Just three weeks after Studio Matthews moved into bigger, brighter offices in the spring of 2020, Seattle was shut down by COVID-19, and the team went home to their cramped kitchen tables. By June, their building was barricaded and on the evening news. Next door, the Seattle Police Department East Precinct was ground zero for protesters and activists, who joined Black Lives Matter and occupied several blocks around the station in Capitol Hill. Principal Kristine Matthews remembers the community’s mix of fear and compassion as they watched the events unfold.
Nearly a year later, some barricades remain, and Seattle is reopening at partial capacity with health and safety guidelines. Studio Matthews continues to work remotely, designing 2-D and 3-D identity, installations, exhibitions, and the accompanying signage and wayfinding. “Graphic designer feels like a really old term now,” says Matthews, who prefers visual communicator for her work on the variety of messages and environments they’ve created. Their clients include the Louisiana Children’s Museum, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the University of Washington and the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. “We’re telling a story in a space in different ways and in different forms.”
Matthews realized she was drawn to typography as a teenager and studied graphic design at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. For her postgraduate work, she moved to London, United Kingdom, to pursue a long-held interest of living in another country, and earned a master’s degree at the Royal College of Art. “The international mix was fantastic,” she says of the experience. “I think in my group of 25 graphic design students, there were 18 different nationalities.”
The university awarded a prize for the best collaboration between a design and an illustration student. Matthews and British student Sophie Thomas won with What Comes Around Goes Around, an exhibit that convinced the university it could save money by recycling. Thomas and Matthews researched the number of polystyrene cups and aluminum cans the university threw away in one week, then suspended this collection of 7,070 items in a gallery and sold reusable coffee cups to help fund recycling at the university. Their research and presentation led to sustainable practices as a design principle for their subsequent projects, and for Studio Matthews’s work today.
After graduation in 1997, the two women started thomas. matthews in London, and their experimental installations and designs for spaces attracted positive press. “We just sort of jumped in at large scale,” says Matthews, “and were working with high-profile organizations from the get-go.” They ran the business for ten years until Matthews, who was pregnant and wanted to live closer to her family, returned to the United States. She accepted a faculty position in UW’s Visual Communication Design program, and set up her company in 2008. Matthews has found a successful collaboration between her studio practice and her students by engaging them in real projects, such as the exhibit to honor the 50th anniversary of UW’s Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity (OMA&D) in 2018. This office was a direct result of protests led by the UW’s Black Student Union in the 1960s that demanded equity for minority students and faculty.
Activist and historian Emile Pitre inspired the class with his firsthand account of the nonviolent actions, culminating in the occupation of administrative offices and university president Charles Odegaard’s office, which convinced him that the time for change was now. Matthews noticed the effect on the current students, saying, “You could just see them studying the 1968 photos of UW students literally climbing the walls of the administration building in protest, and thinking, ‘Would I be willing to do that?’”
The anniversary exhibit came with many challenges, from concise storytelling to constructing an installation that was prohibited from having any attachments to the walls, floor or ceiling. Beginning with a collection of photos and a timeline, the design became a series of five freestanding structures that represented the Black Student Union’s protest of five barriers to education for minority students. Studio Matthews’s graphic treatment of the photos and text brought OMA&D’s rich and complex history to life.
“The students I’m teaching now are extremely proactive,” says Matthews. “I have to stay on my toes. They want to know about sustainability. They want to talk about equity, social justice, ethics in design and how, as designers, they can make a positive impact with what they’re doing. They want answers.”
Charlotte Beall, deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center, has often worked with Matthews on exhibitions and says, “One of the most wonderful things about working with Kristine is you don’t have to explain a lot to her. She does her own research and understands your style and what your brand is. She really gets it quickly.” The Discovery Center exhibited Design with the 90% in 2018 to highlight low-cost projects addressing global problems in the poorest communities. Studio Matthews showcased the inventive solutions using sustainable, recyclable materials, such as cardboard Sonotubes and printed kraft panels instead of plastics. The exhibit’s banners were also reused, made into black-and-white, graphic-patterned carrier bags and donated to the Discovery Center to raise money for local causes.
When the Louisiana Children’s Museum (LCM) in New Orleans relocated to a new park-based site in 2019, it was the perfect opportunity to update its brand. Its approach to creativity, based on the Reggio Emilia teaching philosophy, encourages children to make art, display it and elevate their work. Studio Matthews used children’s drawings throughout the space, with proper credit given to the young artists. “It was a really important goal to highlight the capacity of young children and make their thinking visible,” says Julia Bland, chief executive officer at LCM.
Both flexibility and permanence are included in the LCM design. For example, the museum’s initials are stacked to provide a frame for changing out the child’s drawing featured within. But not the much-loved crab-like logo, which elicits a different interpretation from each viewer. “I think a six-year-old [drew] that,” says Bland, who was impressed with the way Studio Matthews extended the children’s art theme to wayfinding, graphics in the garden and directional signage.
They also created a full wall of blocks engraved with quotes to the children of New Orleans from grandparents who often accompany their grandchildren to the museum. “We were looking for a unique way to make it feel really permanent and special,” says Matthews, “like etching in the content, but doing it in a contemporary way.” It’s a moment to honor the grandparents and has become a photo opportunity for children who enjoy standing in front of these encouraging words of wisdom.
Graham Baba Architects in Seattle has been a frequent collaborator that has brought Studio Matthews in on projects both large and small. Founding partner Jim Graham appreciates how Matthews spots the embedded stories in projects that his firm always looks for and finds inspiring. “There’s a fresh creativity and an approach that she pulls from the project and layers in effortlessly,” he says. “There’s also humility in the work and a confident restraint that almost reads stronger than something that would compete with the final signage, branding or wayfinding. That restraint creates an elegance, and it also becomes timeless in that manner.”
Studio Matthews is currently part of a transformative project that Seattle has eagerly anticipated. The city’s Waterfront Park renovation was made possible when the former 1950s viaduct on the site was demolished and replaced with a tunnel built to route traffic underground. The renovation includes Overlook Walk, connecting the waterfront to Pike Place Market. Designed by James Corner Field Operations, which also designed the High Line in New York City, the project is expected to be completed in 2024 and become a huge tourist destination.
The welcoming signage, four-foot-high pier numbers and interpretation railing panels designed by Studio Matthews will tell stories all along the waterfront. They’re also developing designs to delineate and interpret Seattle’s original shoreline, which sits some blocks inland from the current waterfront edge. “You don’t really get a sense of the city in Seattle unless you’re down by the water,” says Matthews. “It’s really great content. You take a dive into the story of the waterfront and it’s like swimming around in encyclopedias of information about the history of this whole region.”
Matthews once invited the Seattle Art Museum’s former deputy director for education and public programs to one of her design classes. Sandra Jackson-Dumont spoke about the effect of experiencing art in person. The idea inspired Matthews in her own work, and she often begins her Exhibition Design class by asking students, “What was a recent moment that you couldn’t experience on your phone, computer, TV or Instagram, but it was something really memorable that you wanted to tell other people about?”
That’s the kind of experience she wants to create for viewers: visceral and more powerful than a photograph, inspiring them to think about the work—and remember its impact on them. “I think that’s the challenge in this field,” says Matthews, recalling Jackson-Dumont’s words. “We need to create you had to be there moments.” ca