On my way to work this morning, I noticed the headline in Boston’s Metro as I glanced over a commuter’s shoulder: “Ann Romney takes Stage to Humanize her Husband.” This compelled me to watch her speech.
While most of the close-ups showed the candidate’s wife surrounded by the hypnotic play of her bright red dress against the equally bright blue background, her underlying messages of love, empathy, and commitment were most strongly emphasized by the background displaying visual stills of black and white, and sepia toned family photographs. As the camera zoomed out, these images looked like a photo-album on a mahogany coffee table.
While there is rarely a direct relationship between the form of a structure and the meaning that structure has for a particular audience, there are certain historical motifs that have become recognizable symbols over time, and easily communicate a particular message. One of the most iconic and widely used is the Greek temple façade — extrapolated for the general theme of Washington D.C., for instance — to convey permanence, formality, and leadership.
After watching Ann Romney’s speech, and being genuinely impressed with how effectively the stage set complemented the purpose of it, I was interested to learn the intentions of the production designers, Jim Fenhagen and Eddie Knasiak. The designers intended the stage to appear “intimate… domestic… with skylights reminiscent of a living room.”
In his LA Times article, Christopher Hawthorne rightly criticizes the design for its superficial invocation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, but that is hardly the point. Certainly, there are many unsettling moments, like the faux-skylights showing cumulus clouds against a clear sky, while the actual southern sky was grey and tumultuous -waiting for Hurricane Isaac. Between the traditional “mahogany” wainscoting of the center stage, the “Colonial Style” skylights, and the embrace of traditional and contemporary symbols, the stage’s connection to any particular person or style is thin.
The stage speaks to a general audience that needs to know nothing more of Wright than that he was one of the most successful American architects. Most striking is not the design, but who the design is intended for – the audience in front of a small screen at home. Watching the screen, a viewer finds that the scale of the still images on the wood stage subdues the hustle and bustle of the surrounding conventioneers to create an intimate picture of someone nostalgically showing you her old travel photos.
As Hawthorne notes, the apparent wood stage is in fact “made of vinyl and various laminates, but it’ll read on television as cherry, mahogany and walnut.” And ultimately, that is what matters: not the accuracy of formal representation, but the subtle symbolic meaning – the image-byte that is wholesome, intimate, “humanizing” — and can best set off a sound-byte.
Post by Claudia Paraschiv. CoLab Radio is covering the RNC in Tampa and the DNC in Charlotte.