Given a flying start in the sector by the late great James G Gardner, Alex McCuaig has made his own practice MET Studio a byword for innovative exhibition design. He talks about it, and much more, to Jamie Mitchell
From a museum in Mexico exploring the nature of addiction to an interactive visitors centre in Hong Kong for Manchester United FC, and from refitting the QE2 to masterplanning the East Kolkata Wetland Park in India, Alex McCuaig’s career as an exhibition designer has been varied to say the least. In his 30 years as founder and head of design consultancy MET Studio, McCuaig has travelled the world designing museums from Singapore to Bristol, and he seems to have enjoyed every minute of it.
Now 60, the Glasgow-born designer is in a contemplative frame of mind when I meet him at his company’s HQ near London Bridge. He is ready to look back over his career and even to contemplate his legacy, though retirement is not something he seems ready to consider. ‘I love my job’, he says, ‘and my ambition is to keep loving it.’
Despite tough times for the design industry, McCuaig says MET Studio and the museum-design sector in general is in rude health. ‘I think everybody working in the industry went through a little dip a couple of years ago,’ he says, ‘but nowadays it’s buoyant.’ But McCuaig has been prudent: spotting the potential of the so-called tiger economies he established a base in the Hong Kong in the Nineties. ‘The thing with MET Studio is that we’re so global in our approach that if one market hits trouble, we don’t always feel it,’ he says.
McCuaig would be the first to admit that his career as an exhibition designer was unplanned. After leaving school and ‘doing other stuff’, he returned to education as a mature student, studying fine art at Goldsmiths and then 3D design at Kingston University where his degree show caught the attention of James ‘G’ Gardner, then Britain’s most successful exhibition designer, who offered him a job.
‘He was all about museums, and at my age I didn’t have much choice except to think “This is great: I’m getting to travel a lot, I’m getting to meet lots of interesting people and do different work, and this guy’s trusting me”. So at first you could say I got into exhibition design by default, and later by volition.’
McCuaig remembers Gardner as one of the UK’s greatest designers. ‘He was a great man, a tough task master, but when you earned his trust you had it for good,’ he says.
His apprenticeship with Gardner lasted four years, after which McCuaig felt confident enough to set up on his own. He founded MET Studio in 1982 in premises in the Metropolitan Wharf at Wapping, east London, the address which inspired the company’s name. MET Studio’s first big project was a collaboration with Gardner on the National Museum of Natural Science in Taiwan. ‘We really earned our stripes on that project,’ says McCuaig. Several more museum projects in Taiwan followed, including the National Museum of Science & Technology.
The QE2, the ocean liner whose superstructure and interior Gardner originally designed, has been something of a motif in McCuaig’s career: ‘I saw it sailing along the Clyde when I was a boy and then I ended up working for the guy who designed it; then, years later, MET Studio won the commission to refit it.’ Sleek, elegant and practical, the QE2 was ‘a revelation in modern ship design’, says McCuaig. After it was decommissioned in 2008 the QE2 was turned into a floating hotel which MET Studio masterplanned, and designed the public spaces.
Although MET Studio is most closely associated with exhibition design, it has always supplemented its more high-profile work for museums, information centres, zoos and eco parks with corporate and retail design for clients such as Virgin Atlantic, whose HQ in Crawley the practice designed in 1996.
Corporate office projects and museum design may seem to have little in common, but McCuaig says there are actually many skills common to both. ‘Working with corporate organisations means understanding the value of the brand, and everything we do is an extension of that brand in three dimensions,’ he says. ‘Big companies now understand that they have to show responsibility, they have to be seen to behave ethically, and be conscious of the environment. That’s an area we have a lot of experience in from designing museum exhibits.’
But exhibition design does require a degree of ‘intellectual rigour’ beyond that of the other design disciplines, he says. ‘There is another level that you have to add with exhibition design. You really have to understand the content you’re dealing with.’
For one recent project MET Studio was asked to create a museum and information centre on addiction in the Mexican city of Culiacan, notorious for its drug and gang-related violence – ‘right in the middle of where it all goes on’, relates McCuaig. The subject matter (the centre provides information on all kinds of addiction, from drugs and alcohol to gambling and sex addiction) had to be treated sensitively, but there was another challenge: poor literacy among the local population meant that many of the area’s residents who might benefit most from the centre would be unable to read printed information. The solution was to communicate as much as possible through pictures and interactive exhibits.
‘Actually that’s not a bad tenet for exhibition design generally,’ says McCuaig. ‘Most people who go to museums read the headline and the secondary text; they rarely bother with the tertiary information. If that’s the case then everything has to be visually strong. The more you can communicate without words the better.’
McCuaig describes himself and his colleagues as ‘designers and storytellers’ and says that it’s the consistency and quality of their work that has ensured the company’s success. ‘Some design companies have specific styles, and you can easily identify them,’ he says. ‘MET Studio is much more about high-end bespoke design. We’ve set the bar very high for ourselves. Every client has the right to get a different project.’
McCuaig also puts his company’s impressive portfolio of projects down to being, if not picky, then certainly discerning when it comes to which clients it works with. ‘In the beginning we took on everything – we had to – but nowadays we’re far more focused about the clients we’re going for,’ he says.
Innovation and innovators such as McCuaig have changed the way we experience exhibition design. New technology can bring the past to life and allow visitors to interact with exhibits. But McCuaig points out that while technology can be great, you have to know what you’re doing with it. ‘It’s a fantastic tool, but people have fallen back on it: if they can’t think of anything else to do then they’ll stick a touch screen in, or a video. That’s an easy route. But used wisely it’s massively advantageous.
‘When I was younger, museums used to be places where you were taken,’ he says. ‘Nowadays they’re places kids actually want to go to. And that’s a massive difference.’
This article was first published in fx Magazine.