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More Than Art for Art’s Sake

There is a fine line between signage and art and sometimes there is no line at all. Art becomes the sign and the sign becomes art. To some, even a traffic sign is seen as art.

By Johnny Duncan

We see ads for books and other products that help us with our craft such as “The Art of Gilding”, “The Art of Laminating”, “The Art of Electronic Signage”, and so on. From the historic signs such as the ubiquitous Burma Shave, Coca Cola, or Mail Pouch signs to the current Guess Jeans, IPod, and Ford Motor Company signs, they all display a form of art to communicate the company’s message.

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  • Artistic design
    Tim Samoff, Multimedia Developer with Embarq (a spin-off of Sprint), recently designed a major art installation for the current corporate headquarters in Overland Park, Kansas to communicate a message. The art, unlike signs, does not point anyone to a specific direction or relay information that causes a visitor to buy or to act on something. But, the art, like signs, does communicate a message to those working within the Embarq headquarters.

    “The design mostly had to do with the initial directive, which was to beautify the breezeway between the two buildings,” states Samoff. “I, along with a team of others, brainstormed and came up with all sorts of ways we could have done it. It was a way to visually show that Embarq is a feisty company while, at the same time, highlight the communities we serve. Being part of those communities is very important to us.”

    Samoff’s experience was limited going into the project, but the outcome is noticeable and appreciated by those working in the building. As Samoff says, “I have long been familiar with installation art -- I have friends, who are commissioned regularly, as well as my exposure to it in art school -- but personally, this is my first installation. I have been part of several large-scale mural paintings in the past, but never anything that required so much effort, time, materials, and people to accomplish.,”

    A great deal of decision-making time was required in the designing and installation phase of the art before a single piece could cover any of the bare walls. Eventually, it was decided that single panels should be used in the project. “Some of the ways proved to be too expensive (like using multiple layered panels) or not visually appealing enough (like printed tapestries or painting directly onto the walls). The most cost-effective method, as well as one of the best looking, was to use single panels.”

    Perfecting the canvas
    Artists, like sign professionals, must choose carefully the material used before applying their talents toward a creation (or a customer’s request!). Samoff ended up using a ¼” acrylic for his panels. “My original design called for glass panels -- which was actually a little cheaper than acrylic -- but we found out that handling glass of that size in a flat-bed printer probably would not have been possible. The panels are roughly 6' x 6' and even as acrylic are around 60 pounds each. If I recall correctly, the glass panels would have weighed twice that much and extra supports would have had to have been added to the ceiling structure,” says Samoff.

    “The panels are suspended by a wire cabling system that we've used in various other spots in the building. It's a pretty slick setup. Additionally, the panels themselves are printed on both sides. I decided on this in order to achieve a natural depth to my compositions. Initially, I wanted to print on several layers of acrylic or glass, but the idea ended up being too pricey so, I opted to print a background image on the back-side of the panel and foreground images on the front. The outcome is rather nice, even with only 1/4" of depth -- especially with light shining through the panels. Thanks to TechJet Imaging in Vancouver, WA, for helping me come up with a solution that both fit into our budget and looks great.”

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    No project of this magnitude is completed alone and with a company the size of Embarq, Samoff was able to use a team to assist in creating the desired outcome. “Our core team consisted of seven people. I was the project lead when it came to the art, but there was a project lead for the construction, one for the budget, etc. They all had a lot of experience with big build-outs like this and it helped me tremendously. Along with our core team, the project had to be approved by both the brand department as well as by our CEO. The actual build-out was achieved by a company that we contracted called, Westin. They did a fabulous job and I couldn't be happier with their work.”

    Overcoming obstacles
    Sir Joshua Reynolds once said, “A room hung with pictures is a room hung with thoughts.” Of course, the thoughts and goals may be in place, but getting the pictures on the wall is not as easy as it sounds. “Challenges came from a variety of different places,” says Samoff. “My first was in trying to create something that wasn't only visually pleasing, but that "taught" viewers something about Embarq. Embarq is the largest non-regional Bell communications company with operations in 18 states and we thought it'd be a good idea to somehow instill this into my project. Also, I am a part of Embarq’s learning organization. One of our key ideals in the learning organization is something we've dubbed "Ambient Learning," that is, learning from the environment that is all around you, at all times. I had to translate all of those concepts in a way that represented Embarq's operations.”

    “Once the idea was approved, I had to figure out how to represent the concept while staying within the brand guidelines. I created several different treatments for the art on the panels as well as a few different versions of the green origami pattern that's painted on the wall behind the panels.”

    As with any project, money is either an obstacle (lack of) or an asset to the project as Samoff realized. “One of the most major challenges was to come up with something that would fit within an acceptable budget. Initially, I didn't have any numbers to go off of at all. After a few months, though, it became clear what most of the production would cost and we were able to come up with a budget based on the quotes I was able to get. And, believe me, depending on what company, in what part of the country, and whom I spoke to, the quotes varied greatly.”

    The process
    Samoff’s first step in attacking the project was coming up with the concept and a budget. “Early on, I found that there are not many companies in the U.S. who do this sort of large-format printing on alternative surfaces, so I really had to shop around,” says Samoff. “Once I secured a printer and had my designs approved, we had to plan the build-out.”

    “Originally, the breezeway was very plain. It was pretty typical and had a vinyl wall-covering, light sconces, and chair rails that had to come down. The electric had to be altered for a new lighting system and the walls had to be mudded and skim-coated. After the base coats (a dark and a light gray) were painted, the painters took a blueprint that was created from my green origami design and plotted it on the walls.”

    “The origami pattern consists of three different shades of green, so it's pretty complex to paint. Afterwards, the construction company came in and measured out where all of the hanging cable systems would go. Those were drilled, mounted, and prepped for the acrylic panels. The panels had to then be drilled and fitted with the clamping pieces that attach to the cables and then they were hung. The last step, the lighting fixtures, is still en route, and I can't wait to see them up and running.”

    Samoff’s project was a hit and has created an environment that jells with the culture of Embarq. “I have been pleasantly surprised by the reactions. The one that sticks out the most is how the breezeway, where the art is on display, on several occasions has become a meeting place of sorts. It used to be that people used the breezeway to get from one building to another, but now I'm seeing people stop to chat or look more closely at the panels. That's the best, when people stop and actually take time to look at my work. I love that.”

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