The signs spread across the floor of a high-end Chicago printer's office on this winter Friday afternoon probably should seem disjointed or abstract.
"< LEFT Worker Rigging a Steel Beam," says one. "V BELOW North Tower Foundation Slab." "World Trade Center as of Summer 2001."
But no. Even now, almost 13 years later, even here in a different city, even laid out like carpet samples on a horizontal plane of the room, these signs have the power to propel us back, to brush away a scab that hasn't healed and has barely thickened.
In the coming months, those headings and the information below them will be viewed in proper context: on the walls of the National September 11 Memorial Museum at ground zero in New York, finally set to open after much public hand-wringing about how to memorialize a contemporary national tragedy.
Known as "focus panels" in the museum trade, the signs were in Chicago — for printing and for a sort of deluxe proofreading session — because a good portion of the difficult decisions about the memorial have been entrusted to David Layman.
Based in Skokie, the museum exhibit designer has helped showcase another kind of terror, at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, as well as Sue the T. rex and dozens of other museum pieces in Chicago and nationwide.
Layman Design is now preparing to unveil its work crafting the 25,000-square-foot Permanent Historical Exhibition at the 9/11 museum, expected to open in May. The 9/11 project is the highest-profile commission yet for a man who has come to specialize in telling our most harrowing stories in halls typically thought of as tourist stopovers.
"It's a huge honor just to be able to do this," Layman, 58, said. "It's an important exhibit to be able to work on, one of the most important probably of the past 20 years. It means a lot to the psyche of America to be able to deal with this."
Layman Design came into the museum's planning late in the process, in 2010, after another design firm's plan, beautiful but formal, "was creating distance rather than pulling you into the story," said Alice Greenwald, director of the museum. "We weren't feeling what we were hoping we would feel.
"That was the point at which I said, 'You know, I've worked with Dave Layman. Why don't we bring him in and just talk with him?,'" Greenwald recalled. "Dave gave such a robust and thoughtful and sensitive response, we all thought, 'Wow, he's on our wavelength.'"
Said Michael Berenbaum, a museum designer and Jewish historian who has worked with Layman at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: "I think Dave will get the opportunity with this to be spiraled into a different level of being perceived. He does not do merely what's required by the client. He does what's required both for excellence and for the subject matter. In that sense, sometimes you answer to a higher authority."
At the 9/11 and the Illinois Holocaust Museums, Berenbaum noted, "he came in as sort of a mechanic to fix the problem. In both cases, he ended up reconfiguring the whole without making new enemies. If I knew how to do that in life, I'd be very pleased."
Layman emphasized that museum work is intensely collaborative, beginning with collaboration within his eight-person firm, and said the New York museum has been especially so. But it's clear he feels good about what his firm has accomplished there.
"We went from zero to 100 miles an hour immediately," Layman said, "and it has been at that level for three years now. So to be able to go in and to see that space working on all kinds of levels that the visitor will never understand consciously but will be able to feel at some level, to see it come together like that is very exciting."
Working to affect the museumgoer's subconscious is how Layman talks about exhibition design. First, he strives to understand — reading, consulting with historians, trying to learn the material as well as the curators do in order to find what resonates, what surprises. When it comes to putting materials in galleries, yes, he wants to manipulate you, but for the purposes of telling the story.
"We do a technique called 'swing focus' as the visitors go through," Layman said. "Their eye catches one thing after the next, and it works all the way through, and the story, then, it just unfolds almost intuitively. It comes off the walls, and the people get lost in this story, and it becomes a very moving experience."
Earlier this winter, Layman was in the opening galleries at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, the ones that, in parallel, establish what Jewish life was like in Europe before World War II and how the Nazis rose to power in Germany.
The two hours Layman took to explain what his firm did in Skokie, a sort of ultimate guided tour, were absolutely fascinating. The museum deftly takes viewers into some of humanity's least human moments and then escorts them back out. It works so well, in part, because every inch of the design is pored over. "We pay attention to excruciating detail on absolutely everything," he said.
The materials degrade as the situation in Europe deteriorates. The colors and lighting work in harmony so as not to overwhelm you. Sharp turns in the gallery path coincide with sharp turns in the narrative: from persecution in Germany, for example, to European war. A small window purposefully left in a giant photograph of a Polish ghetto printed on glass lets especially observant visitors see through to what's coming next, a rail car like the ones the Nazis used to transport Jews. Round another bend and you can walk into that car. Even the space around the visitor constricts as the exhibit moves toward the Nazi death camps.
Berenbaum was one of the conceptual developers for the Skokie project and brought Layman in when another designer "wasn't going to be adequate to our needs," Berenbaum said. "Dave used his early work in scenic design to create what I would call an atmosphere. … You walk into the Kristallnacht room, you have all of the synagogues of Germany set aflame, projected on the wall. The floor is made of broken glass."
Working with Layman, though, is not so jarring, Berenbaum added: "Part of his real charm is that you don't have to deal with the artiste. It's a pragmatic temperament. He doesn't have to settle scores. What can I say? He's got his soul in order."
Layman lives in Glenview with his partner of 20 years, a former kindergarten teacher. His children are grown. He described a peripatetic life that has somehow seen him settled in the Chicago area since the early 1990s.
He grew up in Colorado, Turkey and Germany, the son of a stay-at-home mother and a father who worked for NATO. As a side interest, his father pursued advanced degrees in the humanities, Layman said, and would take the family to archaeological digs in the ancient world.
Returning to the U.S. for college, Layman first attended a bible college, "trying to deal with the big, deep questions of life," he said. He transferred to the University of Colorado, "went into theater and so discovered design, which sort of brought all my interests together." He finished his degree at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas, because of the strength of its theater program.
After earning a graduate degree in design at the Yale School of Drama, he returned to Texas, working for busy theater companies. The first museum project he did was on the side, designing a petroleum museum in Midland, Texas.
He was starting to pick up freelance theater work on both coasts, he said, and reasoned that living in Chicago would make getting to such jobs much easier. But before he could get started in Chicago theater, he visited the Field Museum "as a tourist," he said, and rekindled a fascination with museums.
The charms included the relative permanence of the work. "In the theater you pour in so much time and creative energy, and it runs for a year and then all ends up on strike night in the dumpster, right? So all that effort, just gone. That part of your life. And this stuff stays up for 20 years, if not longer.
"It's a different set of issues (in a museum) that allows you to be both designer and director at the same time — and in a way, also playwright."
Layman joined the Field staff during a period of intense reworking of the museum, "a hugely ambitious nine years," he said, beginning in 1993.
"He was very talented and very driven," recalled Jean Cattell, the Field's graphic design director. "He did that wonderful design underneath Sue, the sort of cracked granite, which was a cool move" for the specimen's platform, as opposed to a "sort of hokey" land form, she said.
And then, in an irony Layman is keenly aware of, the Sept. 11 attacks happened (during an overall economic downturn) "and all of our funding just dried up. All of those projects shut down," he said.
Layman, by then senior exhibition designer, was among those let go in a big wave of museum layoffs, he said. It was daunting because he had kids in high school, but he described it as a disguised blessing: "I'd been wanting to get on my own for a while. … And work came in immediately. I don't know that I had a weekend to relax and put my feet up."
His first client was the United States Holocaust Museum, for which he had redesigned an exhibit (while working at the Field) on journalist Varian Fry, who helped rescue European artists and others during World War II.
"Dave, as is his habit, just dove in," said Stephen Goodell, former director of exhibitions at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "A lot of designers will design without really knowing what the story is. Dave is just the opposite. He has to know the story."
Goodell's museum commissioned Layman numerous times, he said, including for shows on Nazi medicine and Nazi propaganda (which, in truncated form, was at the Field from November to early February).
"Dave is more than a designer. He's a very, very good production man," Goodell said. "He would create theatrical backdrops. You were going through something that was kind of horrific. It sounds like a contradiction, but you see it, you go, 'Gosh, it's really beautiful.'"
Not all of Layman's work has been about death and destruction, to be sure. In the Chicago area, Layman Design has done the Kohl Children's Museum in Glenview, a nature center in Highland Park and concept design work for the Museum of Science and Industry's aviation gallery, Lincoln Park Zoo's North Pond and several special exhibitions for the Chicago History Museum.
"You have to do some of those," Layman said, "because some of the other stuff is very weighty and, in a way, emotionally exhausting. No matter how many years you deal with the content and with the scholars and the historians, you still wake up in the middle of the night with bad dreams. It's hard stuff."
He was so busy when the 9/11 museum first came up that he couldn't get involved in the process, "much to my chagrin," he said. "I did say, 'Please give me a call later,' and they gave me a call later."
Greenwald said the 9/11 museum kept the "foundational work" and sequencing done for the historical exhibition by its original design firm, but Layman brought in "little modulations that changed the way we all felt in the space: lighting, color, layering of information. It became less like a formal gallery experience, less like photographs as works of art, but more like photographs as documentation."
She credited Layman with solving the museum's hardest design challenge: "How to present what we call the choices story — or the non-choices story. The people who either fell or jumped to death" from the upper floors of the World Trade Center towers, she said. "It was a horrific moment of a choiceless choice for these people.
"We went through several design studies. Nothing was right. We'd try these with great faith and sincerity."
Photographs, framed and unframed, seemed to "aestheticize" the moment, she said. Video "felt totally disrespectful and inappropriate."
Layman proposed a barrier "so that the public doesn't see it unless they choose to see it," as well as documentary information about the people at the top of the towers and a short series of projected images, higher than eye level, appearing on a screen briefly, then fading out.
"Dave's full understanding of the challenge of doing this, and the need for dignity and sensitivity and consideration of the visitor, was very much a part of his design," Greenwald said. "It was probably one of the hardest things we had to do, but he reached the resolution."
Layman is eager, he said, to see such design decisions reach their intended audience. Sometimes he goes back to an exhibit he designed to watch people react.
"It's best to come in anonymously, and it's very rewarding," he said. "You come around a corner, and there'll be someone sitting on a bench, weeping, just weeping uncontrollably. And you know that something in the truth of that story touched and connected with that person in a way that is meaningful.
"You also know the thing that people just walked right on by. 'Whoops. We missed that one. How do we do that next time?'
"Or you'll be standing by the exit of the exhibit, and quite often people will come out and they'll just stop there and say, 'Wow.' And they will just turn around and go back into the front door again."