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The Exploratorium: Q&A with a Designer

Senior artist Shawn Lani creates unique experiences for visitors to San Francisco's Exploratorium.

The Exploratorium's Shawn Lani finds the fun in a gyroid sculpture.
Photo caption
The Exploratorium's Shawn Lani finds the fun in a gyroid sculpture.

See the world through the eyes of Shawn Lani, and ordinary objects no longer look the same. Lani is a senior artist at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, where shadows come in rainbow colors and tornadoes are welcome indoors. The playful science museum moved last year to a waterfront location. exploratorium.edu.

Q What’s special about the new site?
A
The vast outdoor space and its relationship to the city. Exhibits on geology, say, are coupled with views of the very shoreline where change is taking place.

Q Your favorite exhibit?
A
The Rope Squirter is up there. It’s an upside down bike with the tires removed and a loop of rope running around the rear wheel. Pedal, and the rope shoots out in wild wave patterns. Move the wheel side to side and you create secondary patterns.

Q How long do exhibits take to create?
A
Ten years or 10 minutes. I once tossed a ring into a bowl on my desk and was surprised by the way it rolled and seemed to take forever to fall. It became an exhibit.

Q Ever come up with a dud?
A
There are so many in the dustbin. We tried to build a fog catcher with a big sail at the edge of the bay. It just didn’t work.

Q What’s the Tinkering Studio?
A
A workshop for building things. With a mediator, a visitor might use rubber bands, marker pens, a plastic cup, and a little motor to create a tiny helicopter.

Q What’s new at the museum?
A
Changes to the Tactile Dome. It’s dark and you’re navigating by touch, so we like to keep it shrouded in mystery. Years ago, I went through and fell into a vat of dry beans. I was like, “What the heck was that?” That’s the goal: to turn the normal into a novel experience.

Photography by Mitch Tobias

This article was first published in March 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.