Distilling life’s complexities through set design with Liminal Spaces

Located in a wide and open street in Hobart, Tasmania, Liminal Studio is an interdisciplinary design house operating outside the traditional confines of architecture. Weaving together interior, furniture, object and production design with art curation and architecture, Liminal Studio is an ideas-focused practice aiming to push spatial relationships and to improve the environments we live and work in.

In anticipation of Dancenorth with Liminal’s Dust at the Alexander Theatre, Gabi Bergman spoke with the studio’s co-founding director Peta Heffernan about their approach to the performance’s set design.

MLIVE: Can you tell us about your history with architecture and the background of Liminal Spaces? What drew you to design work?
Peta Heffernan: For me personally, I was drawn to design and architecture as I believed the human-made environment we operate in – whether it be cities, our places of work and learning, places of refuge and the quality of the space we inhabit – affects our wellbeing, our connectiveness and can make a positive difference to our communities. Many of Liminal’s architectural projects touch people through culture, education, health, workplaces, housing and tourism, but we were also keen to operate outside the traditional realm of architecture as I had a performing arts background and Elvio, my fellow co-founding director, had a fine arts and industrial design background. While we both love being architects, we wanted to extend the realm we operated in. We found the interactions we had with choreographers, artistic directors, artists, event managers; industrial, graphic, furniture and jewellery designers; photographers, strategists, writers, and other creative thinkers started to underpin and inform the studio environment we wanted to create on a more permanent basis. We wanted to capture the epiphanies of the dinner party conversation, within the studio and through our collaborations, so we could extend the creative potential of our projects.

Liminal Studio is a creative design house that integrates design and architecture with the disciplines interior, furniture, object and production design as well as art curation and exhibitions. Our interdisciplinary approach is captured through the studio’s Architecture, Spaces and Objects identities. Liminal Spaces operates on the fringes of architecture through delivering design projects such as Dust.

Performance work is refreshing for us – it provides a counterbalance to permanence and the time it can take to realise architecture. These collaborations allow us to play in a creative realm that is more fluid than architecture and enables us to push spatial relationships that may also eventually inform our architecture.

MLIVE: Why did Dust interest you?
Peta Heffernan: Contemporary dance is a passion of ours – we can relate to the conceptual thinking and creative process where abstract ideas and observations inspire a creative outcome layered by meaning. Add to this the stimulating and immersive nature of theatre where choreography meets the fluidity and skill of the performers, meets drama-lighting, meets sound composition, and how all the parts come together to create a meaningful whole. The performances we enjoy the most are when the journey experienced is not only thought-provoking but inspires with awe.

‘Further to this, we’ve always been interested in the relationship between space and body – how one informs the other and the ephemerality of this interaction.’

While we are trained as architects and industrial designers, working in contemporary dance is particularly invigorating for us as it allows us to test ideas and conceptual thinking through an abstract expression and interpretation, which sharpens our creative agility. Our background is shaped by a finely tuned sensibility in the creation of space and the way people interact with it – exploring this with the incredible talent of Dancenorth has been such a pleasure.

MLIVE: What influenced the design for Dust? How did you develop the design concept?
Peta Heffernan: Liminal worked with the Dancenorth team through various workshops at the beginning of the project’s development; exploring themes already thought about by Dancenorth’s artistic directors, Kyle and Amber, responding to boundaries, relationships, inheritance and materiality. There was a wonderful cross-pollination of ideas with the artistic directors, dancers and lighting designer Niklas Pajanti.

It was through the first collaborative workshop that the main framework and themes were defined. This is where the concept of a barrier being represented by a multifaceted wall materialised. How this was expressed and constructed, and how the complexities of achieving a simple form that transitions into performing many other functions, were further investigated, developed, resolved and refined by Liminal.

Part of the creative process included Liminal preparing images and words that suggested a relationship to the themes that were then used as triggers for the dancers to interpret and respond to through movement. We also provided props and ‘obstacles’ and observed the way the dancers interacted and manipulated their spatial environment, but also how the objects informed the dancers’ movement. It was incredibly fulfilling to see how Kyle and Amber had integrated a selection of the sequences developed in response to the images and objects into the final choreography.

MLIVE: How did knowing the piece was a collaboration with Dancenorth affect your design? What modifications or alterations did you make to accommodate dancers?
Peta Heffernan: When we were in discussion with Kyle and Amber at the beginning, we knew we were speaking the same language around conceptual thinking that was governed by a minimalist approach to ‘storytelling’. Underpinning our work in performance is the aim of distilling meaning with the most minimal forms, while creating multilayered and manipulable design elements that can support and heighten the theatrical experience, encouraging creative interaction in the development of the work from both the artistic directors and the dancers. Our aim is to inspire creative possibilities rather than impose a directed response. Dust and the way Dancenorth have interpreted and made use of the transformative possibilities of the physical spatial device we provided, creating different worlds that respond to the themes explored, is a fantastic example of this.

Interview by Gabi Bergman.

Dancenorth with Liminal Spaces
Thursday 28 March 2019
Alexander Theatre