The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the largest art museums in the country, with more than 227,000 objects in its collection ranging from Han Dynasty Chinese stone rubbings to 16th-century European armor to the sculpture work of French designer Philippe Starck. In popular culture, the museum is probably better known for its exterior–the image of Sylvester Stalone running up its 72 stone steps in Rocky is a cinematic icon.
In designing a new brand identity for the museum to coincide with the start of a major architectural expansion plan, Pentagram’s Paula Scher wanted to ensure that the art was at the forefront. “If nothing else, we want people to know that the building is an art museum and it’s filled with fantastic art. That was the entire goal,” Scher tells Co.Design. Using an ever-expanding library of designs for the letter “A”–each inspired by art in the museum’s collection–the brand is dynamic, allowing the museum to embrace as many different identities as the collection has works of art.
“Locals call it ‘the’ art museum,” she says. “It is an Art Museum with a capital ‘A’–it’s got a great collection.” You wouldn’t necessarily know it by looking at the museum’s previous identity, which more prominently featured a griffin than its own name. “I would describe it as looking very institutional,” Scher says. At smaller sizes, you could see the griffin, but not necessarily read what museum it was. “You didn’t have a sense of it being a museum at all,” she says.
So Scher visually emphasized the word “art,” using a much bigger font to make sure that if you even so much as glance at the new logo, you’re sure to take away what the museum is all about.
On July 1, the museum unveiled the proposed design of its expansion, spearheaded by Frank Gehry. Scheduled to take place over more than a decade, the expansion would drill downward into the hillside to make room for underground galleries, and–controversially for those invested in recreating Rocky’s run–cut out a chunk of the famous museum steps (one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city) to make way for a ground-level entrance. The plan is all part of museum director Timothy Rub’s strategic goal of making the museum more open and approachable, increasing attendance. The same ethos pervades the new brand identity: It’s more modern, less stodgy, and designed to be a little fun.
It features a series of unique designs for the logo’s letter “A,” inspired by works in the museum collection, which will be used for special exhibitions, tickets, retail bags, and more. Each “A” represents a different style of period of art, with typographic takes on artists like Piet Mondrian and Alexander Calder. “The movable A’s are designed to bring play into it,” Scher says, as well as an “opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of the collection.” More than 200 of these customizable letters have already been designed by Scher and her team, but the idea is that eventually, other designers and artists can be brought in to create new A’s. Gehry designed four of the letters, drawn in his trademark scribble, to be used during the exhibition of his master plan for the museum’s expansion.
“It’s a demonstration of everything you can get in the museum,” Scher says. “It stretches through every decade.”
And for the record, she couldn’t care less about the fate of Rocky’s steps. “This is like, a spectacular art collection, and Rocky is a nice movie,” she says. “The actual treasure’s inside, and people should know that.”