In a virtual era dominated by Zoom, Twitter, and TikTok, a design firm called Roto is breathing real-world fun into public spaces.
Since 2004, they’ve been creating unique experiences for museums, zoos, aquariums, attractions and brand destinations for clients worldwide.
Kids’ museums are a specialty – and Roto looks at them not as a challenge, but as an honor and a privilege. “That’s because children suspend disbelief – and become characters in the story,” says Hannah Dreven, principal at the firm. “It’s just so much fun to build little worlds for them.”
But they also develop experiential environments for the child in all of us – Moms and Dads included. “We create a family spirit where parents get in there on their hands and knees, and create powerful memories and experiences with kids,” says Mike Denison, principal and design director. “They don’t just send them in and then talk on their phones – these are beautiful, wonderful spaces for adults as well.”
Roto’s staffed by 80 professionals in Columbus, New York, Charlotte, Chicago and Boston. Some are architects; others are interior designers. There are writers and researchers, plus engineers specializing in sound, electro-mechanics, software, information and interactive technology.
Then there’s the fabrication shop, with carpenters, metalworkers, cabinet builders, thematic painters, art directors and production designers.
They need them all because Roto covers the waterfront – from master planning through final production. “We’re a one-source, interdisciplinary design studio that employs high-end media and engineering,” Denison says. “We’re working remotely and collaboratively, nationally and internationally.”
And despite current pandemic conditions, Roto’s working on 19 separate projects across the globe. “There are five museums, four science centers, two children’s museums, two zoos or nature centers, two corporate branding experiences, one high-end residential project, international expositions, a hall of fame and a major U.S. theme park,” says Dreven.
Each is a custom design created in collaboration with Roto’s clients and stakeholders, all striving to engage a specific audience: the end-user who will eventually enjoy the experience they dream up.
“We have this notion of building authentic connections for the people in those spaces to have experiences that are missing from our digital world,” Denison says. “A stranger in a real place – we’re passionate about that.”
That might mean working within the geometry and white lines of Richard Meier’s High Museum in Atlanta. But it could also mean looking around at a facility’s site on a river – and creating a story line about a sea captain who’s travelled the world and brought back a parrot, a monkey, and plenty of maritime paraphernalia.
That’s the theme developed with the Rockwell Group for immersive play at the Kids’ Adventure Club at Waterline Square in New York City. Roto could collaborate because it has architects on staff who speak the language and understand the big picture. “Rockwell had really interesting ideas for every level of that project,” Denison says. “We were inspired by their vision and our own interpretation for that space.”
Roto’s number one priority when it comes to a material palette is durability. “These projects are touched and climbed on and hit – and plenty of buttons are pushed,” he says. “We make sure it lasts and doesn’t look tired after five years – they’re thoughtfully designed.
But durability doesn’t mean compromising on design, says Dreven. “Over the last 15 years, our in-house applications achieve that durability and last 10-plus years – and will still be gorgeous,” she says.
Pandemic or no, Roto’s been busier over the past six months than ever before. Their clients are putting precautions in place now, but also planning for the future. “Pre-pandemic, in-pandemic, and post-pandemic, people want to share experiences together, beyond online experiences,” she says. “And they’ll be hungry for them in the future – to discover and make memories from them.”
With vaccines on the way, soon enough we’ll all be signing off of Zoom, putting down the iPhone, and heading out with the family – worry-free – for a museum, aquarium, or theme park.
And if we’re lucky, Roto will have had a hand in its design.
This post was created in partnership with Roto.
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