A Tribute to Those Who Build Our Stuff

By Elie Glyn
January 10, 2023
Index Magazine

A Tribute to Those Who Build Our Stuff

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. 

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. 

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.

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. 

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. 

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.

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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 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. 

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.