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‘Fragile Beauty’ at the V&A: Studio ZNA lights the incredible photography collection of Sir Elton John and David Furnish

Project name:
‘Fragile Beauty’ at the V&A
Architecture firm:
London, UK
James Retief, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Principal architect:
Design team:
Exhibition Curators: Duncan Forbes - Head of Photography, V&A. Newell Harbin - Director, Sir Elton John and David. - Furnish Collection: Lydia Caston - Project Curator, V&A. - Exhibition Management: Vanessa Baldwin, Nikki Glynn Smith and Olivia Oldroyd. - Graphic Design: A Practice for Everyday Life. - Exhibition Test Consultant: Maria Blyzinsky. - Exhibition Contractor: setWorks.- Graphic Production: OMNI. - Technical Project Management & Quantity Surveyors: Focus Consultants. - Electrical Contractors: Greater London Electrical
Built area:
Site area:
Design year:
Completion year:
Interior design:
Civil engineer:
Structural engineer:
Environmental & MEP:
Studio ZNA
Tools used:
Cultural Architecture > Museum, Exhibitions

Fragile Beauty: Photographs from the Sir Elton John and David Furnish Collection’ is an exciting new temporary exhibition at the V&A, South Kensington, which has now opened and is set to run until January 2025. The show incorporates more than 300 rare prints by some of the world’s greatest photographers and represents the institution’s largest photography exhibition to date. Exhibition design is by architects and designers  EBBA and lighting design is by Studio ZNA.

Background to the photography collection of Sir Elton John and David Furnish:

The incredible 20th and 21st-century photography collection belonging to Sir Elton John and David Furnish was built initially out of sight of the public, before a number of initial loans, including Horst P. Horst images to the V&A in 2014, before Tate Modern hosted a highlights exhibition in 2016. Darius Himes, Christie’s Deputy Chairman and International Head of Photographs commented this year, just prior to a sale of a number of images from Sir Elton’s former Atlanta home, that:

Within the photography community, Elton’s love for photographs was an open secret for a while. He collected at the masterpiece level and was behind a lot of great interest and collecting power during the ’90s and the 2000s.’

The collection now boasts more than 7,000 works in total, making it one of the greatest private collections of photography anywhere in the world. Spanning many different genres, the selection now being shown to the public in the V&A show includes work by 140 different photographers, amongst whom are some of the medium’s greatest names, including Eve Arnold, Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Zanele Muholi and Ai Weiwei. The V&A describes the exhibition’s contents as ‘An unparalleled selection of the world's leading photographers, telling the story of modern and contemporary photography.’

Design Approach:

The high-profile show is being held in the museum’s Sainsbury Gallery, which, at 1100 sq m, is one of the largest temporary exhibition spaces in the UK. The space has been broken down into a series of thematic room sets, focusing on different photographic typologies, from celebrity portraits and fashion to reportage and images of desire centred around the male body.

London-based architects and designers EBBA, lead exhibition designers, have created a bespoke environment for each thematic section, with a sculptural approach in terms of geometry and surfaces. The room-sets feature varying wall heights and scales, with the design seeking to develop 2D images into the 3D world of an exhibition via the use of coloured walls, for example, and through a clear architectural response to each section, responding sensitively to the way light affects surfaces and materials.

The approach to lighting an exhibition where photographs are the main exhibits was challenging and delicate:

‘Photography is all about light and shade and we needed to be very conscious of that in terms of the use of light in the spaces’ Zerlina Hughes, Founder and Creative Director of Studio ZNA commented. ‘Our primary focus was for the images to be at their truest and best. Beyond that, it was about creating a context to ensure an optimum viewing environment, using light to suggest the world behind each thematic title. Our treatments therefore range from using diffused light in open and neutral areas to zones of high contrast and dramatic rendition in others, providing a single, intimate focus on each image.’

Thematic sections:

The eight room-set areas/zones of the exhibition, along with the introductory and finale areas, are arranged as follows:

Stars of Stage and Screen
The American Scene
Fragile Beauty
The Constructed Image
Towards Abstraction

The lighting design approach for each room set needed to work both with the photography on display and with the treatment EBBA created for that space. For the ‘Fashion’ section, for example, which features dramatic scenography, a dropped ceiling allowed for the integration of bespoke pendants giving off reflected light. ‘The American Scene’ meanwhile features quite diffused light, a very soft and neutral treatment which works with the landscape images on show, whilst the portraits in ‘Fragile Beauty’ are treated individually for a more intimate experience. ‘Towards Abstraction’ features a bolder and more geometric 3D design experience, with lighting treatment to match. A monumental light portal installation of 149 Nan Goldin prints from her ‘Thanksgiving’ series is a stand-out feature, supported by an intense and intimate viewing environment and illuminated ceiling. The 3D and lighting design for the ‘Finale’ section is uplifting and celebratory.


Studio ZNA is a London-based, creative lighting design practice established in 2006 and directed by Zerlina Hughes. Zerlina and her teamwork across exhibition, gallery and architectural lighting.

The practice has extensive experience in museum and gallery, high end retail, commercial and residential buildings, theatre, opera and film and offers a specialist understanding of light and form. The dynamic nature of light both informs its work and stimulates its design process.

Studio ZNA’s practice is built on collaboration and its team always thrives as part of a wider creative team. The practice’s ethos is that close collaboration with the client, designers and artists it works with stimulates the most innovative and fulfilling lighting and design solutions.


Zerlina Hughes studied at Goldsmith’s College and the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and has over 25 years’ experience as a lighting designer in architecture, theatre, opera and film. Early in her career, she worked as an assistant to director Mike Leigh on ‘Naked’, ‘Career Girls’ and ‘Secrets and Lies’. Zerlina was also lighting design consultant for Warner Bros’ ‘Batman Begins’. Her theatre designs include projects at the National Theatre, London’s West End, New York Broadway and Sydney Opera House. In opera, she has worked extensively in Europe, particularly in France, Italy, Denmark and Sweden. Zerlina founded Studio ZNA in 2006 to build a team of specialists who could offer a unique combination of technical, creative and cultural knowledge and design illumination.


The V&A is a family of museums dedicated to the power of creativity. Our mission is to champion design and creativity in all its forms, advance cultural knowledge, and inspire makers, creators and innovators everywhere.

V&A South Kensington is a world of extraordinary global creativity, with unmissable exhibitions, experiences and educational programmes for all. One of London’s most iconic buildings, it is home to national collections of art, design, fashion, photography and furniture to theatre, performance, architecture, and ceramics, a well as the UK’s National Art Library. It is a place where everyone can experience a story of creativity that spans 5,000 years and every creative discipline, which brings that story to life through programmes and activities for all ages and specialisms, and world-leading research and conservation.

By Liliana Alvarez

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