.

A variety of display cases built for two recent exhibitions: Funerary Portraits from Roman Egypt: Facing Forward (August 27–December 30, 2022).

White Shadows: Anneliese Hager and the Camera-less Photograph (March 4–July 31, 2022).

So if ever you want to try experiencing an art museum from a new perspective, make a point to observe everything around the artworks—the display furnishings, the overall gallery decor, graphic and interactive fixtures—and note how all these features work in harmony. Most exhibition designers like me can’t believe their good fortune that this is what we get to do for a living. Spare a thought instead for those who build our stuff, and the training, talent, and patience required on their part to turn our inspirations into reality. 

 

Elie Glyn is assistant director for exhibitions at the Harvard Art Museums.