Full of wonder: LucienneRoberts+ and Universal Design Studio bring graphene to life

Full of wonder: LucienneRoberts+ and Universal Design Studio bring graphene to life

What is stronger than steel but thinner than a single strand of human hair? More conductive than copper, but more pliable than rubber? It almost sounds like a riddle, but the answer is more technical: graphene.

The Nobel Prize-winning discovery of Russian-born scientists Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov is the focus of a new exhibition at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry, ’Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond’. Tasked with the design of the exhibition were LucienneRoberts+ and Universal Design Studio, who together with lighting studio DHA set about making the invisible visible, and the scientific relatable.

’What caught our imagination was the notion of peeling back to reveal a "wonderful" new world,’ explains Roberts as she retells the tale of Geim and Novoselov’s discovery. It was a Friday night experiment using sticky tape which led to the separating of the substrate down to just one atom thick. ’This became a theme that informed the graphics. We were also very taken with ideas of scale,’ says Roberts.

Scale as a device is used repeatedly throughout, most notably in the glittering supergraphic of the word ‘graphene’ which greets visitors as they arrive and separates the past and present sections of the exhibit. ’The letters are grey but shimmer gently – referencing graphite. Each letter peels back at the top, unveiling the underside in startling and vivid colours; fluorescent greens, oranges and pinks, alongside sparkling and holographic colours that flicker in the light.’ Life size images of the clean rooms at the National Graphene Institute and the 12m-long video installation by Random International, Everything and Nothing (the collective’s first pure video project and first public UK commission since their internationally acclaimed Rain Room) further play with the concept of the macro and the micro (or nano, if you want to be technical) to dramatic effect.

The past section of the exhibition, denoted by the pale green Perspex labels, a smudged grey colour scheme and low lighting, recounts the history of the substrate through models and static prints. In the present section, David Shaw’s clean room shots and backlit photo essays commissioned by Panos Pictures recreate the potentially life-altering research taking place. Like the labs that inspired it, the colour scheme turns super white, super bright and super clean, and labels take their cue from the yellow-tinted protective film that covers windows and glass doors. Looking to the future, illustrator Russell Bell and Hirsch & Mann were charged with developing an interactive wall which lights up with touch, showcasing how this wonder dust can change everything, from communication to health, energy and travel. The dark lighting evokes a mysterious, magical air, and labels take on a fluorescent and multicoloured tint; bright like the future.

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