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Staples: Steel fabricator. Charles

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Staples: Steel fabricator.

Charles: Gratz, Styermark has one of the biggest steel mills or important ones in Europe. Let us see what they can do. They knew exactly how big they could roll, what kind of radius they could roll, what kind of thickness they could roll.

Staples: And the rest is history.

Charles: That is kind of, I think a trademark of ours is what is important locally. Who are the craftsmen, what are the skills you have here, let us put it that way. We learned that at the Chicago History Society under Harold. We are doing our first show, who is going to build it? Turns out a place named Walbillig were fine fine cabinet makers and they had just done the whole interior of the Playboy House. Well that is great. Who is the best graphics firm? How do we marry them? We do not have to go out to an exhibit house that is going to tell us to use.

Staples: Chicago had several great exhibit houses. They mostly did trade shows for farmers.

Thelen: What is an exhibit house?

Charles: They build exhibits.

Thelen: I mean what would be an alternative to an exhibit house.

Charles: What we do. Find a carpenter, find a graphics house, you are being a general, you are the GC a little bit or the museum is the GC.

Staples: Here our firm is design and production. They not only draw and design it, they turn around and build it. We have always tried to maintain the idea that we can draw and design any technology that we want because we do not have any equipment. We then select the right kind of equipment or right kind of person to build what we think is going to work. Whereas if you go to the exhibit house, they have a technique or stable of extrusions that they use all the time. You say, “I want to do this”, and they, “say well why do not we do this, we have lots of this.” You have to sort of, it is an adaptive use. We just did that with Monticello. Again they are down there in Charlottesville. The best houses are up here in the Washington area.

Charles: That is not very far, these are houses that work all over the world, you have to understand.

Staples: But down there they have good carpenters and they have good graphics people. We got those two people to work side by side on the project and bang you have a nice little show.

Thelen: I am guessing that you have more control over the second.

Staples: You have a little more control, but you also have suppliers who are there to fix some locally. If your museum is in need of help you can just pick up a phone and in a couple of hours you will get some service as opposed to coming in from Chicago.

Charles: It also means we are more likely working with the owner of the firm, they are smaller firms, we have more control. Craftsmen, Bob to craftsmen so and so is important. Here it was steel was the event here. Chicago first got us into this. South Africa we start asking, “okay, if we design it who is going to build it?” They said…

Staples: This is where Bruce came in.

Charles: Bruce said,” we understand in all these changes that South African Broadcasting, SAB…”

Thelen: Brewers?

Charles: Not the brewers, it is the broadcasting, the T.V.

Thelen: S-C-B-C.

Charles: That SABC needed to privatize. They had to go out and find some other jobs and so on. They had great studios that build sets. We went to see them and what can you do and so on. These are sets that only the actors are going to be on. The public is not going to hit them, it is a different structural issue than their sets, but incredible skills. We probably had more sets in the Brewery than we might have done someplace else because…

Thelen: They were there.

Charles: Yes, like Bob’s lathe. We talked about it. Now we have got set builders, incredible set builders. In Singapore, again we were asked to do a big show at Emperor’s Place. Who is going to build it, what are we going to do? They had one trade show house, big one. Peco, works all over Asia. We knew about them. We are not big firemarket people. You get a sense - we are not so fond of tradeshow houses.

We asked around and this guy we were working with who advises hotels said, “you know we have some people here, they do not build exhibits, they do hotel interiors.” They send them to Europe, they send them everywhere. They know how to build furniture, they know how to do glass, they know how to do locks, fabric, they know how to do all of this they just have never done an exhibit. We said great let us go see these people. We had a funny morning where Peco picked us up, we went to their place, we were taken to the conference room. They showed us their film about everything they do, they flipped the film, “oh there is the bar, do you want a drink at ten in the morning.”

Staples: You can just see the sequence.

Charles: So I signed the contract. They offered to take us, “where do you need to go now when we were done.” We got them to take us to one of these furniture places. They were astounded where we were going. It was a factory in some factory area. We walked up some back stairs and you know what are we getting into. We have just been with all the suits, this guy now has his sleeves cut off and so on. Chinese guy, speaks very good English, had studied in industrial design I guess in England.

We go in his little tiny office filled with stuff and he sits us down and he said, we can make anything you can draw or send us a picture of. You want Louis the fourteenth we will make that chair. Anything you want we can do it.” Then he says, “but for fabric I cannot give your Jack Lennor Larson, but if you will take Jim Tompson I can get you all the” …so course my bag is filled with Jack Lennor Larson and Jim Tompson so it was heaven. We got the client to pursue more of these kinds of places. They opened to the tender and you went out to see all these different places.

Staples: Some were in just literally a garage. You had to look at somebody who was going to build ten thousand square feet of exhibit and whether they could do it and where they could do it. The first few that we saw were just plain, they were entrepreneurs that were trying to take any job that they could handle or not.

Charles: We ultimately, one of the groups that bid, I guess you saw them, I did not go there, was like this other one. They were furniture people that did hotels and so on. The client agreed not to go low-bid and in fact agreed that the garage guys even though they did bid would just be eliminated. Peco I think actually turned in highest, but two of these groups that did major hotels both responded and I think the one we chose was a little under the Jack Lennor Larson, Jim Tompson guy. He did a fabulous job, just a beautiful job.

Staples: They were wonderful to work with.

Thelen: Now I am guessing the exciting part is the control and choosing them and working with them. The frustrating part, I am guessing, would be having to design to construct the relationship in every detail with a whole bunch of vendors in a place you have never been.

Staples: That does not seem to bother us.

Charles: That is a new challenge.

Thelen: Okay, it is a new challenge. You do not call up somebody and say give me a this, alright and coming in tomorrow.

Staples: It is tough sometimes. When we went to Singapore to do things, who is going to make the brackets to hold these priceless Chinese pieces?

Charles: What is a bracket?

Staples: Then you say, “well, we do not have anybody that could do that. Do you have the material that could do that?” So I ended up making the brackets. You get me the material and I can do it.

Charles: You actually flew in with material, which got lost in the train. Then we want Bob to have…

Staples: Some assistants.

Charles: He is back here, I am there trying to negotiate help for him. And tools, he had to send pictures of the equipment we wanted and so on and so forth. We want assistants. Eventually we got you two Chinese assistants who spoke no English and they called Bob boss, I was boss partner. Now that is fun. While he is making brackets in Singapore I was heading off to get all the type set in Chinese and English.

Thelen: Actually that was something that I wanted to ask more broadly. When you start a project, you automatically know who is going to be doing what?

Charles: No.

Thelen: At what point do you know to do whatever it takes to get brackets?

Staples: Oh, it does not come off immediately. For every exhibition there are similarities, but they are not all alike. I mean they are definitely not all alike.

Thelen: You do not have a process where your part goes first. You are the one who writes the grant proposals.

Charles: I write proposals.

Thelen: Then once you get it.

Staples: I am the chauffeur that drives the brains around.

Thelen: But then there is a point where you sort of go off separately.

Charles: We are dealing with it now with Missouri. We have talked about ideas for what the cases and panels might be like. Bob is supposed to be drawing them up and is not right now, but needs to be drawing them up for the NEH application. What should have happened by now is to have a really decent floor plan, but we have three times as many objects as we can deal with. I am behind my part which is I have to work with Caroline Gilmore, who is a brilliant curator, to really negotiate some as to what is the nature at least of the objects that were are going to say are in, so that we have a better sense so we can design big cases or different things. We had a really good meeting out there.

Staples: What they have done over the past couple of years is find every piece of paraphilia that you could think of that relates to the story that they want to tell. They have this endless list of sources and these endless number of pieces.

Charles: Eighty museums they visited here and in Europe.

Thelen: What is the theme again?

Charles: It is called American Revolution on the Frontier or it may now be Land and Liberty.

Staples: Within all of this mess are some very big great early pictures of George the second.

Charles: Third, they are paintings.

Staples: Then there are a few costumes. Now if this show is supposed to travel, which it is, maybe two, three places, we have to know if these costumes are going to travel with the show or are they just the kind of costumes that were worn at the time and we cannot have them, but we know what they look like.

Charles: They have not decided.

Staples: They have to go out with their loans.

Thelen: What do you mean loans?

Charles: They are borrowing material from all of these places so they have to go out and make their loan requests. They really will not know exactly what they are getting.

Thelen: And they are not asking you, we need six dresses of this kind?

Charles: No, no, no.

Thelen: You are not involved yet.

Charles: Well, we are involved right now we are working on it.

Staples: They have not done, they have not found six dresses that can go to three different places for, you know.

Charles: You understand the problem, just light - that on the big traveling show we have to rotate things.

Thelen: Well, maybe I do not, explain that. I think I know.

Staples: I think the Franklin show is the best one.

Thelen: Well, let us use that as an example.

Charles: Well, for Franklin one of the goals to make the point of our boy Franklin is that he is the only American who is not only negotiating, but signing what are considering like five great documents of American independence from the Albany Plan in 1750 to the Declaration of Independence to the Treaty of Amenity to the Peace, Paris Peace, to the Constitution. That is a pretty good run.

Thelen: What a coincidence, he was in a lot of places.

Staples: So now we have five documents.

Charles: We want the museum to go to five locations. So we want five copies, well we want to be able to show the Albany Plan to five places. But museum X says our copy, New York Public Library, we will let go to two places. It can only be under light for this long. Maybe the Library of Congress says their copy can go to two more places or three more places. For the Declaration of Independence we had to have five separate ones, for the Constitution, et cetera.

Staples: And they are not always the same size. One will be this wide, one will be this wide. So you have to sort of conjure those flexibilities into the cases.

Charles: At least with those documents you know there are multiples. There is always the hope at least, if you push out a wide enough net and maybe you will allow the second printing of the Declaration of Independence and not just the first printing, you can do it.

Costumes are not so easy. There may only be one great British Revolutionary War soldier uniform that you know was in the West and not at Lexington available for loan because the other two are on permanent display or something like that. There may only be two different very rough American long knives, kind of rough shirts that you know are pre-1800 that you are confident enough to put on display. We do not have enough, if you want the British soldier, you want the long knife, you want the lady, the French lady, you want this.

We are pretty sure from seeing the costume list that we do not have the rotations, there is not enough depth there to say you are going to have that many cases. I think that we are going to develop a strategy and we have not presented it yet, but what if in venue A you get the long knife outfit and in venue B you get the British soldier and in venue C you get the French lady so that we might only travel say three cases instead of nine cases.

Thelen: But create new cases for each.

Charles: We would create a minimum number of cases.

Staples: But they would have multiple duties.

Charles: In the layouts, that case might be in section one in the first venue because it has got this outfit in it, that same case in the next venue would have a different outfit in it for a different subject. It is one of the strategies of traveling this show that we are thinking about.

Staples: Then you have to consider if this big case leaves this group is there anything going in its place or do you just push the group closer together.

Charles: But how do you make that point, how do you still give presence to that actor and that place. So traveling shows in that sense when they have real artifacts are really like a three dimension chess game that you are trying to figure out what can go where.

Staples: In a couple of places we made these banners or tapestries that are three feet wide and eight to ten feet tall. If you should take that case away you could put a banner in its place, which would have an illustration from the period and you have to change the label or conjure some kind of intellectual connections.

Charles: Or we have to figure out some way so that when something disappears it does not look like a hole because all of these places are paying real money to get this show.

Thelen: Speaking of that, which brings me to Renaissance of Islam.

Charles: Your stretched fabric, oh Bob’s favorite design technique. We are still on traveling shows, we have not ventured too far. Da, da, da. These cases do not have those usual boxes that you put things on, they have sand dunes.

Staples: They have mounds like this. Then you have this fabric, this tu-tu material and you have it and you throw it over the top of these two things and you pull it down until you have a tight surface here and a curve that goes to here and then you put two pieces on here. The rest is sort of magic.

Thelen: That is what you are trying to convey.

Charles: No, you are not trying to convey that.

Staples: The next venue you take this one away so that now there is only one.

Thelen: I see, I see what you mean.

Charles: This is when Bob first did it for Chicago.

Staples: This one was an overload situation.

Charles: We had hundreds of pots. How can you possibly wrap and make a hundred…

Thelen: This is Chicago ceramics?

Charles: And glass. This was only one case. So that is when Bob first got this idea.

Staples: That is the reason, that looks very calm.

Charles: There were some cases, big cases.

Staples: There was a case, maybe this size and it would have fifty pieces. Again we just

Charles: And no money, no budget.

Staples: Very low budget. This was a Harold Skramstad job. I suggested this to Harold and he said, “oh Jesus.” He sort of bought into it. We worked hard and got it all done and the model shop just took tubing and cut it off.

Charles: Tin cans - anything could be underneath there. To get the fabric, it has to have a very good two way stretch. I had worked in the theater and I knew a designer who did all of the ballet costumes. I called him up and I went up to see him and he kind of showed me some samples of what I was looking for in New York and showed me where to go buy it. He said, “you are going to have to get it dyed and this is where you get it dyed because you are just going to get it, it will come in white or skin color, depending if they are trying to make people look nude, or get it dyed.” I buy all the fabric, however many yards, I mean we have oodles of it still around.

Staples: Then we had to buy buttons.

Charles: Well but then I have to get it dyed. I leave all my fabric, I have it all addressed, yes we will ship it. It does not come. I call the dye place, they said, “we have never received it.” I call the fabric place, “oh yes, yes we will ship it.” I call the dye place, they do not receive. Finally turns out, these two firms had a feud a number of years ago and fabric place will not tell me that they will not ship.

I flew to New York, picked up my fabric, took it to Long Island to be dyed and came back. Then Bob says he wants buttons with a shank, do you know what I mean by a shank? It is the little metal piece under a button. But it has to all be integral because he is going to put it under a lot of pressure, tension so it cannot be two pieces that will come apart. A lot of buttons have a metal bottom, maybe a plastic top.

You go down, this is going back to my theater days, do not let anybody tell you you cannot find something. I go down to the button area of New York - I mean New York has all these little areas. So I go to the button area again I think probably some costume people told me where to go and you buy buttons by the gross and you send those out to be dyed to match the fabric. It worked great.

Staples: The reason for the buttons is that if you should put three things out here and you stretch this fabric, you want to get some definition on the inside surface. You want to pull this piece of the fabric down. So with a button, you pull that down and now there is a valley here and it does that. Food for thought.

Thelen: It is. It is.

Staples: We also did that same technique on a Saudi Arabian costume show. [pause]

Charles: Here is the young designer. The young designer at work.

Thelen: His work after he is done. Wow.

Charles: Yes, so that was just a little, every once in a while somebody will call me to say how did you do that?

Staples: We did the same thing at the Textile Museum for a Saudi Arabian costume show, where we instead of little platforms we had some sizable platforms. We did it on a landscape that was as big as this room. We took the fabric which is like six feet wide and you can stretch it to nine feet or something.

Charles: What was that show called?

Staples: It was not Palms and Pomegranate?

Charles: It was Palms and Pomegranate. Oh, are you good.

Staples: There we made a platform out of this, not in a case. It was a platform with maybe a half a dozen costumes standing on these little platforms within this.

Charles: Here are they. No, you cannot, well you can just see them back here. Very low, gentle, none were more than about eighteen inches high, but like they were out in sand dunes, people standing out there. Well some idiot reporter at the opening tries to step on it.

Staples: To go up from the carpeted part of the room to get a closer view of something, so he puts his foot down and goes, “ooooh.” [laughter] Nothing was hurt, but it was a sort of an alarming moment for him.

Thelen: Did not quite run into the resistance he expected.

Staples: I kept wanting to do this again, sometime because it is too good to give up.

Charles: But you have not done it for twenty years.

Staples: Yes, I know, but the point is that it is not something that should be forgotten, I have not seen anybody else do.

Charles: I have gotten a couple of calls, somehow people remembering it…

Staples: Really?

Charles: Yes, I would tell them that you have to get a specific fabric and it has to have a good two way stretch and you have to get buttons.

Staples: And you have to get Bob.

Charles: And I do not think that anybody does it.

Staples: I think that that is another eureka moment. You are searching in your head for a solution for institution that does not have a lot of dough, but has a lot of pieces. We had to do it on the cheap, so it worked.

Thelen: I am trying to think of other. Did we talk about the Franklin?

Charles: Not too much.

Thelen: In retrospect, is there anything particularly intriguing about that?

Charles: Yes, Franklin is good. I am going to get a glass of water to give me a break or something.

Thelen: I would like a glass of water too if I could.

Staples: What, water? Got to rest your pipes. Look at, speaking of pipes. [paper moving]

Charles: What is this? What is that? What is it?

Staples: That is Foley’s system.

Charles: In our place?

Staples: Not in our place, but that is what is going to happen in our place. We have decided in this building that we are doing we are going to have a radiant heated floors on all the new construction. It is going to be done by solar energy. Panels on the roof that are going to get hot, hot. That water will then circulate down into a hundred and nine gallon tank and then it will be boiled, I guess, when it needs to be boiled, if it should not be hot. The hot water then circulates through the pipes in the floor to give you a warm room without forced air furnace.

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