Children's Museum of Cleveland
Imagine unleashing your wildest imagination and climbing a treehouse in Adventure City as a young, urban explorer before whisking off to Wonder Lab with whimsical water play and exploring dollhouses as if you are the miniature inside.
Is it make-believe? No, this is the Children’s Museum of Cleveland (CMC) and its new home at the restored Stager-Beckwith mansion, a four-story historic site in the heart of Cleveland, one of the last standing mansions on Millionaire’s Row. At 40,000 square feet, CMC quadrupled the size of its former exhibit space in University Circle and created a fresh, engaging brand in a venue that’s designed for roaming imaginations and fearless curiosity.
To reinvent its brand and transform the mansion into a hands-on, play-and-learn environment, CMC engaged a team of architects and designers, including Richardson Design. Our charge: To create a fresh, engaging brand for CMC and a visual identity system to capture the excitement and ingenuity of the institution while positioning it for future growth. Richardson Design provided interior design services as well as graphic design and branding for CMC. To transform the 1866 French Second Empire-style building into a museum of interactive exhibits, Richardson collaborated with CMC Director of Exhibits Karen Katz, architecture firm AoDK Inc., architect Sharon Sanders of SKS Designs, and design-build contractor The Krill Co., Inc.
Breathing New Life into a Cleveland Landmark
The CMC project was more than branding a space—it involved branding an organization and destination for people in the community and visitors. Richardson provided initial design concepts that were founded in the idea of children as urban explorers, investigating and experimenting in a range of hands-on exhibits. Various discovery zones within the museum and materials used throughout the design reflect an industrial, maker appeal and capture the essence of Cleveland as a raw, edgy urban center of builders, creators and innovators. In many ways, CMC’s rebranding and adaptive reuse of the Stager-Beckwith mansion parallels Cleveland’s own modern renaissance.
But before any “new” could be added to the spaces within the historic structure, the Richardson team had to address the existing state of the building: water damage, peeling paint and neglect after being empty for years. The structure required infrastructural repairs, and there were budget limitations for interior design given the fundraising required for the $10.3 million goal for the capital project. One way of accomplishing these goals was with color. Richardson challenged the conventional colors for children’s spaces (primary colors and rainbow colors) and used color to illuminate the historical architecture, maintain financial boundaries and visually brand CMC’s exhibits. Color not only serves as a wayfinding tool to update and energize the space on a limited budget, it’s also a fun way to activate displays and make a visual impact. Also, the color system identifies exhibits. For instance, color-block treatment at portals of the museum communicate where guests are in terms of displays and functional spaces (ticketing, café, restrooms).
Creating Engaging Envelopes for Interactive Exhibits
Consistent use of building and construction materials including plywood and metals are used throughout the building for a fluid experience as guests navigate the range of hand-on exhibits that entice visitors to touch, make and do.
Adventure City is the heart of the museum and the result of a huge collaboration between the CMC team, the architects, and designers to dream up, design and create this space. This exhibit creates a magical moment for visitors as they descend the central staircase and enter the former ballroom of the Stager-Beckwith mansion. Richardson Design used various flooring materials and patterns to designate the different zones of Adventure City, activating every corner. The exhibit includes a multi-level treehouse and rooftop garden, a climber, market and construction site, doctor’s office and a garage.
Wonder Lab is a world of water and air, an industrial science space equipped with a range of water-play activities and the innovative scarf shooter. Children are the scientists in this lab, with interior design elements setting the tone for discovery. Ceilings are a tranquil, rich cream color juxtaposed against dark walls and floors that have a techy feel. Playing with scale, oversized subway tiles make every guest feel like a child in the room, a sort of Alice in Wonderland effect.
Arts & Parts art studio feels like a Tudor castle and retains the mansion’s historic flavor, while adding whimsy and playfulness with color and materials like a color-block patterned floor and graphic wall tiles. This space gives flexibility for the CMC team to develop and run arts and crafts programs for visitors.
Making Miniatures is a series of rooms finished in a painterly fashion that are stages for a fascinating collection of handmade dollhouses gifted to the museum by Cathy Lincoln. (The central dollhouse is a replica of the Stager-Beckwith mansion.) Richardson Design enlisted color to energize this space, layering a series of colors drawing you through the exhibit. A sunny salmon color leads to a bright, rich purple. Across the hall, you’ll see a burgundy space with a light mint green in the distance. The exhibit is designed to make you feel as if you are moving through an actual dollhouse, and includes some interactive exhibits where children can learn how miniatures are made or create their own mini world.
Meadow caters to some of the museum’s youngest explorers: infants, crawlers, and toddlers. This room focuses on texture, giving visitors a way to explore with things they can touch, various colors, and playing on the scale of items (to give you the feeling you are in a meadow). The ceiling is painted a light lavender color so children lying on their backs experience a beautiful, calming color. The portal leading through this area is green and has whimsical blades of grass. Meadow also has an area for parents and caregivers to park strollers and a mother’s room.
Playlist celebrates music through shadow play. Children are encouraged to interact through shadows exploring different genres and different instruments. Rotating animation created by local artists projects onto the center glass structure. The room also draws inspiration from such great music venues as Severance Hall and The Music Settlement in Cleveland. Oversized French Louis style armchairs add whimsy through color and size (and provide a great Instagram moment for all).
Theater says “all the world’s a stage” and lets children create everything from costumes to lighting. As you move from Playlist into Theater, you pass through a red portal representative of traditional red stage curtains. Richardson Design drew inspiration from black box theater concepts and added playful elements, such as the bright blue ceiling and wall sconces to contribute to the ambience. There are three different backdrops for the stage that were painted by a local Cleveland artist that periodically change. Children can sit at the dressing tables and create their costumes. With objects that are scaled to their size, kids can also play with a sound effects and discover a multitude of noises and sounds. They can also move two of the spotlights for the stage.
Building the New CMC Brand
Richardson’s task for graphics was to create an unmistakable brand mark and visual identity system for CMC that captures excitement, intrigue and curiosity while positioning the museum for growth. That meant building a complete brand system, a fluid, graphic visual expression of CMC, including a logo, color palette, typography palette, photography direction and wayfinding system. The graphics team built an icon system for exhibits, and the museum in general. The brand system gives CMC a visual foundation upon which it can grow and expand as the museum evolves. The team settled on a more sophisticated and clean interpretation that uses vibrant colors and a range of materials in signage and within exhibits to engage and set the tone for learning through play. They wanted to carry the spirit of giving children a really cool, exciting place to play but also had to consider the museum building itself.
Rather than attempting to replicate Stager-Beckwith’s ornate architectural features, the updated brand juxtaposes the old and new with a fresh color palette and modern, crisp graphic treatments on signage and the logo, an approachable smile. This was the logo that ‘stuck’ and what the team gravitated back to because it captures the spirit of the museum and a place that’s fun for kids. Sending a great message to families, the simple, scalable logo is versatile and not specific to the building, so it can be used in a variety of applications and grow and evolve with the museum.
A color system identifies exhibits and acts as a wayfinding system to communicate to guests where they are in the museum. An icon system was developed to provide the youngest guests (who might not read) with visual cues so they, too, can identify exhibits. The colors, typography, logo, icons and overall visual treatment of the brand coordinate into a fluid, organized system. This brand system gives CMC a visual foundation upon which it can grow and expand as the museum evolves.
The outcome of this collaborative adaptive reuse project is a special place that brings joy to thousands of visitors each year. The Richardson team is proud to be a part of giving the museum back to Cleveland, and the overwhelmingly positive outcome is due to a collection of dedicated professionals that worked together toward the same goal.
Richardson Design, LLC
Photography: Mark Steele Photography