Groninger Museum Info Centre

July 14, 2011

A new digital information centre at the Groninger Museum delivers an interactive space for visitors, enveloped in the ornate designs of Jaime Hayon.

How about that for an opening move! Confronting you right inside the door of the brand new Info Centre at the Groninger Museum, in the far north of the Netherlands, is a giant urn that stops you in your tracks. But this isn’t your everyday common or garden urn, by any means. To start, it’s decorated with a fanciful collection of clogs, a gabled façade and other quintessentially Dutch icons. Then there’s the display: perched atop a mirror surface pedestal-cum-turntable. The urn whisks you straight off to a wonderful universe created by Jaime Hayon – designer, artist and much more besides.

A graduate in industrial design, Hayon first worked for Fabrica, the academy for design and communication set up by Benetton. There he worked his way up to head of the design department, where he was responsible for projects ranging from retail to hospitality, exhibition concepts and the design strategy for anything graphic art related.

In the mid-nineties, he branched out on his own and things went very quickly indeed. He swiftly established his reputation with impressive collections for an array of different manufacturers spanning a wide spectrum of design – ArtQuitect (bathrooms), BD Barcelona Design, Established & Sons (household items), Metalarte, Swarovski (light fittings), Bernhardt Design (textiles), Piper-Heidsieck (champagne buckets), Bosa Ceramiche (ceramic objects) and Gaia & Gino (vases). The list goes on, but in addition to such diverse products, Hayon was also mastering the art of interior design, with a load of successful footwear stores known as Camper, the celebrated interior of the La Terraza del Casino restaurant in Madrid, Octium (a jewellery shop in Kuwait) and the Faberge Salon in Geneva. And if all that wasn’t enough, Hayon’s work is highly sought-after by art collectors, both private and public.

Now, Hayon, of all people, being selected to design the décor for the Info Centre at the Groninger Museum – which is basically a room containing 10 computer monitors and a film screen – may seem surprising at first. He is not exactly the first designer that springs to mind when you think of advanced information technology. To judge by the results, however, his selection has proved a wise move. He has given the Groninger Museum a signature space and a splendid setting where visitors can access digital online information about the institute’s exhibitions and collections. Instead of a cold, technical environment, Hayon serves up a richly ornate interior in which every object and surface possesses a deliciously sensuous quality. So tangibly present and inviting, his trademark baroque vocabulary forms the perfect antidote to all the digital-age hardware and hi-fi equipment that the space is designed to house.

But what exactly do you do in this Info Centre? When it comes to information in an increasingly digital age, museums can no longer get away with a stuffy reading room containing a couple of well-thumbed, dog-eared books and magazines. Today’s savvy museum visitors want their information on-screen and straightaway, at the push of a button or the click of a mouse. Hayon’s job was to set the scene for this.

Beyond the urn is a small viewing room fitted with a wall-mounted flat screen showing film material related to one of the exhibitions on show in the museum. There is not much sign of Hayon here, except for the benches with elegantly tapered sides and rounded ends.

But, before you reach the film room, your gaze is drawn to the right, where the main space is dominated by a truly wonderful work of furniture art: a flowing, asymmetrical table, the five arms of which conjure up the impression of a mutilated octopus. The MDF table top bulges up in places to form hood-like shelters for the computer monitors and related paraphernalia (keyboard, earphones, mouse), as well as a frame for the big touchscreen integrated into the table top. Holding up all this hardware is a whole army of gently tapered legs in walnut wood on a floor of Carrara marble.

Poised overhead at different heights is a veritable swarm of pendant lamps. Called Copacabana and designed by Hayon for Spanish company Metalarte in 2010, these shiny copper-clad, bell-shaped forms dangle from a giant circular ceiling mirror that reflects the light bouncing off the water in the pond in which the museum is set. Both the plywood-shell chairs at the big table and the iconic armchairs lined up in front of the jade-coloured walls are from the Showtime collections that Hayon designed for Spanish company BD Barcelona Design. The lacquer and upholstery of the latter in particular add another layer to the composition of sumptuous finishes that embellish the space. What’s more, the armchairs’ distinctively oversized shells, which give sitters a sense of seclusion, nicely echo the shells that wrap the computer screens on the table.

Indeed, Hayon’s deft hand when it comes to harmonising forms, and then contrasting them to effect, ties the interior together to form a cohesive entity. Furniture designers who dabble in interior design sometimes never get beyond a collection of disconnected pieces that don’t add up. In the case of Hayon, however, the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. This ensemble is a feast not only for the eye, but also the hands, a wonderful cocktail of cheerful objects and materials that play off one another to great effect. Also noteworthy is the careful combination of existing items of furniture and lighting with bespoke pieces such as the table, benches in the film room, the big urn of course, the two glass display cases that slot into the wall of the film room and the mirrors that adorn the walls at strategic points.

The new Info Centre is part of a major refurbishment that comes 15 years after the Groninger Museum opened its doors. Originally designed by Alessandro Mendini, the museum boasts wings designed by such luminaries as Michele De Lucchi, Philippe Starck, Coop-Himmelb(l)au and Frank Stella, and was badly in need of an overhaul, both inside and outside. In the process, the museum commissioned Dutch designer Maarten Baas to create a new restaurant interior for the Mendini Restaurant, Studio Job to create an event space called the Job Lounge and Jaime Hayon to create the Info Centre. Pieces by all three designers are contained in the museum’s collection, which is why they were selected for the new interior spaces. In fact, Jaime Hayon’s Mediterranean Digital Baroque (2003) installation is featured in the new permanent exhibition – where it is paired with Andy Warhol’s Flowers (1970).

While revamping the building, the museum also took the opportunity to bring its information systems more in line with the expectations of today’s public. As you enter the museum, you are issued with a so-called GM Collector, a small personalised disc less than half the size of a credit card and attached to a key ring. With this disc you can scan pads placed on the wall next to many artworks. Information about the artwork is then uploaded, via the disc, to your personal collection on a specially created personal webpage. You can then forward your collection or parts of it to friends by email, leave a comment about a work that others can read (the digital equivalent of the conversation among visitors in front of an artwork) or view your collection again later on the internet. And you can add to your personal collection with each visit to the museum.

The GM Collector is a “smooth connection between the world of the museum visit and our everyday use of the digital world and social media,” says Raimond Reijmers, concept director at IJsfontein, the Amsterdam-based interactive media firm responsible for the museum’s new information system. After visiting the exhibitions, you can then explore your personal collection of the selected work in depth on one of the computers in Hayon’s Info Centre or read the explanations on your phone on the journey home.

With all this computer wizardry around, it’s a wonder you don’t see a single cable as you walk around the museum. The odd thing about such digital databases is that while they may be all-pervasive today, they are often invisible and lack any physical presence in the concrete world around us. Jaime Hayon has given us that. It has been said that he “draws like Picasso, makes furniture like Gaudi and is just as crazy as Dali”. It would be crude, however, to see in Hayon nothing but a flamboyant Spanish spirit. His Info Centre in Groningen reveals him to be more than an artist and designer. We can now add interior designer and master craftsman to that list too.

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