North Sea light – the illumination of art and place

Turner Contemporary is an art gallery take on old boat sheds. The building sits close enough to shore to need to be raised from high tide flooding and the glass cladding and windows are strong enough to withstand North Sea waves. This North Sea sky is the point of the gallery being here. 

JMW Turner visited and painted on exactly this spot staying in Mrs Booth’s long gone guest house because he said ‘…the skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe.’ On this spot the northern light is reflected from the sea creating perfect cool, steady artist’s light.

The vision for the gallery was ‘building space’ as architect David Chipperfield described it. ‘From the beginning we were interested in making very pure, simple spaces for art and trying to use the light and the orientation of the site – an orientation Turner himself enjoyed and the reason for him being here.’

Collaborating with John Morgan studio, we took our brief from the building’s atmosphere of scaled back simplicity.

Signage uses the mono-spaced Akkurat font. It’s a typewriter style font – punchy and with a utility feel. We heightened the mono-spaced effect through the fabrication of Traffolyte scrabble inspired tiles that slot into wall mounted runners for foyer information boards.  Unlike an art museum, Turner Contemporary gallery has no permanent collection. The adaptable foyer boards fit the idea of no permanent display very well.  They look ready for change.

We carried the mono-spacing through on signs applied directly to walls. Matt black graphics screen printed directly on top of a gloss lacquer rectangle that frames the typesetting. Signs that are subtle, beautiful and clear.

Our ambition was to do more engraving into the external concrete retaining wall running along the side of the main building. Engraving Turner Contemporary into the smooth concrete would reveal the stone and pebble aggregate that gives concrete its strength. Appropriate for the seaside spot. Sadly, we were thwarted by the manufacturing process of concrete which leaves regularly spaced draw hole indentations in precisely the wrong places. The most beautiful ideas sometimes come up against insurmountable barriers.