December 8, 2019

Confusion or Fusion

When Aesthetics and Acoustics Collide in a Theater Design

Private theaters boasting stunning interiors and exceptional performance can be realized with planning, cooperation, and collaboration. Unfortunately this does not always come easily or naturally.

Often various members of a theater project may have different and opposing objectives. The theater designer may be focused on the acoustical environment, the integrator most concerned with the equipment, the interior designer has a style and finish palate in mind, and the clients may even have differing opinions. At some point these disparate objectives must become aligned.

Private theater projects come about in many ways and team members get involved at different stages. Many times a theater project is initiated by an interior design professional. This makes a lot of sense, because interior designers are involved in creating a living environment that enhances the client’s lifestyle.

Protecting the Interior Designer Relationship

Interior designers are an important ally to system integrators and can be a significant source of business. There are, however, some scenarios that can turn an ideal relationship contentious.  I recall a particular instance where an interior designer contacted us saying that she “finally had a project where our expertise was needed.” When we met at the site, we were surprised to find a finished room featuring a front wall with niches for speakers and screen (all in the wrong sizes and locations), a domed ceiling (acoustically undesirable if done incorrectly), and a concave rear wall (acoustically undesirable if done incorrectly).  Fortunately, the client and the designer permitted us to make the necessary modifications, and the project came out very well.

Unfortunately, many similar scenarios do not end well. Let’s examine a couple of such risky scenarios and how they were resolved.

Risky project scenario #1  The theater design is well underway and is heavily oriented to decor. This type of project embodies two likely points of contention. Either the interior designer has already performed a significant amount of work, or the design will need to be modified to deliver high performance audio and video.

If the interior designer has already developed the design that means their valuable time has been invested.  If the interior designer is billing hourly, which is typical for many professional design firms, the client will also have incurred some cost.  The interior designer may not have realized the impact of their design on the performance of the room.  Also, the interior designer will fear potentially negative impact to their creative work due to suggestions from other parties.  These reasons and others cause a natural tendency for the designer to be much less open to suggestions.

On a recent project the architectural firm’s in house designer had developed the theater design.  Seating positions, screen size, front wall detail, side wall details, millwork, lighting, everything short of the equipment list had been designed before we were hired to design the theater.  We were hired due to the project’s requirement for studio level acoustics and sound isolation.

We were instructed that the interior was designed to conform to the rest of the home and was not to be modified.  After completing acoustic and video modeling of the space, we learned the seats were improperly placed, the screen was an incorrect size and shape, the millwork details interfered with the placement of acoustical devices, the list went on.  We spoke with the designer confidentially, in a collaborative nature, describing the issues we had found.  We were very clear we had not raised these issues with others yet as we felt it best to work collaboratively on the project.  We then explained our confidence in being able to modify their concept in such a way to maintain the design integrity.  Furthermore, we assured the designer that we would present the modification for their review first.

This approach allowed the designer to work with us in a cooperative relationship.  Also, to their credit, they demonstrated good collaborative tendency.  The resulting theater performed on all levels, even winning an AIA award and the initial collaboration has resulted in an ongoing professional relationship.

Risky project scenario #2  The interior designer has created a theater concept featuring products that cannot allow for a high performance theater experience.  Additionally, the interior designer may have specified many products for the project, such as furnishings, fabrics, draperies, fixtures or art.  The designer has either sold or purchased the items and/or a significant portion of their revenue is based on the sale of the items.

In one such case, an interior designer and an integrator has reached an absolute impasse.  The room design featured custom hand-painted murals.  These murals were placed in exactly the wrong locations, making them acoustically incorrect, visually distracting and light reflective.  The integrator recommended abandoning them but the designer, and consequently the client, had already purchased them.  Both parties dug in their heels.  Fortunately we were able to offer a compromise that served everyone’s interest.  The front wall was recessed to separate the screen from the mural, a 2.40:1 screen replaced the original (which helped focus light off the side wall) and the murals were acoustically perforated to enable the broadband acoustical devices installed behind them to perform as designed.

We were lucky to have successful results on the 2 projects described above, however we don’t want to rely on luck alone to be successful.  In order to maintain positive, collaborative relationships with our interior design colleagues we have implemented the following practices:

  • Education: We regularly participate in industry outreach education to both ASID and AIA industry partners.  We have designed an outreach workshop, Home Theater Design Essentials for the Trade, which has been approved by both ASID and AIA for CEU credit.  Through this educational initiate we strive to offer critical information about private theater projects.
  • Communication: When working on a private theater with an interior designer we make sure to ask questions about their design, their objectives for the project and really just try to open up the line of communication between our companies and work to keep them open throughout the project.  This helps us to understand or predict any potential conflicts and understanding can usually lead to resolution.  If ti is necessary to change a design, we spend the time to explain exactly and specifically why it must be changed so the designer can understand there is a good reason for the change.
  • Collaboration:  We actively seek ways we can work together with our industry partners.  We seek the designer’s involvement in finish selections, working with them to select finishes that compliment the high performance nature of the room.  We often hold design concept review meetings with designers prior to a client presentation to solicit their feedback.
  • Delivery:  We provide comprehensive engineering and documentation on our projects.  It’s not enough to say, “that won’t work” without backing it up with professional level solutions.  Detailed theater drawings, finish and lighting schedules, manufacturer specifications and installation data are all part of being a theater design professional.
  • Support:  We find it helpful to discuss solutions with the designers and make ourselves available to answer questions and have an open dialogue.  By helping the designer to integrate their design objectives with our solutions and modifying our solutions (when necessary and possible) we’re working in the best possible interest of the client to deliver the best result overall.

A private theater should be a pleasurable experience from its inception to fulfillment.  A design team working harmoniously to realize a client’s private theater dream is a fusion of talents and a recipe for success!