The digital explosion is the watershed between a more caption-like way of organizing a museum or a trade fair stand, and another more spectacular way of getting the job done. Italo Rota and Calvi Brambilla explain how to choose

We can see a before and an after, in the increasingly crucial discipline of display design. In the middle there is the digital explosion, which forces us to rethink the concept of the exhibition itself, causing a deep divide between two different approaches: one based on captions, where the object is the protagonist, and the other based on the show, where the driver is not the artwork or the product, but the surrounding experience. “Digital methods have changed things permanently,” says Italo Rota. “Whether it is an art exhibition, an organization of collections and archives, or the display of furniture at a trade fair, it is impossible not to come to grips with human nature, which is increasingly engaged in an encounter between physical and virtual dimensions.” The architect has been through a very special year, including the Italian pavilion in Dubai and the completion of the Palazzo dei Musei in Reggio Emilia, which introduces an ambitious new exhibit concept. Here Rota has combined very different materials and stories, in terms of genre and epoch, in a container to be experienced like a film, balanced between exhibition and display, emotion and science, entertainment and education. “With the museum’s conservators, super-specialists in their disciplines, we formed a team to make the entire legacy enter a narrative with strict scientific foundations, where the itinerary becomes a single, unified experience, like a 3D film.”

In the new plan of the Palazzo opened in September, each historical period unfolds with different exhibit approaches, corresponding to different moods to help the visitor enter into the spirit of that moment. The project reveals Rota’s fascination with cinema. “Jean Nouvel says he gets inspiration from Hitchcock and Godard, and some of the greatest display designers of our time are Wes Anderson, Peter Greenaway and David Lynch. The director’s approach also serves to grasp the spirit of the place, and to understand what kind of audience you are dealing with: the same exhibition might change drastically from Rome to Berlin, Paris to Milan. The great masters of cinema, profound humanists and great travelers, have developed the aptitude for investigating places and people, which we find – for example – in the installations of Olafur Eliasson, where the public is actively involved in the understanding of a phenomenon, such as the climate crisis, because thanks to the installation people can experience its effects. Personally, I am convinced that the educational approach is the least effective: great quantities of information are seldom transmitted to the audience, and in most cases what remains with them is the sensation of what they have seen.”

Caption or image, the installation is a success when there is dialogue between the designer and the curator. Fabio Calvi and Paolo Brambilla operate at the intersection of these two figures, as the refined creators of some of the best cultural and commercial display spaces of recent years: exhibitions, showrooms, trade fair stands. “Any installation project, even the ones with the most inspired curating, cannot help but begin with a precise idea of space. And this is simply because prior to the curating, it is the space that reaches the visitors and immediately engages with them.” Among the most successful recent settings, the two designers indicate the exhibition Stop Painting at Fondazione Prada in Venice, where Peter Fischli has narrated five moments that across the last century and a half have challenged photography; he wonders if the digital is the latest factor of crisis, or if – oppositely – it might represent an opportunity for renewal of this art. “The narrating voice of Fischli himself is the fil rouge of an exhibition in which the works are not exhibited in chronological order, but in a way that functions for the curator’s vision. In this sense, we can talk about an approach that is not caption-like: the exhibition is not a gallery of works, but a story along a conceptual thread where curating and set-up are aptly combined.”

The discussion changes if we shift from exhibitions to trade fair booths, which communicate the identity of a brand. In this case, the digital approach means readiness for Instagram, first of all, with all the positive and negative effects of that system. Calvi Brambilla: “Today companies want spaces conceived as showcases, where the background does not interfere with the product, but frames it in a perfect setting without distractions, where visitors can take pictures, as on a stage set. The challenge is to document things, putting a piece of furniture or a collection at the center, while at the same time narrating, triggering emotions.”

Another requirement dictated by increasingly rapid consumption of events is synthesis, as seen for example in the reduced spaces of the Supersalone in September, which imposed rethinking of the idea of the stand, working in greater depth on a smaller range of items, selecting just a few emblematic pieces. In this sense there is still much to be done, Rota believes: “Today’s fair booths are above all settings of life, in which many companies struggle to bring out the value of individual pieces, perhaps because furniture is losing its central status. This impasse can be felt when the same objects are utilized for exhibitions as well as showrooms. Digital media can help, if we can count on a suitable budget and multidisciplinary teams capable of staging innovation, not its technological simulacrum, as often happens.”

Calvi Brambilla take a different view: “The installation actually operates precisely where the digital cannot reach, namely on a physical plane. Our flesh and blood want to live in a place, in opposition to the left side of the brain, which pushes in the opposite direction. Shared participation, together with the bodies of our neighbors, is equally necessary: this is why we are not satisfied with only Spotify, but continue to fill stadiums to experience concerts in a physical way.” The two designers also have a different take on the ability of fair stands to transmit a precise identity: “The contemporary world has given us shorter attention spans, and this has influenced the density of information that can be tolerated in an installation. For example, we have regretfully seen just how much interesting information was transmitted in an ineffective way at the last Venice Biennale, where overly long wall texts are incompatible with the swollen feet of visitors. Some might feel nostalgic about the heroic days of design, when a single piece could revolutionize the market, but in practice the leading furniture makers have evolved towards complete environmental solutions, no longer relying on the personality of an individual object. Unfortunately, the latest format chosen for the Supersalone completely overlooked this simple necessity, and instead of generating synthesis it forced the best-known brands to work in their showrooms in the city, producing an effect that was just the opposite of what was intended.”