Bringing TEFAF to Life in 72 Hours

Entrance to TEFAF Maastricht 2016. Photograph by Mark Niedermann, courtesy of Tom Postma Design.

He’s a man of many visions.

Ringing across the world’s greatest art fairs is the name Tom Postma. Once a sculptor who exhibited at fairs himself, Postma first dipped into art fair design 20 years ago. Since then, he’s become known as a global leader in art fair, high-end gallery, and exhibition design and architecture. Today, he creates head-turning designs for clients like The European Fine Art Fair, or TEFAF, Art Basel Miami Beach, Art Brussels, The Rijksmuseum, and more – all with the underlying belief that the art, in the end, always trumps architecture.

“I work with the understanding that architecture should never compete with the art; rather, it should complement it. To achieve this, there is much to be considered when designing an art fair – good lighting in gallery booths and the surrounding corridors, appropriate color schemes surrounding the galleries, and much more.”

In just over a week, Postma’s design of TEFAF New York Fall, TEFAF’s debut fair in the United States, will be revealed to the public. Starting October 22nd at the historic Park Avenue Armory in New York City, Postma’s design will be elegant, yet inviting – and set up in a way to best highlight the booths of all 94 participating dealers who are traveling to exhibit from across the world, each with their own displays of fine art, furniture, design, and jewelry from antiquity through 1920. And his extraordinary walls, floors, seating, flower arrangements, lighting systems, and more will spring up, almost magically, in just three days.

To show us how this amazing feat is achieved, from an original design concept to final project execution, Postma took us along on his journey to TEFAF.

Let’s start by talking a little about your role as an art fair designer. You are responsible for designing a number of the world’s best art fairs. What led you to where you are today?

Tom Postma: I started out as an artist. I then transitioned into more monumental design work for buildings and architectural structures, while still holding gallery shows on the side. At a certain moment, I had to make a decision. I followed my passion and decided to become an architect and designer, and began in a world which I already knew – the world of art fairs. I was asked to design for TEFAF Maastricht. From there, my career took off. I started designing high-end shops, galleries, museum exhibitions, and art fairs around the world, including Art Basel in Miami Beach and Art Basel in Hong Kong and TEFAF New York.

Collectors Lounge, Art Basel in Miami Beach, 2015. Photograph by Mark Niedermann,
courtesy of Tom Postma Design.

TEFAF New York Fall, launching next week, is one of the world-renowned art fairs you’re working on this year. How early do you have to start planning the design for a fair like this?

TP: I started planning TEFAF New York over a year ago. Planning the design for a fair like TEFAF is really a constant process. The first thing that needs to be taken into consideration, and always an underestimated element of a successful art fair, is the floor plan. You have to understand how people walk through the exhibits and what they see at eye level, how the light is in the corridors of the venue, how wide the corridors are, how the light shines on paintings and other works of art. It’s a lot of work – much more than people would expect.

We start with a concept. For TEFAF Maastricht, which is held in your typical convention center, the space we have to work with is not very exciting. We hide as much of the building as possible. On the contrary, with TEFAF New York, we are working with a historic, important building – the Park Avenue Armory. There, the challenge becomes how we go about bringing a modern art fair in terms of design into a classical, 19th-century, rather dark (yet beautiful) building. We were asked to create something for the front section of the Armory as well, where restored period rooms exist and will be revealed to the public. We wanted to make something exciting for this area. Our mission was to make an art fair that people have never seen before in this space.

Describe the concept you chose to work with. What is the general feeling you want visitors to experience?

TP: We have the combination of a dark, classical building and a modern art fair to achieve. The moment people enter the building, they more or less expect a dark, grand entrance. But at TEFAF New York, it’s all about lighting. You may even see the light from within all the way from your car as you arrive for the event. The moment you step inside, you have to walk to the left, into an entire area covered with what I call a “second skin.” That is, an elegant light aluminum structure with transparent cloth walls to create a sense of openness and light – the system is designed with built-in lights that shine from within.

At the same time, while we bring in this “second skin” throughout the Armory, we also respect the building and the general atmosphere – you can even still see some of the generals on their horses from the decor that adorns the walls of the building. So, we’re giving off a modern as well as historical vibe – two stories are being told at once.

But in the end, it’s all about the art, not the architecture. People are coming to the fair to see the best art available at the moment. They need to feel like the art is welcoming them, and that there’s nothing blocking them from seeing and truly taking in the art. That’s my main goal. Everything surrounding the works is only helping that experience.

While you started planning this a year ago, TEFAF New York has to come to life in just 72 hours. How is this achieved?

TP: We have to practice extraordinary military discipline and precision. People often can’t even believe something like this could be built in 3 weeks, let alone 3 days. It’s difficult, but we have just added about 20 people to our team from an outside, experienced company that builds art fairs around the world. Then we have about 100 union workers that come in to help us build. Everything is structured, and we build up everything at the same time. The team works around the clock – it’s a very disciplined show that requires intense labor in such a small place. But we make it happen.

Exhibition design for Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden: Treasures of the Kremlin at the
Residenzschloss in Dresden, 2013. Photograph by Mark Niedermann, courtesy of Tom Postma Design.

How important is lighting in design planning and execution?

TP: Lighting is the most important element of an art fair. That’s something that TEFAF does well – they invest in that and understand that. First, as the designer, you have to create a light “story” in the areas where the public walks: the aisles, the corridors, and the squares where corridors meet. There, light should be soft and indirect. It should not create glares on the nearby walls where art is hanging in exhibitor booths.

At TEFAF New York, we wanted to create a lighting atmosphere that gives the visitor the feeling that they’re outside in the street, and the gallery booths are inside. Essentially, when you walk into a booth, it’s as if you’re “entering a store” from the street.

Of course, there are a lot of rules and regulations to keep the lighting atmosphere elegant. You also have to consider lighting of the actual artwork – works that are close to the corridor, for one, have to be lit very well. For works located further within the gallery booths, where you place it and how it is lit is extremely important. We also work with LED lights, which is the trend. Halogen lighting is gradually being replaced by LEDs across the art world, The developments are moving quickly and the size of LED lights offer new, fantastic opportunities. In terms of quality, LEDs are becoming quite as good as Halogen.

What is the biggest challenge you regularly face when you take on these extensive art fair design projects? What do you find to be most rewarding about your role?

TP: The biggest challenge for me is to help dealers understand that what the viewer sees at eye level, and at all of the other lines of vision, is very important. Every painting, every booth you place has to be positioned in the right way – you always have to consider what the visitor sees when they walk straight ahead.

The most rewarding aspect of my work is the fact that my team understands the completeness of a fair. We do everything from the floor plan, to carpets, to walls, to the skins of walls, to ceilings, to lighting, to seating and flower arrangements. We really understand how it all relates, the bigger picture. The fact that we can achieve this completeness and create a real, three-dimensional story is extremely rewarding.

After TEFAF New York, what’s next on your agenda?

TP: We’ve got a lot of things in the works. Currently, we’re working on Art Basel Miami & Hong Kong, and a big show for the Rijksmuseum, which is coming up very soon and is something we’re very excited about.

Tom Postma revealing his plans for TEFAF New York at the TEFAF Advisory Dinner
in September. Photo courtesy of TEFAF.

TEFAF New York Fall will be taking place at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City from October 22-26. Can’t make it? Get a look at Tom Postma’s fair design, along with highlights from the event, on Invaluable, and go behind the scenes with us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter with #InOnTheGo.