Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up, London

Designed by: Tom Scutt and Gibson Thornley Architects
For client: Victoria and Albert Museum, London Floor area: 455.00 M² Year of completion: 2018
Submitted for: Exhibition of the Year

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© Jack Hobhouse

Exhibition entrance totem

About the Project

The brief was to create an exhibition showcasing Kahlo’s possessions from the Blue House in Mexico City, never before exhibited outside of her home country. Featuring a number of key self-portraits alongside Kahlo’s costumes, medical corsets, jewellery, accessories, photographs and letters, the exhibition aimed to reflect a compelling and very personal life story.
Working closely with exhibition co-curators Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrosa, the design team transformed the temporary galleries at the V&A by creating a series of minimalist spaces with a modern aesthetic forming the backdrop for an intimate experience with Frida’s personal objects. The duality of Frida’s life is a running theme throughout the gallery design; her strong outward image and her profound disability; her Mexican identity and her European ancestry.
The design collaboration brought together the worlds of Art and Architecture with designer Tom Scutt, selected for his diverse work in theatre and music events, with Gibson Thornley, Architects with experience delivering complex and carefully considered buildings and structures. The wider team included Bob Design, who have developed bespoke signage and typography; Luke Halls studio and Ben & Max Ringham, who created a unique Audio Visual experience; DHA, who brought their expertise in gallery lighting and Focus Consultants, who acted as project managers and cost consultant. The team were supported by Webb Yates, Sandy Brown Associates and White Light.

What’s unique about it

The challenge with this exhibition was to convey the context of Frida Kahlo and her work in a sensitive and impactful manner. Not only an important figure in the art world, her status as a cultural icon often obscures the reality of her consistent pain and suffering. The subject matter of the exhibition is therefore inherently personal and we strove for a language that was neither clinical nor pastiche but instead modern and triumphant.
Throughout the exhibition we use architecture to explore many of the themes of Kahlo’s life: Her dual identity as Mexican and European, the distorted perspective showing her difficulty painting, her use of mirrors both in photographs and in the Blue House, her status as a fashion icon contrasted with the periodic concealment of her disability, her bed as a place of confinement but also creativity. This not only allowed for an immersive exhibition design but also an experience firmly rooted in the identity of the artist. In this way we believe we succeeded in our fundamental goal- creating a profound connection between Kahlo and the visitor, revealing the artist’s astonishing courage and the intertwining of her life and art.
As the exhibition explores Kahlo’s life as a disabled artist we met with disability groups early in the process to increase overall accessibility and improved the exhibition with a lowered hang of artwork and specifically designed accessible labels.
The exhibition has been critically acclaimed and a phenomenal success.

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© Jack Hobhouse

Picturing Mexico gallery: Introducing Frida Kahlo, her personal context and mixed heritage.

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© Jack Hobhouse

Detail of Picturing Mexico gallery. Converging arches create domestically scaled niches for the display of objects.

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© Jack Hobhouse

Overview of Endurance gallery: Frida Kahlo's personal effects are showcased in facsimiles of her bed.

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© Jack Hobhouse

Detail of the Endurance gallery. Frida Kahlo's prosthetic leg rests delicately on a mirrored background.

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© Jack Hobhouse

Detail of Endurance gallery

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© Jack Hobhouse

Distorted, mirrored tunnel which leads visitors to the penultimate exhibition gallery.

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© Jack Hobhouse

Art and Dress gallery central showcase with a triumphant display of Frida Kahlo's iconic wardrobe.

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© Jack Hobhouse

Art and Dress gallery with central mannequins looking across to their relevant paintings and photographs.

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© Jack Hobhouse

Resplandor- the exhibition's final showcase.

Location of project:
Gibson Thornley Architects

Tom Scutt

Bob Design

Luke Halls Studio

Ben and Max Ringham

DHA Designs

Focus Consultants

Webb Yates

Sandy Brown Associates

White Light

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