Thursday, October 30, 2008
Masters of Fashion Interview with Exhibition Designer Charles B. Froom
by Stacy Lomman

Charles B. Froom in front of "Gothic" Exhibition poster.
(All photos Courtesy of The Museum at FIT)

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 round.

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. carpenter’s 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…

SL: Are 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 art.

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 60’s, 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, it’s 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 that’s why I think she did such a fabulous job.

"Mademe Gres" Exhibition

SL: What 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."

SL: Wow, those were all great. And I’m not biased because it’s my alma mater! So, you’ve 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?
CF: The vision is the curators. We all know Valerie’s work and now we all know Patricia’s 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 visitor’s 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 can’t get to that until we have collaboration on design. So, that becomes very much a team effort.

SL: What was your first fashion exhibition? Was it at FIT?
CF: It was Geoffrey Beene and it was at The Toledo Museum of Art. They’re a constant client of mine and it’s an absolute gem of a museum.

SL: Do you do a lot of research on a designer when you’re 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 wasn’t 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 I’ve hung around with the best art historians in almost every field.

SL: How nice!
CF: I did a lot of work in Egypt and my colleague Bernard Bothmer was one of the greatest Egyptologists in the world. There’s 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), I’ve got Valerie Steele and Patricia Mears and the younger generation of curators they’re bringing along who are doing a lot of work in the history gallery, etc.

"Ralph Rucci" Exhibition

SL: You’ve worked with so many different subjects. What type of projects do you enjoy the most?
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. I’m very happy to say that I opened the Hirshorn back in 1975 and Joe Hirshorn’s 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 it’s 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 stunning.

SL: Is there anything in particular that you don’t like (doing)?
CF: There are two days that I don’t 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 construction.

SL: Can you talk me through the process and what’s 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 period.

SL: That’s 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 mirrors.

SL: How many projects do you work on simultaneously?
CF: I’ve probably done as many as 4 or 5 at one time and that’s a lot to juggle. I need some time for my fly fishing! It’s a matter of priorities.

SL: Has something ever gone drastically wrong forcing you to totally switch gears?
CF: The only time things have really gone awry is when I’ve had to rely on other peoples dimensions. Nobody knows how to measure anything. They give you two dimensions when it’s a three dimensional object, or they give you the painting size and not the frame size.

SL: You obviously prefer being hands on and in control?
CF: Yes, of course. Then, if there is something wrong with the dimensions it’s 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 it’s 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.

SL: 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 revised.

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 Ralph’s (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 that.
CF: I love that kind of thinking. It’s just remarkable. If I can figure out some way to give that manifestation to the installation then I’ve succeeded. If someone else can come away saying, "Oh my God." then we’ve succeeded.

SL: How long are you going to keep doing this?
CF: (Chuckles) Awhile. I like it. I guess I don’t see myself not working.

SL: You don’t see yourself fly fishing every day?
CF: (Laughing) If only! No, I’m 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. It’s 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