Editor’s Notes – Confessions of an Exhibit Designer

Back in 2007, I asked Lee H. Skolnick, founder and principal of LHSA+DP for an interview. It was not an interview for DV, but for a job at his office. He gave it to me. As his employee I got to know his work and meet the man. It was not until two months after I started there that I found out I was working for one of the most sought after exhibit designers in New York and perhaps the United states. He is definitely a professional I respect, so I thought I would share something he shared with all of us in the office: an interview he gave back in 2006 about architecture, exhibit design, and the practice of design in general.


An Entrepreneur is someone who attempts to profit by risking initiative, also an inventor. One who recognizes opportunities and organizes resources to take advantage of the opportunity. Should I repeat that?

No! (Laughs)… you have a question?

Your firm did something innovative. You are an architect but you do not just build buildings. You don’t just design exhibits either. You seem to design experiences. Talk about what your firm does. What do they sell?

The world makes categories. You are an Architect, you are an Exhibit Designer, you are a Graphic Designer, and then even further subdivides it by saying you are an architect and you do such and such type of project. I never entered into doing this with the sense that these divisions were important or even necessarily valid. They are valid in the marketplace because the industries have grown up around specialties, but theoretically and philosophically there are very few differences between these categories. What we do is only secoFdarily responsive to the market, but primarily grows out of what each and every design is. On a practical level and from an entrepreneurial standpoint, yes, we need to look for potential projects and for opportunities and see how to capitalize on them, but that really is secondary to what drives me and my notion on the firm. My notion of the firm is that – you know the way you put it is certainly partially valid – we design experiences. Essentially, that we look at the world through the medium of our projects and think about ways to interpret information in specific circumstances. It could be someone’s home, it could be an exhibit, or an education program, but our language is design. If you think of an exhibit as a fundamental task, we are interpreting or telling stories about conditions of life or content and we are doing it through projects and the language of design – that is what we do.

It seems that you have picked a career that is steeped in competition from contractors and other designers. You now employ interior designers, graphic designers, architects, exhibit designers, and educators/ researchers. You do everything. How does the architect fight competition and maintain the right to dictate the entire design?

First of all it is very difficult. It is an uphill battle because there are very entrenched interests that protect domains. Firms put a lot of money, time and effort into strengthening their position and getting a return on their marketing investment to be seen as specialists. Whenever anyone is building a school, a particular firm feels that because of its specialty, it will definitely be asked to submit a proposal; we have done lots of schools, we know more than other architects about designing schools. Those architects get the schools. So, that’s the uphill battle – trying to get into one of those domains.

There is another area, more like the level we would like to be competing in, but we are really not: that of “star’ architects: Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid. There are many. Their work often cuts acrss the lines of building types, but they are recognized somehow as leaders in the field, artistically, and so they have carved out that niche for themselves. We are not in either. We might like to be considered in the 2nd one, but the fact is that the kind of work we do doesn’t have a signature style. We have a signature approach, and a signature approach is much more difficult to market than a signature style because a lot of people want to know what they are getting before you do the work. When I first started out, I had a friend who was an architectural photographer, Stan Reis, and he saw some of our initial work – particularly work of mine that was more cutting edge, avant garde, and he said this is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to keep doing works that are very extreme and, number two, doing work that is recognizable as your style. And I said I am not interested in either one of those things. I am interested in looking at each project from the beginning and maybe the solution will be extreme, but if it is, it is not for its own sake, it is because the project suggests it. And in terms of having a style that repeats itself, that would be like the kiss of death, creatively.

Aileron is a center for entrepreneurial education in Dayton, Ohio. In the process of designing the facility you identified 13 characteristics of the entrepreneur and tried to embody them into the spirit of the building. Have some of these entrepreneurial characteristics been pertinent to your firm over its history?

Actually, possibly all of them. I’d have to think. Certainly the idea of the “journey”, the idea of thinking “out of the box”, “focus”; really many. I am trying to think if there are any that are not relevant to us.

“Out-of-the-box”; what is an example of that?

Well, thinking out of the box is something that refers to the nature of our firm. What I have described to you as our approach to practice I think is quite different from any other firm. In our actual processof working on projects we are always looking for not the immediately suggestible solution, but something which through our exploration for content, and then forming a narrative, I think our process is unconventional. It is both who we are and what we do that are out of the box. Again, it may be that is required or what is most advantageous if the situation calls for an unconventional aspect to it. But again, I think we are going to get there no matter what the solution is through out of the boc thinking. It is not about being extreme every time but about being meaningful.

You are working on a condominium development on Wooster street in Soho. Here is a project where the end result is they want to be able to sell it for the most money possible. That is a design challenge in itself, because you have to think about the results and you want it to be that, whatever that balances it. How do you approach that?

The parameters of a project for any architect, you know are manifold. Now there are technical issues, there are site issues, the program, the functional aspects of it. In the case of different types of clients there are other criteria. For a museum, in addition to the programmatic tangibles there are issues of education, enlightenment, cultural continuum. For the developer, the issue is how do you define your market clearly enough, and appeal to it so the project is attractive to the greatest number of people you seek; in this case very wealthy people, because the spaces are expensive. So, who are those people, What are their lifestyles like? What do they know or not know? What are they seeing in popular culture design or in the design world that would make this place feel not only an embodiment of who they are, but who they actually want to be and associate with. So, we are doing all that, but we are still taking it a step further to bring it into our line of thinking. I came up with a concept about Soho having a history of artists living there; that essentially the artist had been kicked out and the people who are going there are going there because of this sort of memory of this place being a hot bed of creativity, but in fact the people going there are the people who collect the art, who go to the museums, who go to the galleries and patronize the boutiques. So, I am trying to have the design and identity of the project all embody that, and interestingly for the first time we are establishing the design identity as well as the graphics of the project. That is pretty unusual. The marketing company, which is very successful, very well known, and know what they are doing, felt very comfortable in not hiring someone else to do that and let the architect do it. And I think it is the perfect example of us taking our approach and actually changing the process somewhat on order to create something that is very integrated. The identity and design, the marketing materials, the graphics, the website all conform to a concept, which is exactly our design approach.

The Architecture institution and exhibit design sectors seem, if you’ll excuse me, to marry the interest and training of you and your wife and co-principal Jo Ann Secor. How do you develop a market niche?

When I went to school I started to realize that what could differentiate great architecture from good architecture would be content. It would be having not an architectonic concept of space as central, but a subject matter, content/theme that all of the decisions relevant to space, design, layout, material, and detail can be measured against or inspired by. Something that has more meaning than just aesthetics or structure. Very fortuitously, as soon as I got out of school, one of the first projects that I got was to do an interactive exhibit for kids, for which Ann was the Project Manager. I had this incredible learning curve during that project and totally by chance, by fate maybe, I was asked to design something which was based on content and history and interpreting it to kids in an environmental way and an interactive way. Before I knew it, I was doing a lot of exhibit design and I was learning how to translate content into design, which had a tremendous effect on my architecture. When I was at Cooper Union, I didn’t feel like I was anywhere near the best student, I felt like I was near the bottom. People were just sitting at their desks designing these incredible, beautiful things and I was like, “how do they even know what to draw? How is it all just about structure and this is cool looking? It has no meaning, it is totally backwards. Not only that, I can’t do it; that’s not what I am good at. So, I found that once I knew what I was trying to do or convey – using the language of architecture to do that – I could be as good as them, or better than them, or at least different and do it in a way that I felt satisfied with. That is the genesis of how this firm adopted and developed the attitude that it has today.

How does the firm move forward from where it is now? In your all-staff meeting you talked about how you might extend your design skills to other fields – media, furniture, etc. How do you approach that jump?

It is perfectly in concert with the basic idea that design manifests itself in many media, but the initial approach and inspiration for the design is the same. So, then you could say that on one hand philosophically, and on the other hand entrepreneurially, or from a business standpoint, why would we not look to these other mediums/ Our graphic design department evolved out of our exhibit work. Initially we found out-of-house graphic firms and we were not happy with that. They did not have the same approach and so it was like pulling teeth sometimes to get it the way we wanted it, and so we started doing it in-house. We actually had a couple of tries at this that did not work out, we stopped and then we tried again and recently we have seen a tremendous benefit in having graphics in-house as being part of our approach. I wouldn’t be against doing media at some point. That is another interpretive medium. You know, it takes a tremendous investment and getting the right people. Right now, we say there are great people out there who do media. We can pick and choose the best or most appropriate for each project. In the best of all possible worlds, why wouldn’t we be doing that as well? Perhaps we are just not there yet.

After school you went to work for yourself very quickly. What did you see yourself doing when you left school?

I had no idea. I had worked while I was in school for some architects, and I have taken a year between Hamilton ad Cooper and worked for an architect. It was enough to convince myself that this was what I wanted to do. I was never happy with the work they were doing. I was impressed that they were doing it, but it was uninspiring. You know, I come from an entrepreneurial background. My father was literally an up-by-the-bootstraps business person, and I am sure subliminally I saw his life and lifestyle, dedication and independence. And naturally I thought that was what I wanted to be too. And I don’t think I thought about it consciously. But the thought of working for someone, following their ideas and their rules, you know it’s always sort of a pain in the ass. You know, like any teenage radical, I don’t want to do this just because you say that what I gotta do. So I think it was just natural for me to as early as possible get my own work where I could decide what I do, what I don’t do, how I do it etc. The irony of t is that I’ve worked in the field where you are absolutely answerable to the clients, where in fact I don’t have a boss, I have 50 bosses. But it’s different because I can at any time say ‘screw this, I don’t need this, I still have my firm’; it’s not like I’d lose my job.

It must have been difficult selling your design qualifications when you did not have a lot of work in your portfolio. Were museums a way of compensating for that.

Certainly. I realized early on through this serendipitous opportunity of designing exhibits that there were things that most architects never get to design. Most architects don’t get to do museums, and if they do, it is late in their careers. I had this wild idea, that getting into museum work really through the side door, as an architect, that I might get the opportunity to be considered for actual museum architecture at a much earlier stage in my career and that’s exactly what happened.

Why Architecture? It is not as salary friendly as some industries. There has to be a labor of love involved. What do you still love about it/

I always tell people who are interested in architecture not to pursue it unless they have no choice. Unless they believe this is THE THING they want to do. I don’t want to do anything else. I am committed to it. I almost do not care what rewards might come because they may not come, and if they come, they may be at a very different level than other careers thatrequire the same amount of intelligence and capabilities. If you want to make money, and you are smart enough to be an architect and succeed at all the different disciplines that you need, then there’s something else out there that can make you more money. If you are in it because you are just passionate about it and are willing to make sacrifices in order to follow your passion, then by all means do it. I would not discourage it. I mean I love it, but if you don’t love it, you are just asking for trouble. The reason I went into architecture was because when I went to a liberal arts college, I found every class more interesting than the last. I got very confused; I thought I wanted to be an anthropologist or a musician, or a writer or any number of things. But with Architecture I realized I would have to continue learning, for a lifetime, and it could embody everything.

What advice would you give to an aspiring designer, who has just set out on his/her own?

Travel. Definitely travel. Buildings and spaces and people; the experience is always different in person, and can’t be recreated in any other way. And construction – work construction – too many architecture don’t know how to actually build things when they first start out.