All eyes are on the delegates and candidates as they take the stage at the Republican National Conventtion in Tampa Bay this week, but the creative process behind the stage design began a year ago—long before the primaries had been decided.
“This is typical of how a political convention goes; when you start the design, you don’t know who the end client is. You know they’re Republicans, but there’s probably a big difference between what Newt Gingrich would have wanted than what Mitt Romney wants,” says Jim Fenhagen, Jack Morton’s lead designer for the project.
Fenhagen and the Jack Morton team started the design process last summer by travelling to Tampa, seeing the space first-hand and meeting with the RNC Committee to figure out the logistics of the project. The team knew that there would probably be many aesthetic changes to the stage design itself, but there were certain things they hoped to get in place that wouldn’t change.
“We created a floor plan that pretty much stayed in place, so lighting, sound and the structural engineers and riggers could begin to plot out what the weight loads were so they could get a head start,” Fenhagen says.
Jack Morton’s team knew where the stage in the Tampa Bay Times Forum Arena would be located, and things such as sightlines for the crowd were also taken into consideration in order to provide a design that would let as many people as possible see the speakers.
The look and feel of the on-stage environment evolved as Romney emerged as the likely nominee.
“After we sat down with Romney’s representatives, it became clear that they wanted something more approachable—a warmer feel. They specifically talked about how well he does in a small town meeting environment, so that informed scale. They also talked about how they wanted the stage to invoke the feeling of the audience being invited into the candidate’s living room,” Fenhagen says.
At the same time, the client wanted a vibrant, flexible environment that could communicate the message through media.
“Wood tones started to come into play pretty early on, because we wanted it to feel more warm and approachable,” Fenhagen says.
He took inspiration from the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, who is among the most well known American architects, and used that inspiration to inform the design. There are multiple wood tones in the set (cherry, walnut, mahogany), which helped achieve the warm and home-like look and feel the RNC was looking for.
The mosaic of LED screens that serve as the stage’s backdrop are the most striking feature of the set. But the inspiration behind the screens’ layout may not be so obvious.
“The root of the design of the screens really started with the American flag. It’s very subtle, but there is a horizontal main screen, and overlapping it is a smaller square screen—almost like the stars and the stripes. I started with that and built out from there. The screens are placed in front of each other and overlapping, and they go pretty far back. There’s a lot of depth between the screens, which allows for entrances. So it’s really an abstract American flag that has been exploded out into a mosaic of screens,” Fenhagen says.
The team created a series of vignettes in their initial sketches that showed how the screens could change seamlessly from an abstract American flag graphic, to roll call graphics, to different graphic backdrops, which sold the client on the design’s flexibility.
LED panels mounted above the stage pay homage to the “living room” feel by displaying skylight images of moving clouds and blue sky, and they can be used as traditional screens to create a more immersive look onstage.
The big challenge for Fenhagen was creating an environment that would be a work in process until the political races had settled.
“You need to start something before you know where it’s going to end up, so that’s unique. When the client wants you to be part of a team to get someone elected president of the United States, it raises the bar,” he says.
Fenhagen is a veteran of designing for conventions since the early 1990s, though he had been producing sets for television networks covering the event—a much different experience.
“This is my first time on the other side, and it’s been a great experience for me to finally be on the other side, creating what all the networks and the nation will see,” Fenhagen says.