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Thursday, October 30,
Masters of Fashion
Interview with Exhibition Designer Charles B.
Charles B. Froom in front of "Gothic"
(All photos Courtesy of The Museum at
As ardent disciples of
fashion, we admire the creativity and respect the time and effort designers
dedicate to the works of art we covet. Fashion is art and it is dimensional,
therefore, it is best appreciated when showcased in the
The Museum at FIT has brought
us some extraordinary exhibits featuring many great designers and they have
often depended upon Charles B. Froom to help bring their concepts to life. Not
only is displaying each individual piece to highlight its intricacies in the
best possible way a difficult feat in itself but, the exhibit needs to be
considered as a whole on an aesthetic level as well as a practical level. This
skill requires a special type of visionary.
I sat down with exhibition
designer Charles Froom to discuss his many gallery projects. After living in
Park Slope for nearly 40 years, Charles now resides in rural Bucks County and
comes into the city on an "as needed" basis. Meeting him in his professional
arena wearing a very serious suit and toting his 6-ft. carpenters ruler
(which he carries at all times), I would never have guessed that Charles enjoys
spending his rare down time fly fishing.
"Love & War" Exhibition
After Charles and I
exchanged pleasantries, I picked his brain a little
you originally from New York?
CF: No, I grew up in Iowa. I was a very
typical Midwestern kid out for sports, etc. but I was also interested in
SL: And where did you study?
CF: The University of Northern Iowa
in Cedar Falls. I was a sculpture student and trained as a studio teacher.
There were just a whole bunch of really great, passionate instructors at the
University. I learned more about sculpture through conversations with them,
building a bronze foundry with my sculpture professor or drawing with chalk on
the cement studio floor than I did through the formal structure. I had a
professor in college who gave me the book, "Tonio Kroger" by Thomas Mann, about
a German boy who was a poet and had to come to terms with the fact that he
would always be different. It was a very important book to read at that time
and I still thank him for that.
SL: How did you get started in museum
exhibition and installation? Was it something you always wanted to do, or were
you more interested in sculpture and art?
CF: I sort of just fell into this
more than anything. I moved to NY in the 60s, I started working at the
Brooklyn Museum and was mentored by the first director of the museum. Then,
they created a separate design department to which I was appointed. From that
standpoint, its all been learned by doing. Now, of course, you have
classes and course work offered in museum studies. After that, I went to The
MoMA and have been consulting since leaving there.
SL: How did you get
involved with FIT?
CF: I met Patricia Mears (deputy director at FIT museum)
at the Brooklyn Museum when she was the associate curator. After she left
Brooklyn, we did a project together at The Pratt Gallery on 14th Street called
"Cut & Construction." It was really quite wonderful. In that show, the
backgrounds for my texpanels were old fashioned blue prints. We used rough cut
things and, more interestingly, we took some pattern shapes and used them as
graphic devices. The most exciting of which was at the beginning of the
exhibition. There was a muslin of Madame Vionnet and we had one of her simple
geometric patterns at a graphic device nearby, while at the back of the gallery
we had an animator from Pratt put those same patterns on a video monitor and
morph them over a dress form. Patricia has an incredible eye for fabrication
and construction and thats why I think she did such a fabulous
"Mademe Gres" Exhibition
exhibits have you worked on there (at FIT)?
CF: I did "Ralph Rucci" and
"Madame Gres" with Patricia (Mears) and "Love & War" and "Chic Chicago"
with Valerie (Steele). And now, of course, I did "Gothic."
those were all great. And Im not biased because its my alma mater!
So, youve been working with them for a while?
CF: About three years.
The relationship I have with FIT is fabulous. The people I work with are scary
bright, they have such high vision but, at the same time, they are well
grounded in museum practices.
SL: How do you guys collaborate? How much
of it is your vision and how much of it is the direction of the curator?
The vision is the curators. We all know Valeries work and now we all know
Patricias work. Both of them are remarkable visionaries. Patricia has an
almost classical sense toward the projects she takes on and we all know that
Valerie has an edgy side to her. Both are brilliant scholars. My job is to give
it three dimensional life. Because I can envision dimensional space, I figure
out how to tailor the gallery and how to create interior architecture to focus
the visitors attention on what it is they are looking at. So, I bring the
design, I bring the fabrication and the production sense. In essence, the
curators become my clients. Part of what I provide is almost a service
organization on the fabrication and production side, but I cant get to
that until we have collaboration on design. So, that becomes very much a team
SL: What was your first fashion exhibition? Was it at
CF: It was Geoffrey Beene and it was at The Toledo Museum of Art.
Theyre a constant client of mine and its an absolute gem of a
SL: Do you do a lot of research on a designer when youre
working on an exhibit for say, Geoffrey Beene? Do you look at their work and
become inspired, or do you approach it differently?
CF: Well, the Beene
exhibition was a long time ago and I wasnt smart enough to do that
(laughs)! For the others, yes. With Madame Gres, we looked so heavily on the
classical side and picked very stately, simplified classical columns, etc. I
try to read up as much as possible in as much as time allows. I actually rely
heavily on my curator. The great part about being a designer is that Ive
hung around with the best art historians in almost every field.
CF: I did a lot of work in Egypt and my colleague Bernard Bothmer was
one of the greatest Egyptologists in the world. Theres nothing like
walking through Luxor Temple with Bernard, or doing the "Primitivism"
exhibition at The MoMA with Bill Rubin. He was a volatile gentleman but, by
God, he knew his art! Here (FIT), Ive got Valerie Steele and Patricia
Mears and the younger generation of curators theyre bringing along who
are doing a lot of work in the history gallery, etc.
"Ralph Rucci" Exhibition
SL: Youve worked
with so many different subjects. What type of projects do you enjoy the
CF: I was trained as a sculptor so I love sculpture in the round. I
love being able to light it and I love being able to create the circumstances
in which it can be viewed. Im very happy to say that I opened the
Hirshorn back in 1975 and Joe Hirshorns collection was very heavily
focused on sculpture. It gave me enormous gratification and the reviews were
incredibly favorable. Also, much of Egyptian art is sculptural so I really
loved being there, although Bernard to his dying day said, "Charles, you will
never learn how to light a relief!"
SL: So, what is involved in the
lighting? Did you study lighting design as well?
CF: It was an outgrowth. I
had a lot of museum clients who had what you might call "antiquated lighting
systems." I would do the design work but, you cannot appreciate what you cannot
see. Lighting is painfully critical to the whole process so I would research
that and get them to make upgrades. I am pretty much self-taught. I learned
about lighting works of art (flat works, objects in the round, small objects)
and then I found myself either renovating their lighting conditions or
designing new lighting conditions. So it has kind of turned into a sub-set. The
reason its so nice to do lighting design, is that I can then take that
same design and put it to its ultimate use which is lighting the art. I look on
fashion as I look on sculpture it is meant to be seen in the round.
Ralph Rucci is so engaged in the construction of garments, I loved being able
to create a circumstance for it and I loved being able to light it. It was
marvelous to look at. The presentation in the tent was utterly
SL: Is there anything in particular that you dont like
CF: There are two days that I dont like on a project; the
first one is walking in trying to sound like I know what everyone is talking
about around the table, and the other is the first day of
SL: Can you talk me through the process and whats
involved as far as your role?
CF: The ideal process is to first meet with
curator to understand what project is and understand the scope of work. Then,
we develop a calendar, present a schematic design, modify, turn that into
design & development, modify again and turn that into construction drawings
and specs. Then, we have the construction period and finally the installation
SL: Thats quite a long process!
CF: We often start
about a year out. Gothic was even more complex so we started earlier. We
divided into two phases, one being design & construction phase which was
the basic fabrication of the gallery. Then, the art director (Simon Costin)
came in and put his concept into work. We had the scenic drops that were behind
one section, a projection in one section and we also had to balance out the
section where the lights were going on and off behind the two way
SL: How many projects do you work on simultaneously?
Ive probably done as many as 4 or 5 at one time and thats a lot to
juggle. I need some time for my fly fishing! Its a matter of
SL: Has something ever gone drastically wrong forcing you to
totally switch gears?
CF: The only time things have really gone awry is when
Ive had to rely on other peoples dimensions. Nobody knows how to measure
anything. They give you two dimensions when its a three dimensional
object, or they give you the painting size and not the frame size.
You obviously prefer being hands on and in control?
CF: Yes, of course.
Then, if there is something wrong with the dimensions its my
responsibility. Every work of art has a real displacement but, it also has a
visual displacement. And I think I have a good eye for knowing what that work
of art wants. I know what height it needs to be for best viewing the
space around it, what is the most comfortable dimension so that its not
feeling crowded or lonely in that space. That comes from being able to take the
real dimensions but also being able to take its visual dimensions.
So, proportion is critical?
CF: Absolutely it is critical, perhaps the most
critical thing. We encountered a very interesting circumstance when I was doing
the Hirshorn. We had a warehouse in New York and we set up one of the curved
walls and brought in the paintings. We knew exactly at what height they needed
to be and so forth, but one thing we forgot was that there were going to be
paintings to the left and to the right. So when we got into the galleries those
paintings began to have a dialog with each other. They wanted to be closer
together or they wanted to be further apart so, in a sense the assembled works
of art took on their own aura. A lot of the preliminary work had to be
SL: Are you sometimes more inspired by certain projects and
find you have an easier time working on the exhibition?
CF: Well, with
Madame Gres, her classical lines sort of teased me and intrigued me so that
helped a great deal. The same was the case with Ralphs (Rucci) material.
The other day, Valerie Steele and I were meeting with Isabel and Rubin (Toledo)
and they showed me a garment in which she somehow used the structural integrity
of the fabric itself to create the way it became a sleeve. It knocked my socks
off. It was fabulous to look at.
SL: I wish I could have seen
CF: I love that kind of thinking. Its just remarkable. If I can
figure out some way to give that manifestation to the installation then
Ive succeeded. If someone else can come away saying, "Oh my God." then
SL: How long are you going to keep doing
CF: (Chuckles) Awhile. I like it. I guess I dont see myself not
SL: You dont see yourself fly fishing every day?
(Laughing) If only! No, Im very fortunate to be doing something I
absolutely love. Sure, it takes a lot of energy and you always have a deadline
but, good projects make me very happy. Its just a balancing act between
that and the fly rod.
Prior "Masters of Fashion" Interview: Style Iconoclast Iris Barrel
Apfel Other interviews in this series include Ralph Rucci, Rose
Marie Bravo, Elsa Klensch, Bill Cunningham, Grace Mirabella, Geoffrey Beene,
Arthur Elgort and Ruth Finley.
Copyright © 2008