Tom Postma designs the world’s most important art fairs. Originally, the Amsterdam-based designer started his career as a sculptor. How did Postma became the designer he is today, with clients such as Art Basel Miami Beach and TEFAF? Dutch Culture USA spoke to the Amsterdam-based designer about his career, creations and the contemporary art world.
How did you become an art fair designer?
“Originally I was educated as a visual artist. I studied at the Rietveld Academy and the Rijksakademie in the Netherlands. After graduation I started my career as an artist. I had regular gallery shows and made monumental sculptures in commission. This was noticed and I started to get commissioned for monumental projects, so large that they became more and more architectural. At that time I decided to switch my career and concentrate on architecture and designing in the cultural field. My first big assignment was to design an art show at the Palazzo Fondazione Levi at the Grand Canal during the Venice Biennale.”
Architectural projects are one thing. Designing the world’s most important art fairs is another. Tell us how you achieved this.
“Most architectural projects that I was commissioned to during that period were art related. The art world is a specific world that I understand and my clients sense that. After I designed TEFAF in Maastricht and Art Basel, which are two of the most important art fairs in the world, I was asked to design Art Basel Miami Beach and Art Basel Hong Kong. I have been involved with these fairs since year one.”
How do you prepare for such a huge project?
“The first edition of Art Basel Miami Beach was supposed to take place in 2001. The design of the fair was ready and then 9/11 occurred, so the fair was cancelled. That left me with extra time for the design and in 2002 the first Art Basel Miami Beach fair took place. When it comes to the preparation for the design process itself; it starts of course with the brief by the directors of the fair. From that point on the design process can unfold itself.”
“Building a fair is like building a city, with corridors, squares, gallery blocks, special exhibitions, entrances, VIP-lounges, different restaurants and cafés, conference hall, video cabins and so on. Therefore, the floor plan is one of the most important elements. It seems simple, but it is actually the hardest part. An art fair should have a natural and pleasant visitor flow, with a clear beginning and end. The gallery that is located in the far corner should also be visited. Here and there you need a break in the grid, such as a square or a café, where people can have a moment to sit down and reflect. Another important aspect is good lighting. In an art show there is nothing worse than a beautiful painting or sculpture with poor lighting.”
“Art fairs are built very rapidly. At the big fairs, 500 to 1000 people are involved in de built up and it takes approximately two or three weeks to fully build it, from an empty building to the vernissage.”
That’s the practical side. How would you describe your style in designing?
“One can say that visitors of art fairs are esthetically aware. They are an exciting and challenging audience to design for. As an architect for an art show you always have to be conscious that you’re designing in service of the arts. Your design should not distract or compete with art. You can integrate spectacular design elements at Art fairs, but only there where there is no art on show, like in a VIP lounge or a square.”
“My style of designing is contemporary. For me it is important that my designs relate to the works that are on display and that they relate to the building, the atmosphere and the city where the fair takes place. And of course I always create some spectacular design elements in specific places like the entrances, VIP lounges and restaurants. For instance the huge floating and illuminated dandelions I designed for Art Basel Miami Beach.”
Could you tell us what’s going to be different in the upcoming Art Basel Miami Fairs?
“Right now I am already working on Art Basel 2017. Next year there will be a big change in the central area. In 2017, the Convention Centre where the fair takes place will be totally renovated. We are already working on a complete new design. Unfortunately I can’t give any further details since it’s confidential information. But I can tell you that it will be spectacular.”
What’s the difference in designing for European and American projects?
“In general there are a lot of design similarities between the two continents. Although classic American galleries usually tend towards a more conservative taste, in comparison to the European ones.”
You’ve been designing for over two decades now. How did the art world change in this period?
“I have seen the art prices rising, especially those of the modern and contemporary art. The major art fairs like Art Basel Miami Beach have become more and more important and influential through the years. When, as a gallery, you can say “I’m doing Art Basel”, collectors take you more seriously, since the selection to participate in the Art Basel fairs is very tough.”
“Through the years the architecture of the fairs and the programming of the fairs have become more developed. My budget has also grown accordingly over the years. In general you can say that the ambience of the places where people buy art, like galleries and art fairs, has become much more important than a few decades ago.”
[Interview by Jonas Kooyman]