When Time Warner’s Home to the Future exhibit in New York City proved a smashing success, the company asked the project’s designers, NYC’s ESI Design, to find a way to take the 4,000-square foot installation on the road. ESI came up with the Time Warner Home to the Future Mobile, which traveled to 12 of Time Warner’s U.S. markets from Albany to San Diego last year to exhibit the company’s latest technological and content offerings.
The original project, a temporary exhibit consisting of a four-story, fabric-covered cube, was housed in Time Warner’s New York headquarters. The idea, says ESI Design’s director of physical design Chris Muller, was to showcase Time Warner’s products in a way that was “very beautiful, very prominent and very modern. It also had to fill a large space without obstructing the view of the retail establishments around the installation.”
One of Time Warner’s desires was for an exhibit with which visitors could interact. ESI Design, Muller says, was among the first to make interactivity a consideration in its creations. In 1977, they designed one the industry’s first interactive exhibits for The Learning Environment at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.
“ESI has a really strong reputation for the type of exhibit we were looking for,” says Michelle Zarrilli, Time Warner Cable’s manager of partnership marketing. The company needed to showcase its products in a homelike, interactive environment with a visual draw as part of the interactive quality. And, with the success of the Home to the Future at the headquarters in Time Warner Square, they wanted to prolong the life of the exhibit. ESI assigned a team of five, including Muller, to “make a 55-foot-high installation fit into a truck,” Muller says. And they had to find a design that preserved the original’s blithe, transparent impression.
New use for old technology
Wrapped around the extruded aluminum frame of the Home to the Future exhibit in Time Warner’s headquarters, scrims of open-weave synthetic fabric created the translucent, open effect ESI was going for. Based on the open-weave curtains that theaters began using in the 18th century, scrims are stretched across the stage to appear as a solid barrier, but lit from behind, they seem to disappear to reveal the scene on stage.
ESI experimented with printing on many surfaces before deciding on scrims. Printing on both sides of the fabric turned out looking interesting and highly legible without being distracting, which Muller says isn’t the case with many fabrics that are more opaque.
Home to the Future’s designers also saw the translucent property of the fabric as a metaphor for Time Warner Cable itself. The fabric allowed visitors to see inside the exhibit just as the exhibit allowed them to see inside Time Warner and the possibilities offered by the company. “With this design, people could see past the mysterious black cable box,” says Muller.
Hitting the road
It was that effect—seeing the surface but also the layers behind—that ESI sought to recreate in the mobile version of the exhibit. But the difficulty, Muller says, is in designing for an uncontrolled environment. The exhibit traveled to sites around the country both indoors and outdoors, and unlike a theater stage or the interior of a building, outside weather conditions shift, and natural light is always changing. Deterioration from these factors often makes preserving the integrity of fabrics difficult.
The mobile version of the Home to the Future occupied a special trailer complete with expandable roof and sides. (To help the project stay within budget, ESI found ways to pack the parts of the exhibit in such a way as to make it possible to set up much of the exhibit with the push of a button.) The opened areas were then covered with a plastic-coated scrim that would be more durable being set up and taken down repeatedly and would be less affected by sunlight and the elements.
During the day, Muller says, the scrim appeared mostly opaque, but at night, lit from behind by the interior lights of the exhibit, it gave the same glowing effect and feeling of openness that the exhibit’s predecessor had. It also had the same printability, Muller says. ESI came up with an eye-catching deconstruction of Time Warner’s logo for printing throughout the exhibit. The series of colored hexagons representing the company’s many sides and the various products and services it provides stood out especially well on the scrim.
Digital integration in the home
“We asked ESI to fit a kitchen, family room, master suite and future room, as well as 10 computers, into a 1,100-square-foot trailer and make it all work as the Home to the Future,” Zarrilli says. The rooms demonstrated all of the ways a home can be integrated with digital technology that’s already available from Time Warner. A computer mounted in the refrigerator let visitors access Time Warner programming or surf the Internet for recipes while watching a pot simmer on the stove.
A screen in the master suite showed visitors how they could get morning radio programming, then telecommute to a meeting and get all of Time Warner’s services on their wireless phone on the way to the office. Visitors saw caller ID information on the television screen and watched Time Warner programming on a wireless phone. A series of kiosks around the site of the exhibit provided more opportunities for visitors to experience hands-on the services Time Warner offers.
Time Warner wanted flexibility in design, Muller says. That not only meant transforming a trailer into a home interior, for use in all types of weather, but also overcoming the logistical challenge of making the exhibit’s technology function in the different media markets around the country. ESI was able to meet those design challenges so well that they received Event Design magazine’s “Best of Mod” award presented for excellence in modular exhibit design.
By Troy Pieper, a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn.