Carolina Union History Wall

An exhibit enlivens a popular dining area and tells the story of the student union’s dynamic ninety-year history.

When a long-awaited renovation of the first floor of the Frank Porter Graham Student Union building finally became possible, architects conceptualized a forty-foot long glass wall that would reside in a busy dining area and serve as a canvas for the story of the Carolina Union’s nearly ninety-year history. I offered to take on the project. Research was extensive. It involved poring over digital photo archives, North Carolina history collections, campus and local newspapers on microfilm, UNC yearbooks, and musty scrapbooks of Union memorabilia for facts that best illustrated the three key components of the Union’s mission over the years: programs, services, and facilities. I conducted the majority of historical research and all of the visual research myself—laborious but engrossing work for a library buff like me.

Seen from afar, this halftone pattern is a plaid shirt.

Rendering the large photos in halftone allows the viewer to experience the graphic differently depending on proximity to the wall. From a distance, the dots resolve into an image, while up close, they dissolve into an abstract pattern. The striking appearance matches the bold new look of the renovated area.

In writing the copy for the timeline, I exhibited both the Union’s serious moments (such as the creation of FallFest, an annual alcohol-free campus block party and a successful answer to the problem of binge drinking) and light-hearted moments (such as the quandaries of the 1969 Jubilee music festival, when students attempting to bake a celebratory 200 foot long loaf of bread had to abandon plans when the dough rose prematurely). I wanted to demonstrate how students and staff create Union culture together with the Chapel Hill and North Carolina community.

The background color is printed on a mostly opaque diffuser mounted to the back of the glass, while the halftone and timeline are printed in UV ink on clear film applied to the front. This approach creates slight shadowing and depth, lending the design a richer look.

Up close, this image of scaffolding is a lovely, abstract texture.
Each decade’s date features a unique typographic treatment in the style of the era. A few, like this one, are custom and drawn by hand.