Twenty-Five Years of Excellence in Exhibition Design

The processes of designing, building, and installing exhibitions are elements that the public almost never sees—the vast majority of exhibition viewers are privy only to the final product. What, exactly, goes into exhibition design and execution? And who does it?

At The Wolfsonian, the answer to that last question has held constant for the past twenty-five years—longer than The Wolfsonian has been open to the public. The museum’s exhibition designer, Richard Miltner, began working at what later became The Wolfsonian in March 1988. Preparator Steve Forero-Paz was already there, employed to help handle and move the growing collection amassed by museum founder Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. This year, both men celebrated twenty-five years of working with the collection.

“We are incredibly fortunate and grateful to have had Richard and Steve with us from our inception, helping define and give life to the work and understanding of The Wolfsonian,” says Cathy Leff, director of The Wolfsonian. “They are the nucleus of our institutional DNA, at the heart of our identity, our core. Together they have created and crafted their own singular code that, along with each of the curators with whom they have worked, has enhanced the meaning and messages of objects. They are both right and left brain, together forming a brilliant whole.”

For Richard and Steve, it is very much the collection that is responsible not only for initially attracting them to the museum but for keeping them engaged and for inspiring the museum’s brand of singular, powerful exhibition design. As a team, with Richard as designer and Steve as a key executor, the two have been indispensable to The Wolfsonian.

Staff members are effusive in their praise. They speak of qualities such as Richard’s “flawless, consistent creative vision and impeccable style” and Steve’s attention to detail and “quiet commitment.”

Richard recalls his first meeting to discuss potential employment at the museum. He had received an MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art a few years previously and had worked in galleries and museums, but was looking for a new challenge. He met with founding director Peggy Loar. “She rolled out the plans for the museum and I was really impressed by the breadth of the expansion and all that was going on. I asked if the collection warranted the project, and she assured me it did. I was then taken into the Washington Storage building, where the objects were stored, and it was immediately clear to me that she was correct.”

Steve also recounts the impact of his first exposure to the collection. He was an undergraduate art student at and one of his instructors told him that the nascent museum needed people to move objects. “Micky’s stuff was piled up. It was like walking back in time. I loved the collection since I first saw it,” he says.

There have been awards and many accolades over the years—most recently, Richard spent several weeks at the American Academy in Rome. He has also received an award from the American Institute of Graphic Arts in the Environmental Design category and FIU’s Presidential Award for Achievement and Excellence.

On this occasion of twenty-five years, we collected twenty-five quotes about Richard and Steve and their work—we asked the two to discuss exhibition design and build-out at The Wolfsonian, and we contacted people who have worked with them or followed their work over the years.

“It is very much my intention that exhibition design is not about the designer’s personal design thoughts but about the objects in the collection. The design is inspired by and grows out of understanding that source material. I believe that is why exhibition design at The Wolfsonian has been successful. The exhibitions are very particular to the material and serve to enhance the narrative established by the curators.”—Richard Miltner

“Richard is the genie that gives life, spirit, and beauty to groupings of inanimate objects—in other words he is the artistic enlivener of The Wolfsonian’s exhibitions, the genius of objects.—Mitchell Wolfson, Jr., The Wolfsonian’s founder

“I can go on and on about the exhibitions. They are all special. Each one is different and unique. The exhibition design follows the line of the art, it takes ideas from the past.”—Steve Forero-Paz

“The exhibitions are so excellent. It is amazing to me to see what is done in the gallery spaces we provided. They are totally reinvented and take on new meaning each time. It’s quite gratifying. Richard is one of the most talented exhibition designers in the country.”—Mark Hampton, architect for the renovation of The Wolfsonian and for the museum’s café

“There is a sort of beauty and discovery in working so personally with the objects and in such a hands-on way. Our projects have a certain philosophical approach in which the objects are primary. And it’s so much fun working in three dimensions. There are so many impactful and subtle things you can do when you are working in physical space.”—Richard Miltner

“Richard and Steve are the best team one curator might wish to work with.”—Silvia Barisione, curator, The Wolfsonian

Throughout my tenure on The Wolfsonian’s Advisory Board, I have been especially impressed with Richard Miltner and his incredible eye for the innovative and unconventional in exhibition design. Richard is a tremendous asset to The Wolfsonian and deserves significant credit for the high praise our exhibitions earn on a regular basis.”—Peter L. Corsell, member of The Wolfsonian’s Advisory Board

“Working with Richard and Steve on exhibitions is stimulating and exhilarating. Richard’s ability to translate complex subjects into beautiful exhibition designs enhances the visitor's experience and understanding of the material. Steve’s artistic skills help transform Richard’s vision into reality and create a stunning presentation of the works.”—Lisa Li, exhibitions manager, The Wolfsonian 

“Steve is an incredible craftsman. He is also a painter, and he brings his sensibility as an artist to every project.  That is why our exhibits look so good. They are done by artisans.”—Richard Miltner

“Over the years, Richard has cultivated an organic method of exhibition design that continuously results in amazing environments that, to a certain extent, recede into the background, but are very much part of the story of the objects. His design evolves through a dialogue of sorts with an exhibition space and the objects as they are being installed; this kind of methodology is only possible in-house, and through the dedication and craftsmanship of people like Steve. Echoes and Origins: Italian Interwar Design, which opens this month, is a perfect example of this: I would encourage visitors to look beyond the works on view, and study the shape of platform bases, the trim on casework, the color scheme, and other design details, and consider how they might be part of the story of Italian interwar design.”—Sharon Misdea, deputy director for collections and curatorial affairs, The Wolfsonian

 “I believe there is no other installation designer that pays as much attention to detail as Richard Miltner. I am always impressed with the incredible balance he strikes between a captivating iconic design installation and the utmost respect for the pieces on display. It is not easy to achieve both and Richard does it every time. The Wolfsonian is lucky to have him.”—Rene Gonzalez, Rene Gonzalez Architect

Richard and Steve have cultivated highly nuanced relationships with this collection. They bring a very particular knowledge to bear on my own understanding of these objects, including how these works got here, where they have been housed and seen, how appearances change across spaces and times. Their relationship to the works is emotional as well as material, encompassing the entire life of the institution. My work is always informed, often in entirely unexpected ways, by their own senses and experiences of the collection.”—Matthew Abess, assistant curator, The Wolfsonian

“Steve is a consummate professional. He has installed most of the library exhibitions and he always makes them look great. He is very easy to work with—I show him the materials and the layout and I know it’s going to be done perfectly.”—Francis Luca, chief librarian, The Wolfsonian

“The Wolfsonian's reputation for high quality, provocative exhibitions has been bolstered by Richard’s close collaboration with the museum’s curators. With each new show, he creates the perfect setting for visitors to appreciate the works on view without calling attention to the exhibition design. His practice is nearly Zen-like in its sublimation. Steve is part of the very foundation of The Wolfsonian. He has done amazing things—handled enormous works of art, crafted beautiful mounts for precious objects, and meticulously painted thousands of linear feet of gallery walls—in his own quiet, patient, and unassuming way.”—Marianne Lamonaca, associate gallery director and chief curator, Bard Graduate Center (former associate director for curatorial affairs and education, The Wolfsonian)

On Richard and Steve: “They dance different steps, but get the job done beautifully!”—Kate Rawlinson, assistant director, education and public programs, The Wolfsonian

Richard Miltner is the best exhibition designer I have ever worked with—and in thirty-five years as a curator, there have been many! His sensitivity to the material is almost preternatural; he has an unerring instinct for what will best serve the subject matter. His designs always enhance the exhibition narrative—they never overwhelm it or the objects, but they do have an unmistakable presence. His choice of color, selection of the ‘vista’ object in a gallery (as well as the placement of everything else), design of cases and platforms, and overall creation of atmosphere are all hallmarks of a true master.”—Wendy Kaplan, department head and curator, decorative arts and design, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (former associate director and chief curator, The Wolfsonian)

“Richard has a beautiful artistic vision.”—David Almeida, photographer, The Wolfsonian

Richard always does historic research on the installation design from the period in order to contextualize the objects on display. Then he adds his creative and refined touch. Through his design he adds value to the objects without overwhelming them.—Silvia Barisione

On the museum’s early years: “We were constantly opening crates and looking at new material. We had a blast.”—Steve Forero-Paz

 “The exhibition on Fortunato Depero really stood out for me. The design was a perfect match for the materials and reflected the artist’s aesthetic and philosophy—and that is true of all of our exhibitions. For the show on Karel Teige, which received so much critical acclaim, Richard came up with an innovative way to display the many small books on view through an unusual wall design that reflected Teige’s architectural theories. He also made Teige’s idea of the minimalist dwelling come alive by creating a life-sized blueprint on the floor so people could experience the space and the scale.”—Francis Luca

“It’s simply a pleasure to work with them both.”—Lynton Gardiner, photographer, The Wolfsonian

“Richard Miltner is a talented ‘visual’ visionary. He sees in dimensions and through the lens of ideas. The Wolfsonian is fortunate that he has devoted his professional life to this one unique institution. But then Richard is also most ‘unique.’”—Peggy Loar, founding president and director, The Wolfsonian Foundation

On Richard and Steve: “They are awe-inspiring and phenomenal.”—Sarah Schleuning, curator of decorative arts and design, High Museum of Art (former curator, The Wolfsonian)

 “Steve is so accurate and meticulous in the execution.”—Silvia Barisione

“Exhibition design should be an experience that supports the storytelling set out by the curators. My hope, always, is that visitors are activated to look a little closer, to wonder more, to ask why, and to leave an exhibition knowing more about the subject at hand as well as themselves.”—Richard Miltner

 

Captions:

Top Installation View:
Postcards of the Wiener Werkstätte: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection
Photo: Lynton Gardiner

Supporting installation images:
Installation views of a selection of Wolfsonian exhibitions

Article Image(s): 
Twenty-Five Years of Excellence in Exhibition Design
Twenty-Five Years of Excellence in Exhibition Design
Twenty-Five Years of Excellence in Exhibition Design
Twenty-Five Years of Excellence in Exhibition Design
Twenty-Five Years of Excellence in Exhibition Design
Twenty-Five Years of Excellence in Exhibition Design
Twenty-Five Years of Excellence in Exhibition Design
Twenty-Five Years of Excellence in Exhibition Design
Twenty-Five Years of Excellence in Exhibition Design
Twenty-Five Years of Excellence in Exhibition Design