Mauk Design

Trade shows may be ephemeral, however San Francisco designer Mitchell Mauk creates lasting impressions for his clients

As you enter the office of Mauk Design, you sense that you are in the workspace of no ordinary design firm. This is apparent—literally—from the moment you walk through the door: a massive, metal-clad firedoor that rolls effortlessly open on a pair of red skateboard wheels.

Now in its thirteenth year, this San Francisco, California-based firm has built a reputation through innovative exhibit design for technology-oriented companies such as Apple Computer, Intel and Sony Electronics. Mauk Design garners awards from the major exhibition, industrial and graphic design competitions like clockwork, and has attracted an increasingly diverse list of clients including Levi Strauss & Co. and Volkswagen of America. The key to this success, according to founder and principal Mitchell Mauk, is the ability to express a client’s identity in the three-dimensional realm, what Mauk refers to as “total brand integration.”

It is the balance between durability and mobility so cleverly expressed by the entrance to Mauk’s studio, that is the framework of his design specialty. “Even though a trade show exhibit is a temporary display, it has to look permanent—a fragile, temporary brand is not acceptable,” explains Mauk. His design team addresses a wide range of challenges, both creative and technical. Aside from space and budget constraints, they must consider fire and building codes, and coordinate with fabricators working throughout the country. “The whole thing has to break down, and be disassembled into boxes, and this may have to happen 30 times a year,” he says.

Trade show exhibits have come a long way since Foamcore® panels, hastily-printed banners and a few folding tables. They have evolved into elaborate productions of lighting, architecture and interior design—the venue in which to preview new products and services, and a place to gauge industry competition. “Because of this, shows are pure visual anarchy, says Mauk. “You are surrounded by all your competitors yelling. It s like watching 30 infomercials all at the same time. A major goal is to attract and focus attention, and Mauk Designs skillful combination of the practical and the playful is what makes their exhibits engaging.

One recent success is the exhibit that Mauk Design created for Volkswagen of America. The car manufacturer asked Mauk to combine European sophistication with an American sense of humor, and work with a budget that was a fraction of what the company allocated to its overseas displays. Mauk describes Volkswagen as “an extraordinarily enlightened client, and close communication with decision makers in the marketing department assured that the project moved forward smoothly from the start. Volkswagen even flew Mauk and his senior designers to Paris and Geneva to understand the European approach to exhibiting, and to see how cars were displayed.

The creative process began with traditional sketches and thumbnails, which were distributed through the office on a “Concept Delivery System”—another manifestation of Mauk’s inventiveness. This magnetic bulletin board travels on carbon fiber mountain bike wheels along an overhead series of steel rails. The contraption may appear somewhat humorous, but it is an effective way to shuttle ideas through the office, and for Mauk the initial concepts are precious cargo, the key to a successful exhibit. “I am the last generation to be schooled without computers,” explains Mauk. “I learned to put effort into thinking through my design because comping with markers was so much effort.”

After consultation with Volkswagen, he proceeded directly to large-scale models, a technique that Mauk favors because, unlike computer renderings, it allows for real-time changes to structure and space. “There is a tremendous advantage to three dimensional models—clients love to put their hands on it.” Once the floor plan of the exhibit was finalized Mauk used digital modeling to create more detailed views. Mauk’s working method is influenced by his pre-computer experience, however the studio remains at the cutting edge of technology— both the latest Silicon Graphics® workstations and a Macintosh® G4 hum quietly beneath the desk of each workstation.

Mauk’s final installation—a series of six modular exhibits that can be reconfigured to fit various spaces— are a tactile, interactive experience. A product playground” allows consumers to touch actual car parts such as a steering wheel, compare fabric and paint color options and play with a series of hidden “feel boxes” that provide an element of surprise. Despite the emphasis on fun, Mauk’s design subtly communicates the car maker’s concern for detail and safety. The exhibit has been extremely successful in expressing Volkswagen’s brand to a North American audience, and has been installed at over 100 trade shows in the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

Many of the studio’s projects are much more ephemeral, but equally ambitious, such as their exhibit for Sony Playstation, installed at the recent E3 video game convention. Encompassing nearly 50,000 square feet, the exhibit is arguably an exercise in urban planning. The comparison is even more fitting when Mauk begins describing the necessity of “traffic flow.” With almost 100,000 weekend visitors navigating through more than 200 video game kiosks, as well as a restaurant, theaters and an elevator, it was essential to keep attendees in motion. Mauk used lighting, sound and video screens to create a frenetic pace that kept visitors moving excitedly from one featured game area to the next.

Some of his designs are realized on a much smaller scale, however they can be equally effective. For aircraft maintenance company Duncan Aviation, Mauk created an intimate 20¢ ´ 30¢ booth that highlighted the company’s commitment to safety. “Across the aisle was Lear Jet, with four sleek, full-sized planes parked in their booth,” says Mauk. “The challenge was how do we get anyone to pay attention?”

Mauk’s solution was to emphasize the importance of the individual. “We realized that in their industry, the technology is similar to everyone else, but you want good people, conscientious focused employees, and that’s what they offer. He created an arced wall with framed black-and-white portraits of Duncan’s workforce of nearly 700 employees. The kiosk is elegant, but understated; it makes a huge impact in a limited amount of space.

Mauk, a fifth-generation Californian, traces his interest in design back to childhood. “I was the kid that paid attention in woodworking class and metal shop. I liked to build things, he recalls. When his family traveled to the 1970 World Fair in Osaka, Japan, “I was on fire. My mind was shorted out. As he walked among the exhibits, Mauk immediately knew what he wanted to do, even though at the time, he didn’t know that an exhibit designer could be a career option.

Pursuing his fascination with three- dimensional organization, Mauk later majored in graphics and packaging design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. After brief stints with Saul Bass and Designworks in L.A, he landed a job at Mark Anderson Design in Palo Alto. “At that time,” says Mauk, “almost every client wanted the same thing—a logo, business cards, packaging, and then a trade show booth. We were given opportunity to design it all, and this pushed us to do great work.” The experience was invaluable, and it trained Mauk to visualize a brand from initial sketches for a logo, to planning an entire three-dimensional space. In 1987, Mauk founded his own studio in San Francisco, and soon afterwards he was named Exhibit Designer of the Year by Exhibitor Magazine. This timing could not have been better, and the recognition helped propel his solo career forward.

Mauk will often go out of his way to find exactly the right material to construct an exhibit. His studio is scattered with samples of industrial flooring, textured metals. There is also the unexpected—a delicate, woven plastic filter material used in desalination plants, that he is considering for dividers in a booth. “We avoid trends in materials,” says Mauk. “As soon as I see a fad emerging, I come into the office and say ‘no more grinder-finished aluminum!’”

Despite the growth of e-commerce and virtual storefronts, Mauk is confident that trade shows will continue to play a key role in the expression of a brand. “An exhibit is like a user interface. You can touch it, you can feel it, and I think that retail is going to metamorphosize into what a trade show is now.” He points to a prototype of a small storefront that features the Volkswagen Beetle® A hybrid between retail store and temporary showcase, the cost to maintain this display for a year is about the same as a 30-second network commercial. “But it has far more depth and impact,” Mauk says excitedly. “You can go into the store, sit in the car, feel the upholstery, really experience the brand.”

This article was originally published in Communication Arts Magazine. © Philip Krayna.