A chat with Kevin Calabrese of Detroit-based exhibit design firm Czarnowski 

Exhibiting greatness

The North American International Auto Show sets up at Cobo Center every January, filling the spacious interior with concept cars and new vehicles from just about every brand in the world. Sure, the cars are the main attraction, but what about the backdrop? An entire sensory experience is molded to fit both the vehicle and the brand, and to draw consumers in. We talked to Kevin Calabrese design director at Czarnowski, a locally based exhibition design firm that handles General Motors' sets, about what goes into making you feel what you feel about cars.

Metro Times: How'd you first get into set and exhibition design? It seems like an industry not many people know about.

Kevin Calabrese: Exhibit design isn't very well known to design students as a career option, really. There are a lot of students going into shoes or fashion design but very few really know how great the exhibit industry really is. I was lucky enough to have a professor who took all of the students in his class and put them into a competition. I ended up winning the competition on a national level. Pretty quickly I was exposed to the exhibit industry, and I found I had a natural knack, a natural creative ability.

MT: What are some misconceptions people have about exhibition design?

Calabrese: If I'm getting my hair cut or I'm out somewhere and they ask me what I do, and I mention exhibits they sort of look at me funny, but if I say "I design auto shows," there is a little more of a reaction. Then of course people ask, "Do you design the cars?" and it's interesting because a lot of the designers in our industry started out wanting to be car designers and going into industrial design. For whatever reason they found a very natural ability in the design industry.

MT: Are there any similarities between designing cars and designing exhibits?

Calabrese: When you talk about designing a car, it's something you hold that has very specific design criteria for what that can be, but when you say, "We're going to design an environment, something that people are going to walk in and walk through and experience," there is a whole different set of challenges and a different mindset that you have to get yourself to understand. It borders a lot of other industries. It borders interior design, it borders architectural design, but it is a very unique niche design focus, the exhibit world. A lot of people don't know about it. A lot of people go to the auto show every year and they never really look too long at the exhibits. They're really focused on the vehicles and the car specialist and engagement and learning about the product, but what they don't realize is that the ability to actually learn and to successfully learn about product and experience the product is the exhibit designer's job.

MT: What are some challenges you face as an exhibit designer?

Calabrese: There are a lot of challenges to designing a space that communicates all of those stories to each consumer market. The Detroit show is also a big press show, so we have to make sure we're communicating all of our stories effectively to journalists that have traveled around the world to be here to really get the firsthand experience.

MT: Tell us about the sets you've designed for this year's auto show.

Calabrese: For Chevy it's an exciting multifaceted experience with amazing lights and things that move you emotionally. That's really different, we've really never done that for Chevrolet before. Even just the scale of the media, we have a very large LED screen. There is a central theater where consumers are going to be able to come and sit down and experience storytelling firsthand. These are very exciting interpretations of auto shows that really haven't been done like this before.

MT: What about some other GM brand sets you did this year?

Calabrese: The Buick space is very different. We wanted to communicate to customers a welcome sense, that people could step in, come as you are and feel the products up close and personal where you can really get to know Buick. And that's very different than the experience that you would feel in Chevy but still appropriate for the product and the brand direction.

MT: That's sort of vague — what can people expect to see?

Calabrese: Buick customers are going to see very expressive, sweeping architecture from the left side of the stage all the way to the right. It's a very complex architectural structure that's probably the most complex that we've ever built in history with complex forms. What they'll see is this very beautiful, peaceful, elegant yet welcoming space with the product nested within. There is an LED screen and it's a very large screen, it's designed to convey a very warm and welcome environment. With Buick it's all about the materials and about setting the vehicles. There will be very unique materials from wall coverings to custom flooring to leather flooring to unique light fixtures. We're articulating our vehicle actually on the architecture, it's mounted to the architecture up high, almost taking off so there is wonderful sense of motion and lighting communicates that motion as well.

MT: It seems like the exhibits are almost more important than the cars themselves.

Calabrese: I can't necessarily agree with that [laughs] but I think our job as exhibit designers and builders is to really make the product be the very best it can. There are levels too. When people come into Cobo Hall, they might not see the vehicles because of the scale and the hall itself, so our job is to really get people in the booth, to the actual vehicle. The better we can do that. I wouldn't say the exhibits are more beautiful, I think when the exhibits are beautiful the brand is better communicated as a whole because that's really what we're doing because we're nesting product with brand environment.

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