Designing Rebirth of Rome

“What I find so interesting about Rome is you can trace the civilization over thousands of years because it’s a city that doesn’t discard. It alters and adds on, but through all the changes, Rome maintains its identity,” says Richard Miltner, The Wolfsonian’s exhibition designer. This sense of self through the ages, the ability to accommodate different eras and style, such as the classical and the modern, was a primary inspiration for the design of the three exhibitions in the series Rebirth of Rome.

With Echoes and Origins: Italian Interwar Design, The Birth of Rome, and Rendering War: The Murals of A. G. Santagata, Miltner was tasked with creating a different look and feel for each show, yet having the varied approaches contribute to a cohesive whole.

Last winter, while on a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, Miltner explored the city, including many of the architecture and urban planning projects referenced in the exhibitions. Rome’s coherent identity through centuries struck him as counter to the “globalization of museum exhibition design and a codified way of displaying artwork,” an approach he resists in favor of distinctive design that reinforces the curatorial approach, emphasizes the objects, and is evocative of the historical context.    

For Echoes and Origins, with its focus on furniture, decorative arts, graphic and product design, and industrial objects, Miltner studied hundreds of images of expositions in Italy from the 1920s through the 1940s. A major way to disseminate new ideas in applied arts, architecture, and interior design, these exhibitions included the Biennale internazionale delle arti decorative (International Biennial of the Decorative Arts), established in Monza in 1923; it became a triennial in 1930 and moved to Milan in 1933. Miltner also became deeply familiar with the work of Gio Ponti, the influential and prolific architect whose designs for some of the Italian expositions inform Echoes and Origins.

“There are numerous components here, inspired by many fairs spanning decades. I picked and chose with the objective of creating a space that would look unique but not disparate,” Miltner explains. “Gio Ponti was an important factor in the way I started to think about this. He had a masterful control of space.” Miltner points to details such as the first gallery’s raised decking for furniture display, with its curves and negative cut-outs, along with the delineated wall system, both elements inspired by Ponti’s design for a furniture show. Similarly, the beveled, gold edges of the text panel stands are Ponti-inspired. In contrast, the curved, almost whimsical frames on the inset wall displays derive from northern Italy’s Piedmont region. “Bringing these elements together was a gamble, but it’s emblematic of the material,” Miltner explains.

The many design elements woven together in Echoes and Origins and its warm color palette of beige, with dark brown, gold, and terracotta accents, showcase the nearly one hundred items on display; in contrast, the sixth-floor galleries, with Birth of Rome and Rendering War, are white and almost spare.

The entrance to the galleries is inspired by the Foro Mussolini, one of the architectural projects explored in Birth of Rome—Miltner calls it “a dreamlike impression of the Foro Mussolini, with its grand gestures and monumentality.” Once inside, the galleries are distinguished by a seeming lack of design. This minimalist approach allows the large-scale cartoons and drawings to take center stage. When he was in Rome, Miltner had the rare opportunity to view Santagata’s murals for the Casa Madre dei Mutilati in Rome, now an office building, and to appreciate how well they are integrated into their surroundings.

“The design for these shows is almost an absence, it’s spare, and it’s very much an homage to the museum’s architect, Mark Hampton, and the way he designed these galleries,” Miltner says. “The drawings have such a strong presence, and the shows needed to have vistas, so the galleries are left very clean in Mark’s modernist style. His architecture encourages people to really look at the work. My goal was to make these giant drawings look like they were naturally here.” 

Captions (click below to enlarge):

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Installation view

The Birth of Rome
Photo: Lynton Gardiner

Supporting installation images
Installation views of Echoes and Origins: Italian Interwar Design, The Birth of Rome, and Rendering War: The Murals of A. G. Santagata
Photos: Lynton Gardiner

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Designing Rebirth of Rome
Designing Rebirth of Rome
Designing Rebirth of Rome
Designing Rebirth of Rome