Pentagram partner Abbott Miller doesn't ride a Harley, but that doesn't stop him from recognizing the motorcycle's beauty. He cites Harley-Davidson's early history, when around 1920 the company linked bike performance to style, aesthetics, and self-expression. Today, the brand is still built as much on form as function. “Riders talk about the freedom and independence of riding a Harley, but at the end of the day they are design fetishists,” Miller says.
Pentagram's new Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee celebrates that legacy of design and performance. As a designer, Miller feels a kinship with the company's attention to detail—the obsession with how an object looks, feels, and functions. So, when tasked with creating the museum's exhibition spaces, he felt right at home. That attitude translated to the rest of the design team: Pentagram partner and architect Jim Biber and associate Michael Zweck-Bronner designed the base buildings and campus in conjunction with Minneapolis-based HGA Architects and Engineers. The result is a museum that has the style and functional ease of worn-in biking leathers and celebrates a legacy of design and performance.
Set on 20 acres at the edge of the Menomonee River, the 130,000-square-foot complex takes its cues from the site's industrial past. Biber and team shaped a streetscape of three separate, factory-like buildings—which house exhibition and event spaces, company archives, a restaurant and café, and a retail shop—from stripped-down materials such as brick and galvanized steel. The semi-urban arrangement recalls rally towns like Sturgis, S.D., where throngs of riders gather annually with their bikes lining the downtown sidewalks.
Biber strove to avoid small-town clichés. Old-fashioned light posts would turn the design into a theme park, so the outdoor illumination is decidedly unexpressed. Cube-shaped bollards with 39W T6 ceramic metal halide lamps take the place of the light posts. Many of the fixtures are mounted directly to a steel exoskeleton or attached to the buildings themselves. In-ground up-lights using 39W ceramic metal halide lamps wash the mural-sized “Harley-Davidson” sign, and a linear LED fixture is used to illuminate “1903” (the year the company released its first bike) spelled out in glazed and unglazed black brick. “The design is elegant in a tough way,” Biber says.