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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.

Shawn Lani with gyroid sculpture, Senior Artist at the Exploratorium, San Francisco, Calif., image
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.

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.