The new MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, designed by 6a architects in close collaboration with artists Gareth Jones and Nils Norman provides spaces for major exhibitions of contemporary and historical art. The gallery’s Sky Room – a stunning new space that looks out over the adjacent Campbell Park, is perfect for films, music and performances.

J&C Joel was approached by MK Gallery and 6a Architects to explore the possibility of producing striped perimeter drapes for the Sky Room. In addition to achieving the striking design proposed, the drapes were required to have excellent acoustic, masking and blackout properties and be reversible to give the option of a plain backdrop.

After a thorough sampling process to ensure the correct print substrate was selected, J&C Joel’s Theatre Canvas was chosen by the client based on its texture and natural look. The Theatre Canvas also provided the ideal surface to print the striped artwork on, and its heavyweight, dense properties met the client’s acoustic, masking and blackout requirements.

In total J&C Joel produced nine drapes, each measuring 6.60m wide x 6.35m drop and sewn with 50% fullness. Mercury (MER038) in purple was chosen to line the drapes due to its soft handle and blackout qualities, making it the perfect fabric to act as the lining and also the face fabric when the drapes were reversed.

To complete the drapery package, J&C Joel produced three shorter drapes to sit above door fire exit signs.

There were three main challenges with the project.

The first challenge was matching the very specific colours required for the drapes. J&C Joel advised that the best way of achieving the desired aesthetic would be to digitally print the striped artwork. The challenge was to ensure the output colour (what is seen on the drape) matched the client’s design.

If the same colour reference is printed on to multiple substrates, it will look different on each due to the composition of the fabric. To ensure the output colours were as per the client’s requirements, we printed a series of carefully labelled samples of each colour and stored the settings. Due to the way the samples had been produced, the client was able to see the numerous colour options side by side to see how they read together. The client was then able to confirm their preferred colours.

The next challenge was to ensure the stripes were equal and aligned across the nine drapes, which equate to almost 60m of width. To overcome this, J&C Joel utilised their in-house AutoCAD drawing capabilities to set out the design prior to production ensuring the necessary allowances could be made. The drapes then had to be very carefully sewn and checked against each other ensure continuity across the set.

The final challenge was the installation, which was hindered by both time and access. Across the two days available, each of the drapes, which weighed in excess of 50kgs, had to be carried up several flights of stairs to the Sky Room. They were then hoisted onto the mobile tower and hung. Once all drapes were in situ, J&C Joel’s Specialist team levelled the tracks to ensure each drapes was the correct distance from the ground.

This project combines J&C Joel’s innovative drapery solutions with the brilliant architecture of 6a and the stunning design of Gareth Jones and Nils Norman. We believe this combination sets MK Gallery apart from its competitors; the drape creates a professional yet modern appearance in the Sky room, capturing the essence of the remarkable gallery.

The multi-purpose, reversible aspect of the drapes highlights the innovative design and shows how every aspect of the project was carefully thought-out.

Commenting on the drapes, Niki Braithwaite, Creative Producer at MK Gallery said: “The Sky Room curtains have already become a much-loved feature of the new MK Gallery attracting great responses from our visitors.”

J&C Joel’s Head of UK and Specialist Drapery, Oliver Marns, commented: “When I first saw the design render, I was very excited about bringing it to life. After some very intense sampling and a lot of precision manufacturing, the outcome was a faithful recreation of the initial design. The seemingly endless stripes really do set the room and the venue apart.”

Following the project, MK Gallery was ranked number one in The Guardian’s Rowan Moore’s Best Architecture of 2019.