Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, China

18th December 2020

The turn of events the world has experienced this year has undoubtedly had an impact on everyone, globally. But from it, we have witnessed an increasingly staggering positive response from industry creatives, and the new lighting design scheme for the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams exhibition in Shanghai by Lightemotion is no exception, with its unique Zoom-based installation. 

Beginning its journey back in 2017, the Christian Dior Designer of Dreams exhibition launched at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs of Paris before moving on to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and arriving at Shanghai’s Long Museum West Bund in 2020. 

Canadian-based lighting firm Lightemotion was assigned the brief of illuminating the display by Nathalie Crinière in Paris, who designed the exhibit, which comprises more than 270 Haute Couture silhouettes alongside original documents, accessories and artworks by contemporary Chinese artists. A complex and dynamic lighting scheme was created to interact with and highlight the pieces in a sculptural aesthetic for what was the first big international exhibit put together after the Coronavirus was declared a global pandemic in March. As such, the designers embarked on a unique and ground-breaking approach to the task by establishing an entirely remote team to implement the scheme. 

Professional camera operators helped to facilitate an accurate portrayal of each room, from their colours and tones to the size of each space. A number of cameras were also installed on tripods to give the team simultaneous virtual views of each room from various angles. At the same time, more cameras set at eye level moved through the rooms and around specific items that needed to be lit to complete the full picture for the designers, giving them a chance to understand the overall visitor experience and each item’s setting in the rooms. 

Crinière, curator Oriole Cullen and the Dior teams had worked on the project for months leading up to its arrival in China, which made it possible for a smooth transition to working remotely on the lighting install. The process of the installation started with the placement of the dresses in the rooms, and it was only when the placement of each exhibited item with the remote teams by Cullen was finalised that the lighting process started. 

Lightemotion was then connected to local staff, Crinière, the Dior team, Cullen, and audiovisual designer La Méduse via a Zoom link, which was left open at designated times for all members to access. The virtual meeting room was specifically for the usage of the lighting design team; however, it proved a useful tool for all parties to participate in consultations and voicing their opinions cohesively. 

The open link – typically open for up to 12 hours a day – made it possible for the Lightemotion team to consult directly with the necessary people when making critical decisions – when lighting a specific dress, for example. The team could witness multiple lighting options and scenes that would highlight varying aspects of the dress and decide together on the most fitting outcome. 

Francois Roupinian, President and Director of Design at Lightemotion, reflects on the collaboration with Crinière and the formation of the successful project: “It has been an amazing collaboration with Nathalie and her team, curator Oriole Cullen, and with the Video artist team La Méduse. From the beginning, we were able to sit with everyone and bring fresh new lighting ideas to really create that sensory experience. Nathalie also wanted to be able to tell the story of the show with light and wanted us to be able to create a subtle environment that would serve the purpose and the experience of the show.

“The concept was to create a sensory experience with light that would evolve throughout the show. I wanted to put the artefacts on stage and illuminate them in a way where they could tell a story and create a feeling, an experience that the visitors feel when they see the display. Also, the environment of each of these spaces was crucial; we went into detail to make sure that even the general lighting would fit with each theme and that the public always had a sense of being submerged and part of the environment. It is a very submersible experience,” he said. 

“What unified the show was the extreme quality of the lighting and how it would sculpt the objects. Each artefact was treated as a star, as a personage.”

Understanding from the outset that communication was key to making this project a success, Roupinian saw the project as an opportunity to create a platform for everyone to be directly involved, like pieces of the puzzle coming together. “The challenge became a new way of working for us. I established from the get-go a level of communication where everybody would be involved and be part of the process. The client, the House of Dior, the exhibit design team, the auiovisual designers, and the installers were always invited to join us, to pop up in our Zoom sessions. So, these sessions became the pivotal point for everyone, and we were able to get some amazing human interaction. I do not believe in working solo and for me, 90% of a project is the human factor. Everyone felt part of the process and it made the artistic elaboration quite unique and collaborative.

“Our team in Shanghai was incredible. They were our eyes on the ground and we could not have reached the level of quality without them. They were engaged and generous; the local team is a major part of the lighting success of this project.

“The person in charge of cultural projects at Dior was involved almost every day in the Zoom sessions. We would ask her to pop in for a few minutes, ask her feelings and her level of comfort on how we were presenting the pieces, which was very different from what they had done in the past,” he added. “I think the key was to always stay connected with the curator and the Dior teams and be sensitive to their needs and business objectives, and be flexible and adapt what we were doing to the challenges they may encounter during the setup. Good lighting design is a process where you need to be generous – it has to be heart driven and not ego driven – we must never forget that we are the magic wand that is meant to serve a purpose, the exhibition’s purpose, not ours.”

When speaking to arc about the difficulties the project encountered, surprisingly the list was very short. With the on-ground support of the Activation team and the constant level of communication, the Lightemotion scheme was installed successfully and with minimal difficulty. One of the only unfortunate consequences, as a result of the global Covid-19 situation, was the team having difficulty sourcing the desired fittings for the installation. As such, many fixtures were replaced with more convenient local alternatives to combat this obstacle. 

Another matter they had to address during the installation was the lack of track or support system for fixtures in the museum. Roupinian explained further: “We had to create an extensive study and layout of additional tracks and pointing structure to host the lighting needed for the project. Also wanting to use DMX, we had to come up with different scenarios, from wired DMX, to wireless DMX systems. 

“Also, part our design was to take advantage of the beautiful brutalist architecture of the space by illuminating it and making it part of the background of the show. So, cable placement was critical; we did not want to have a busy ceiling. Furthermore, La Méduse created an elaborate, immersive video mapping environment, so it was important to have minimal intervention in some areas so the video could take full advantage of the surfaces.”

Reflecting on the successful installation, Roupinian added: “I feel the lighting brings a subtle aura throughout the show and embraces the visitors from the different spaces – we say in French “le fil conducteur”, which means it is like the connecting thread of the project. For Dior, a major difference was the way the dresses were lit up. I used a very sculptural approach with the lighting, we never used just a general wash of light. This technique made the dresses pop and it brought emotions. It was not just about creating beautiful environments but bringing that special attention to each piece so the visitor could really connect with them and feel something, maybe an emotion that the creator had when he designed that dress.”

Moving forward, Lightemotion is now undertaking numerous projects utilising its remote experience over Zoom, and is due to deliver a Magic exhibit in Toulouse, France this December, as well as a major show in Singapore and in Canada, an architectural project at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, all created remotely. 

“We have developed a level of connectivity working remotely that does not affect or reduce the quality of the projects. In the way we produce our brief / mood boards and our narrative, we are able to give enough information so that the team on site feel well-equipped. We are present every day via Zoom. I see a major market opening up for us; we already have a very extensive experience and portfolio of international projects, and now our clients and future ones can see that we can deliver the same quality even remotely. That is a major selling point as it dramatically reduces costs,” concluded Roupinian.

Pic: Dirk Weiblen