Get the Scoop on Exhibit Columbus With Designer Jonathan Nesci

The Columbus, Indiana, designer previews how a series of installations will reimagine a famous streetscape by Alexander Girard.
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In the current issue, we share a photographic celebration of Columbus, Indiana’s, modern design scene, past, present, and future. Leading the city’s new wave is Exhibit Columbus, an annual event series that includes installations, art, and more. Furniture designer and curator Jonathan Nesci, who formerly worked at the Wright auction house in Chicago and now lives in Columbus, walks us through one of Exhibit Columbus’s most prominent 2017 programs, the Washington Street Installations. 

Can you quickly explain the significance of Washington Street for those who may not know? 

Washington Street is our historic Main Street and our community’s cultural and entertainment center. I love it for that reason. Alexander Girard worked on a plan in the early 1960s to transform the facades of its 19th-century Victorian buildings with a systematic color palette that highlights their design elements. While only some of Girard’s work remains today, the spirit is still alive and well. The recent Vitra Design Museum exhibition, Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe, which is now at the Cranbrook Art Museum, highlights all of Girard’s work in Columbus. Overall, though, any city center is full of energy and Columbus is no exception.    

Jonathan Nesci explains the backstory behind the five installations that will be set up along Washington Street as part of Exhibit Columbus: "Cody Hoyt is removing a corner of inset-clay bricks on 7th and Washington for an installation titled ‘Theoretical Foyer.’ These clay pavers are part of a streetscape designed by Paul Kennon in the ’90s. For the exhibit, Cody is replacing them with hundreds of custom-cast concrete bricks using Alexander Girard’s color scheme in a beautiful pattern unique to Cody. Cody spent three days in early January in Columbus pouring through images, patterns, and colorways in the Columbus Architectural Archives."  

What is Exhibit Columbus and how will it engage with Washington Street? 

Exhibit Columbus is an annual celebration of architecture, art, design, and community that alternates programming between symposium years and exhibit years. In the fall of 2016 we had our first symposium and this August we will open the inaugural exhibition, which will feature 18 site responsive installations. 

There are five installations on 5th street that are in direct dialogue with five landmark buildings (the Miller Prize Installations), five Washington Street Installations that speak to the spirit of the town, six University Installations by regional architectural programs, and a High School Installation by Columbus students, plus a graphic design and wayfinding project by the Chicago design firm Thirst. It’s an exciting time for Columbus right now.   

"Pettersen & Hein have designed these romantically paired seating elements in colored cast concrete, joined by a twisted steel bar, that will run in clusters along Washington Street. The title of their installation is ‘PAUSE’ and, like the name suggests, it creates moments to stop and see Washington Street from a new perspective. Lea Hein and Magnus Pettersen spent over a month in Columbus with their young family. They partnered with local concrete supplier Shelby Materials and used colored tints that are also from Alexander Girard’s scheme."

As the curator of the Washington Street Installations, who did you invite to design these objects and experiences?

Instead of selecting the designers directly, I chose five galleries and asked them to chose a designer that could best respond to our design brief. The brief asked the designers to create a project that speaks to the spirit of the town and to enhance the human connection that happens in downtown Columbus.

The galleries I chose are Dzek, Etage Projects, Maniera Gallery, Patrick Parrish and Volume Gallery. 

Dzek from London chose Amsterdam-based Formafantasma, Etage chose Pettersen & Hein, all of whom are from Copenhagen, Brussels-based Maniera Gallery chose an architecture firm in Mexico City called PRODUCTORA, Patrick Parrish chose fellow New Yorker Cody Hoyt, and Chicago-based Volume Gallery chose Snarkitecture from New York. 

"Snarkitecture's installation is titled ‘Playhouse.’ Through their research, they found the area between 3rd and 4th Street to be a very family-friendly part of Washington Street. Snarkitecture is taking over the alley between these streets to create a playhouse that brings the scale of architecture to a younger audience. Two doors south of their installation is a children’s museum; across the street is a world-renowned indoor playground. Snarkitecture is working with local cabinetmaker Kramer Furniture to produce this fun idea, which will no doubt be a huge attraction for the community."   

Tell me more about the design brief you gave them.

I asked these five galleries to chose a designer that could create an installation that doesn't necessarily relate to the architecture directly but would speak to the spirit of Columbus. I didn’t want a sculpture dropped into the city that already existed somewhere else. I wanted the designers to dig deep into the city’s incredible design and cultural history and make a design that would allow visitors and residents alike to see Columbus in a new way.

"The PRODUCTORA installation is titled ‘Columbus Circles.’ Their team has spent months researching Washington Street and are using these furniture-scaled extruded circles that will act as markers of these very significant points along the street. Their sites will include buildings and spaces designed by Alexander Girard, Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche, William A. Johnson, and Cork Marcheschi. PRODUCTORA is working closely with a family business two hours away in Dayton called M Concrete run by the three Mehaffie brothers to create these works in specialty cast concrete and metal."  

None of the galleries or designers that are participating are from Columbus. Why did you want to incorporate outsiders’ perspectives of the city?

While Columbus is internationally known for its design heritage, I think we should see the architecture, art, and design as a kind of pursuit of excellence. In the same way, I wanted today’s best designers to participate in this dialogue, so I asked some of the world’s best galleries to choose from their roster of talent. I am incredibly pleased with their selections. The galleries and designers are on the forefront of design. Bringing their perspective of Washington Street here has been a rewarding journey.  

"Formafantasma has been incredibly thoughtful in their approach. Their installation, titled ‘Stairway to Columbus,’ is the only one that is not directly on Washington Street. But it’s truly about Washington Street. They are creating a mini-museum in a second story window of a courtyard one block east of Washington Street. The designers have been working closely with archivist Tricia Gilson to display material samples, historical clippings, and photographs showcasing the history of the materiality of Washington Street. They are ambitiously creating a new exhibit for every one of the twelves weeks of Exhibit Columbus. To see their work, you will have to climb a staircase made of brick glazed in volcanic ash, a material that they have been developing with Dzek for over two years."  

What do you hope visitors to the Washington Street Installations will come away with? 

My hope is that residents and visitors alike will see Washington Street in a new light. We have a layered past that has deep cultural significance. I hope that people feel that significance and have a good time in our town.    

As part of Exhibit Columbus, the Washington Street Installations will be on view between August 26 and November 26. 

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