Goodbye brutish darkness, and hello vibrant ingenuity. A powerful punch of bright colors and bold letters now grace the previously stark halls of the four-story Fine Arts building at the University of Houston, the result of a creative collaboration between design students and artists. The vivid, larger-than-life murals serve as an identity system for the School of Art, each floor with its own distinctive flare – concepts imagined by graphic design students as part of a senior class project.
“The murals needed to represent this much larger view of the school and the range of creativity,” said Cheryl Beckett, graphic design associate professor, who encouraged students to seek input from colleagues from a variety of artistic genres including sculpture, painting, art history and photography/digital media.
Sara Cremer, who graduated this year with a degree in graphic design, said many students felt the outside of the building dull. “It didn’t reflect the creativity that was taking place inside the classrooms,” she said. “We asked the students, ‘If you could describe your experience here or how you identify yourself as a student, what would those words be?’”
The final product is a cohesive, expressive design that reflects the school’s diversity, amplifies the voices of all students and challenges anyone to take a moment to find their meaning.
If These Walls Could Talk…
Designed by Houston-based architectural firm Caudill Rowlett Scott, the Fine Arts building was completed in 1973 during an era in architecture called Brutalism. Brutalist buildings are known for their blocky and rigid geometric style. It has been said that the nearly identical platform of the four floors has caused people to get lost or confused trying to find classrooms or offices. The goal of the project was to empower students to give the walls new life while creating a wayfinding system to navigate the space.
Cremer and classmates Kimmy Wong, Melissa Ausburn and Priska Zegarra created an alphabet using distinct typographical forms that ranged from digital letter and antique blackletter to hieroglyphics. They found inspiration from graphic artist Ben Van Dyke, who uses language and letterforms to communicate his work, and illustrator Pavel Ripley, whose letters look more like images rather than fonts that are easily legible. When it came to the colors, the students chose the CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) palette for printing, to make their words and the walls “pop.”
On each floor, the artwork stretches across the doors of the elevators, restrooms and storage spaces, then wraps around the walls that lead to the staircases. The words “explore,” “play” and “reach” can be seen on the first floor where you’ll find the main art office, ceramics, sculpture, Dudley Recital Hall and Blaffer Art Museum. The entrance of the lecture hall features the word “shift.” The second floor, which houses photography and screen printing, reads “introspected” and “kinetic.” On the third floor, “dare,” “edit” and “image” are painted on the walls leading to the graphic design classrooms and the Arts & Technology Center. The words “provocative” and “fearless” now illuminate the top floor where painting and printmaking classes are held.
“The goal was to make sure the walls never became old. We wanted people to keep coming back and exploring the designs in different ways,” Ausburn explained. “We didn’t want them to see the same word every day.”
Executing a Vision
Although the students conceived the design, they weren’t able to participate in the actual installation. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the timeline until after they had already graduated. However, the project was left in the capable hands of muralist and sign painter Robynn Sanders, a 2007 alumna of the graphic design program. Sanders is widely known for her custom work on landmarks across Houston, including those bright, whimsical art cars.
Before Sanders could bring the vision to fruition, much prep work needed to happen – sanding, removing rust, taping off door handles and hinges, cleaning and priming the walls. To artfully place the students’ work on the walls, she used a digital projector and about 20 gallons of mildew-resistant paint and primer. The end result is a contemporary, dynamic and exciting place to learn and work. The entire installation took about a month to finish.
“We challenged the designers to make a statement to prospective students that this is the place where the next generation of Houston creatives will come to hone their craft,” said David Politzer, School of Art director. “These alumni have left their mark, which will guide and inspire current and future faculty, staff and students in the School of Art.”
A communication by University of Houston Marketing and Communications.
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