PLA talks with lead designer Kem Hinton
Ninety-nine years ago, women across America won their right to vote when Tennessee lawmakers cast a tie-breaking decision to ratify the 19th Amendment in downtown Nashville. The Votes For Women Project is an interactive exploration of the power of women and girls, the power of voting, and the power of power itself. The opening celebration will take place at the Main Library in downtown Nashville, March 9-14, 2020. (Don’t worry, we’re working on a sneak peek for PLA2020 attendees.)
We caught up with the room’s lead designer, Kem Hinton of Tuck-Hinton Architecture and Design, to talk about the Votes For Women Project, Tennessee’s War of the Roses, and cartoons from the 1920s, among other things. Hinton’s credits include Nashville’s Bicentennial Capitol Mall, Tennessee’s World War II Memorial, and the Civil Rights Room in the downtown Nashville Public Library.
PL: Three prominent Nashville women – Margaret Behm, Jeanie Nelson, and Juli Mosley – led the charge for the Votes For Women Project and turned to you to design the room at the Main Library. What was your reaction?
KH: They really basically said, we want to do something like the Civil Rights Room. We want to honor all the issues that were involved in the 19th Amendment. Well, you know, I’m your basic 65-year-old white guy. And I knew it was passed in 1920, but I thought maybe in 1915 everybody got together and sang “Kumbaya” and let women get the vote in 1920. Oh boy, was that wrong. I had no idea what a tremendous struggle it was. I mean, it was literally probably one of the most contentious legislative battles in American history. Not like the Civil War, obviously, but similar in that you had huge forces both for and against it. And it actually started with Abigail Adams, John Adams’ wife.
Really, my job was to help them conceive how the room could do what they were asking it to do, which is to educate people about the movement and celebrate its 100th anniversary. But equally important was to show what has happened since then, which is a mixture of really good and some bad things for women. Women still don’t have full equal rights under the Constitution.
Anytime I work on a project like this, the real benefit to me personally is I’m finding out stuff that I never knew happened. And it happened in Nashville. I mean, it was so close to not being passed in Nashville, and Tennessee was the last state that they thought might pass this. So this is a national story. But it happened here. And what’s kind of amazing is that it happened in the “Athens of the South,” in a Greek revival masterpiece – the state Capitol, and the Greeks invented democracy. And so for me, that was just too cool.
PL: How did life become art, in this case? What influenced the design?
KH: All of these different forces were fighting the suffragettes. There were a lot of men for it and a lot of men against it. And then there were a lot of women against it. They thought it would destroy home life and turn women into, you know, bickering politicians. My job was to figure out, how do we tell this story? So I came up with about four things.
One was a timeline, something that starts with Abigail Adams. The second thing was a place to participate in democracy. So in the middle of the space, I designed this round table. The top of it is steel. It’s not cushy. There’s no pink cushions in this thing at all. There will be two groups of seats that curve around and form kind of a C shape. And on that table, there will be voting buttons where you can sit down and vote on topics that a teacher or one of the docents will suggest to students or to visitors.
They [Behm, Nelson, and Mosley] kept saying that the Civil Rights Room feels like a sacred space. And I’m very honored that they said that. I said, well, I think you should do something equal. So what we have is, I’m calling it the halo of inspiration. Imagine a drum, and you carve out the other side of it and raise it up above your head. So you’re looking into this drum that’s attached to the ceiling. And it will contain inspirational quotes about the suffrage movement from the leaders.
We have four corner areas in that room that we call alcoves. They used to be little private reading rooms where people would take a book, and in that part of the library, you can’t check a book out. It’s really the most valuable books they have. It’s a reserve collection. So you could go to one of these rooms to do research. And those rooms were like four little private offices. We’re taking all those walls down and opening the four corners to be these alcoves and have themes.
And the themes are: (1) it happened here, the state Capitol; (2) who voted it in, the people of the movement; (3) the power of the vote; and (4) the final room we called the challenge, which is to say, OK, you’ve been to this room, what are you going to do? How are you going to help fix these issues?
PL: Is there an anchor for the design? How does the design influence the experience for the visitor?
KH: It was the summer of 2018, and I was looking at some notes I’d found where I had just written down a bunch of initial ideas. It’s funny because one of the first things I did was, well, it’s women’s suffrage, so what’s the symbol for a woman? Well, it’s a circle with a crossed vertical line at the bottom [the Venus symbol]. And I thought, OK, we’re going to do a circle. I think women more than men embrace, they protect, they surround, they kind of nourish. And when you think of that, to me that’s a circular space that’s kind of holding people together as opposed to fighting, which would be everybody going in opposite directions. So that’s what suggested the center space to be a circle. The timeline is a huge circle. You know it’s going to be printed, and you know it’s got dates on it, pictures, everything. But above it is a series of LED panels. Each one is like a foot tall, maybe 16 inches long, but they’re going to be butted up against each other, one after another. And you’ve seen things like it in New York City where there are ticker tapes for announcements and some graphics. But this is more like a real TV. It’s going to look like a TV screen that’s 1 foot tall and 60 feet long. And you can see questions flowing across it. You can have images of people. And one of the things we’re thinking about is, when you’re sitting at the table, and there’s a docent there or your teacher –to 15-year-old kids– and then they vote on something, you’ll see the vote tallies on the LED screen kind of rolling around.
Get more information about the Nashville Public Library Votes for Women project and room here.