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.