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Meike Hartelust. Image by Mark Niedermann.


Tom Postma Design. Entrance TEFAF Maastricht 2018. Image by Mark Niedermann


Tom Postma Design. Entrance TEFAF Maastricht 2018. Image by Mark Niedermann


Tom Postma Design. Exhibition Good Hope, Rijksmuseum 2017. Image by Mark Niedermann


Tom Postma Design. ABMB17 - Collectors Lounge and Squares. Image by Mark Niedermann


Tom Postma Design. ABMB17 - Collectors Lounge and Squares. Image by Mark Niedermann


Tom Postma Design. ABMB17 - Collectors Lounge and Squares. Image by Mark Niedermann


Tom Postma Design. TEFAF Maastricht 2017. Curated La Grande Horizontale. Image by Mark Niedermann


Tom Postma Design. TEFAF NY - Stand Di Donna. Image by Mark Niedermann


Tom Postma Design. TEFAF NY - Stand Tomasso Brothers. Image by Mark Niedermann


Tom Postma Design. TEFAF NY - generic view. Image by Mark Niedermann


Tom Postma Design. Akzo Nobel Art Space. Image by Mark Niedermann


Tom Postma Design. Mondriaan Fonds Prospects and Concepts exhibition. Image by Mark Niedermann


Tom Postma Design. TNYSP18 - generic view. Image by Mark Niedermann

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MEIKE HARTELUST


    

Meike Hartelust is Managing Director of Tom Postma Design, an Amsterdam-based company that specializes in the interior design of cultural institutions, art fairs, events and exhibitions. In a conversation with Sérgio Parreira, Meike Hartelust traces not only the path of this company, founded in 1998 by Tom Postma, but also reflects on some of the delicate issues that permeate these environments: the need to optimize space and promote the commercial aspects, versus the desire to improve the visitor's experience and respond to their "aesthetic sensibility."

 

Interview by Sérgio Parreira
New York, April 13, 2018

 


>>>

 


Sérgio Parreira (SP): The contemporary art fair model started in Cologne, and later in Basel, Switzerland. Your studio is credited with the design of what we can consider today the most important art fair spaces where contemporary art is being traded, the Art Basel fairs, as well as TEFAF. It is essential to understand your point of view in this world of the design of the art fair space. I was looking at Tom Postma Design website earlier and I could not tell which was your first art fair project?

Meike Hartelust (MH): We have not really highlighted that on the website, I believe. But, let me start with some background information also to help you onwards during our conversation. I am the managing director of Tom Postma Design and I studied art history and interior architecture. I am an interior architect, but I mostly run the business side of our studio. Tom, of course, is the owner and the founder of our company. He started as being an artist, a quite successful sculptor with gallery representation and several commissioned works. At some point he felt he was always working alone, on what he called the dungeons of his studios. At that point in time, TEFAF asked him to design a square for one of the fairs. He made large scale objects, and that was the reason for them to invite him, a bit randomly and he realized that this was an area that he thought was very interesting and that touched on other aspects of his liking. From this start, came the next challenge, to design maybe more of the fair, and so one thing led to another, but that's where it started. This was maybe 18 years ago and that was the first design, the venture of the square.


SP: He was designing a plaza as a space, or was he presenting a sculpture for that space?

MH: That is an interesting question. It was a combination of both. It was a sculptural project that defined a square.


SP: Have you worked with Tom since then?

MH: No. I have worked here since almost five years ago. I've not been part of the whole history.


SP: Can you roughly say what was being discussed at the time when Tom started presenting solutions for art fairs designs, or what were the topics and issues that were being raised at the time, and what has changed till today. If you are questioning and trying to get the solutions for the same problems or do you feel that everything has changed?

MH: No, I think what changed a lot is the level and the attention to the design of an art fair, and also the investment in the design, and the execution of the design of an art fair. As you probably know, the development in the past 20 years of these art fairs, and of the art market in general, is quite significant. Therefore, what they did 20 years ago is very different from what they do now because the expectations change every year, as well as, the expectations of the visitors. As we usually say, people that are visiting these art fairs, such as Art Basel or TEFAF, are often very aesthetically aware and interested in art but also have expectations in terms of taste, they travel quite often, and they have seen a lot, and more and more they became global citizens. We are increasingly tailoring the design to the audience and therefore, I think the art fair organizers also invest more in the look and appearance of the space. That is eventually the major difference. It’s professionalization in many aspects. Also, optimizing the floor plans, making sure that every visitor will see ideally every stand or booth and that they don't miss anything because it's hidden somewhere in the end of the fair, and allowing for enough room, is definitely a priority. Now, for example eating and drinking facilities have changed a lot over the years, also the visitor expectations with regards to food and beverages. Simultaneously, understanding that if you provide an environment where people feel energized and with room for contemplation, thinking, where there's a nice rhythm and it is relaxing, they can eat something, also encourages them to stay longer and consequently increase the potential sales, which is ultimately the main purpose of an art fair, to sell art.


SP: Absolutely. As designers, do you still reflect on the topic of “art fair fatigue”? Or can we consider that we are beyond that?

MH: We do. But we look at it because we are part of this art fair world. However, our primary rule is to really be the designers for our clientele. Knowing or understanding what the status of the art fair fatigue is, maybe we do have an opinion internally, but I don’t think it is our job to express that. As you mention, today, almost 50% of global art sales happen at art fairs. It is a place where people can see and enjoy art. It is also an opportunity to discover new artists and new galleries. I think the marketplace, because art is still very much about the experience and seeing it live, even though there are online platforms for that, the idea of an art fair works as the place where you can see and buy. Of course, there are many art fairs and people who are collectors, travel around the world and maybe there are too many for them and a certain fatigue may occur, I can certainly imagine that. What we do try to do, and you touch on that later in your questions as well, we try to design an environment where people feel good, where we really think about the visitor and about their experience, but not an amusement-park-like experience. As we always say, for example, when we design an entrance, that it should be a transition area. You leave your daily sorrows behind and you need to be able to transition into this mindset that you're visiting an art fair. As I said before, we try to look for a nice rhythm within this kind of town planning or city-planning, where the audience can see everything but also have a moment of rest when they need it, they are able to find benches for that moment of contemplation and can rest, eat, or drink. We also say that, there are only A and B locations but no C locations. If we create a nice flow that people also feel that there is an end of the fair, and there are fire exits and all those practicalities of an existing building where all must fit inside. We work with the visitor experience in mind and we are aware that it may be a bit intense to visit an art fair, so we are conscious of making it as pleasant as possible.


SP: You try to improve and think ahead. Two years ago, I was at Art Basel Miami Beach and I found those islands with grass and trees, really nice. Olive trees, right? I was walking for almost two or three hours, then I stopped in those areas and I rested in that kind of a garden, which was not really a garden, but it was a really wonderful place to stop and recharge.

MH: Exactly. Making sure there is room for relaxing for a moment and easing down or contemplation or maybe thinking if I will buy this or that artwork, yes or no, talking about it, etc. That is purposely there, and also to create a bit of a sense of orientation from a practical point of view; there is this navigation on an art fair, how do you know where you are. If you create these squares, which allow you to understand the space and where you are, it helps you to navigate the fair and find galleries and places where you want to go to, or return to one more time.


SP: I hope you don't mind me asking you this. I usually like to understand and listen to each person I am talking to about their thoughts on contemporary art and which are the adjectives and words that come to their mind when they think about contemporary art?

MH: I don’t think that is a question for me to answer. What we always try to do with our architecture or our designs is to make sure that what stands out is the art and not the architecture. Of course, there are certain areas where we can make a bit of a statement, but as I mentioned before, an entrance area or maybe a square where you were sitting may be a statement, but we never want to compete with the art because in the end it is not about the fair design, it is about the art. Because we work so much in art-related environments, we have a lot of people employed, like myself, with a background in art history and interior architecture, or artists and architects, we are definitely aware of the art forms. We probably also have some personal tastes and preferences. That can be relevant, and we do have some sections which we personally think stand out like the Encounters in Hong Kong. In Art Basel Hong Kong they create this square type of area as well, with seating but with large scale sculptures that are presented there a bit like Unlimited in Art Basel in Switzerland, but in another scale and more part of the actual floor plan of the fair. Those are initiatives that we really embrace, and we really like because we feel that they serve the same purpose as a design square and why we should have a square in a city plan. It still relates to the arts.


SP: I recently had a conversation with someone who designs The Armory Show in New York. Jane (Stageberg) told me that several times they were requested as designers of the space to work directly with the galleries and help find solutions for the artworks that some of them are showing. That may even be something that probably happens naturally. What I mean is that, considering you are on the ground, and as designers of a space that ultimately is going to be filled with art objects --not that you have to have an opinion on the art objects -- but somehow, you are creating an environment where those objects are going to be displayed.

MH: Yes, but we do that for sure. For example, at TEFAF there are more classic artworks and objects and jewelry, etc. Those booths or gallery spaces are even more like little shops than the modern and contemporary booths. At TEFAF we design maybe 40 booths for gallerists as well. We really design it and we place the artworks three-dimensionally in the booth to really see where they fit best and formulate their presentation at the fair for them. We do this as well at some modern and contemporary art fairs, but they also have in-house people to think about it really well or do it differently. Still, we do it sometimes when they have practical questions, for example, they have a very heavy artwork that they may need to hang from the ceiling, and these things have to be considered and we help. We design booths and we can think with them on some practicalities and possibilities for solutions. It is like designing small gallery spaces or exhibition spaces for them and then you consider the artworks as well.


SP: Sometimes I try to romanticize a bit that we need at art fairs space for contemplation of art objects which may eventually be something hard to materialize. What do you think about this idea of space to contemplate art? Do you think that this happens?

MH: I think it does happen. As I mentioned with the Encounters area in Hong Kong it is something that differentiates from just a gallery booth and it allows you to look at the art or see something that you would not see in another way. It is also really interesting even if you are not a buyer, art fairs do offer the chance to see things that are very inspiring. From an arts point of view, and of course, it is reasonable to say that is also the objective, if you forget that you are inside a fair for just a second, then I believe there is a lot to discover and to experience, almost like a museum visit.


SP: Usually that is the first comparison that I like to make, with a museum, but I am starting to realize that I just cannot do that because it is completely different, and it is a commercial driven space.

MH: Absolutely, but the reason why I am saying that, is to explain that my best moments when working for Tom Postma Design are probably when the fair is closed and I supervise the buildout, and look at the buildout to make sure that everything is being done according to the designs and the plans we did; however, and at a certain point, when all is almost done and the galleries are coming and then the artists, and everything is being hung… let’s say, the evening before the opening, or a few hours before the opening, when I walk around these fairs, either Art Basel in Miami Beach or Hongkong, or TEFAF; or also the smaller fairs, I feel like such a lucky person to be able to walk around there and to see it, the way that I can see. From the experience point of view, it is not a museum, and it is not about conservation, and it is far less about maybe telling a story as such -- the narrative of a museum exhibition, but it is all about the art and it is very inspirational.


SP: In what concerns the more classic art fairs and in terms of artworks, I know TEFAF that happens at the Park Avenue Armory, and I always think that the design is impressive in all respects, clean, and very high end. Does this feeling that I get, that the space looks expensive, ultimately encourages sales?

MH: I think what is important, is that people feel there was a great amount of dedication from the organization towards the space. TEFAF is a great art fair and people are very conscious of the design. They feel it is kind of a known fact that they do not question. They may not be aware that what we do is temporary, because they go there quite often they feel that it is a given, in a way. For us, it is a fair where we get more comments on the design comparing to other fairs. I do think though, that people realize TEFAF’s effort to do something special for them. They do it for the visitor. That, obviously resonates nicely, and of course, also translates in more sales. I also believe that the Park Avenue Armory is an excellent location and venue for this fair. The audience coming is an avid audience and we want to facilitate things for those visitors and offer them something great. I also believe TEFAF stands out so much because it is different from every fair that happened there before. I have to say the quality of the build out is extremely high. It is built really well, and I obviously think that our great design certainly helps with that task. What we tried to do there in the front building, which is interesting, is to work respecting the building structure. We want to show the visitor that they are in the Park Avenue Armory and that the building is the heritage. We also try to brighten or lighten it up, and that's what we have done with the second skin white walls that we created and generates a feeling of a relatively modern environment; however, if you look through it you still see the portrait paintings on the walls, and you are brought back to where you are. It is really about embracing the building and the history of the building itself. I think that is what people appreciate.


SP: I read something that made a lot of sense. It was Tom’s words mentioning that the design was somehow creating a second skin for the building but at the same time allowing the visitor to access the first skin. It is exactly what you are saying which is extremely beautiful. I would like to ask you something that maybe you already answered. Is there a formula to incite better sales? When there is one type of client that eventually expects the type of space like the one delivered at the Park Avenue Armory with TEFAF, can this be considered a formula for success?

MH: I don't think we work with formulas. Like I just said, what we really use for the art fair design is the idea of city planning and making sure people walk through the space and experience everything; while they are doing that, making sure they have room for rest and contemplation, and this is about rhythm. On how you do a presentation that may sell better, what we do when we work with galleries is to listen to what they will present and the story they want to tell; the identity of their gallery, and we work with all that. It is all about awareness and paying attention while creating something, and that reflects on the people within the booth and selling while they are in there. What we did notice during the last TEFAF Maastricht in March is that galleries in general tend to pay more attention to their booth design. That is something I do notice and there must be a reason for them to do that.


SP: I think it is very interesting that Tom Postma Design works with museums and galleries and other cultural institutions, which are actually spaces where you go to exclusively to see and contemplate art. Most of these spaces are not commercial and you probably bring a lot of knowledge from those projects to the experience of the art fair. Is this true?

MH: It works both ways. Early this morning we had an extended conversation here at the studio precisely about that. I think what I was telling you about what we internally call city planning, and many of the exercises we do or the assignments we practice are about navigating a space or telling a story, bringing people through a space without them feeling pushed, but still allowing them to see everything; and for all this we never compete with the art. We support the art and we facilitate the story telling. For example, the Good Hope Exhibition for the Rijksmuseum, was a challenging exhibition because it was about a historical situation and the relationship between the Netherlands and South Africa which started 400 years ago. It is not always pretty what you have to tell, and in a way that is true from all sides of history/story. It is complicated. What we try to do is support the story telling and do it on various levels; there are obviously people that walk through the exhibition and they are done in 40 or maybe 35 minutes but they still get a general idea of what it is about. We also allow people who want to dive in deeper and take their moments in the stories which they found more interesting. We allow room for contemplation, and we also work with a rhythm of the rooms that are quite heavily set with objects and then an emptier one so that there is a bit of rest and your brain can breathe from that information. There are similarities when we design an art fair, and I believe, that is our strength. It is never about us, it is always about the visitor, and the art, and the existing space and how we can improve that, to tell the story. I think that is what we try to do at the art fairs, and on the smaller scale such as the booth for a gallery. For the art fairs, we really do a deep analysis of the space, the people, their needs, and expectations.


SP: I was reading the last interview that Marc Spiegler gave, and the interviewer asked him about art-fair-art, reporting to a time when galleries and artists were creating just for art fairs. What is your opinion? Do you think this happens, or does it not happen anymore?

MH: I don't know, and to be honest I cannot express an informed opinion about it.


SP: Let me rephrase: I saw this year in at least two art fairs, the gallerists using the space of the booth beyond the actual space. Imagine a sculpture that goes from the floor to the ceiling of the actual building, or someone who brings a painting where the canvas was removed from the frame and the gallery hangs the canvas on the wall of the booth. Gallerists are somehow exploring their booth space in unusual ways. Do you notice that?

MH: I think people, in general, are genuinely trying to create the best environment for the art pieces. In regard to your initial question, whether artists are actually making art pieces for specific areas in the fair, I really don't know. I do know that gallerists try to make the best presentation possible and to do justice to the artworks in general. That is what I see, and they really work hard to achieve that.


SP: I see in art fairs and you probably can understand my opinion, that 75% or more of the artworks are what we can consider wall works, painting, photography, two-dimensional, mixed media, and so on. Why do you think we do not see more installation, or performance art?

MH: As the fair architect or designer, it is not up to us to judge the type of artworks that are being presented. We facilitate the artwork. If there is a need for different presentations, we would support that from a design point of view.


SP: Let me ask you to try and look into the future. As designers of this popular commercial space, how do you see the art fair evolving? What are your thoughts as a designer of an architectural studio for these spaces?

MH: If we all just had a crystal ball… I think there is one thing that I can say, my strictly personal sense is that people in general still like to see and experience art live, the real objects. They also like to see it digitally and through the highest resolution possible, and online sales have certainly increased over the years, but art is about tactility and feeling, and the experience as well. If that is indeed true, then you think that there will always be a place for an art fair, because that is a marketplace where people can actually see the art objects. Today, I think I would believe that people still want to see and experience art, thus the reason for continuity of the art fair.


SP: It is definitely inspiring to know that people collect art, and they move themselves to places where they can see the highest number of artworks and acquire them.

MH: If you compare with museums, and again, this is just a thought, if I look at the Rijksmuseum here in Amsterdam, they have their whole collection in high resolution images online and they encourage people to visit them there, online, and use the images freely. If you want you can print a dress with them without having to pay copyrights, you can create other objects with them, and they are available for use at the greatest resolution; they do not fear this, because ultimately, they know that their audience will still want to visit the museum and see the real artworks.


SP: Exactly, I completely understand what you just said, and regardless of the place, museum or art fair, the art objects achieve the reason for their creation when there is a person interacting with them.

MH: Absolutely! And they hit you in the “heart.”

 

 

 

Sérgio Parreira

Instagram @artloverdiscourse