The final form for my MFA Thesis was a book proposal. After writing portions of the manuscript, which is based on both my first hand field observations as well as primary and secondary sources, I began design explorations to define how the final book might take shape. In order to make the project attractive to potential publishers, it was important to develop style, typographic and layout conventions without suggesting that they are intractable. My layouts are intended to serve more as a proof of concept.
Using the theme park as metaphor, Themerica is divided into four sections:
This is an introductory piece, including a preface by noted theming scholar Scott Lucas. Here I define my terms for thematic design and give an overview of the creative process: the visual vocabulary of theming.
This second section forms the bulk of the work. I present an early history of theming from World’s Fairs to Coney Island, a discussion of Disney and their impact and a survey of Las Vegas. In the center of this section is a pictorial feast of theming from around the world, categorized into seven basic archetypes which recur frequently in our own culture, and have also spread throughout the world.
This looks at theming beyond amusement parks and resort hotels. I examine notable retail spaces and the extension of thematic design into lifestyle through the New Urbanism movement. The last portion
of this section is devoted to an overview of current developments in Dubai.
Here is the coda and a look at my process and research through a series of indices: a detailed list of my travels, a full bibliography and the book's photo credits.
Here is a digital mockup of the proposed cover.
An entire side of my apartment kitchen became a planning center for the layout structure of Themerica. As I revised the content outline, I would rearrange and remove thumbnails and annotate continuously with sticky notes and scribbles. This technique fast became essential.
As a creative discipline, thematic design is a seamless blend of graphics, interiors and architecture wrapped in the language of cinema. My Venn diagram illustrating this recalls the famous silhouette of Mickey Mouse. The central argument of Themerica is that theming is a fluid gradient from Pure Simulation (detailed re-creations such as The Venetian Casino Hotel) to Pure Brand (spaces that give form to logos, like Niketown). In between are representational forms which are not true copies (like Disney's Main Street U.S.A.) and referential forms that are decontextualized (such as Jon Jerde's Universal Citywalk). All thematic environments can be charted along this continuum which clarifies the distinction between branding and theming.
The second chapter traces the lineage of thematic design from Tivoli Gardens to the World's Fairs, from Coney Island's Luna Park to Knott's Berry Farm.
At the center of the book is a chapter devoted to the seven basic thematic archetypes of the twentieth century: Tropical Paradise, The Wild West, Ancient & Classical Civilizations, Medieval & Arabian Fantasy, American Nostalgia, Modernism & Progress, and Cityscapes & Urbanism.
Fantasies of the American West—with its rugged cowboys, hard living and lawlessness—exist all over the world, from steak houses and casinos to Disney's Frontierland, to resort ranches and even entire theme parks.
From the mid-century Tiki bar craze to Disney's Adventureland, Hawaiian resort hotels to The Rainforest Cafe—the exoticism of far away deserted islands and remote jungles continues to enrapture us.
Medieval and Arabian themes are very popular throughout the world, as they express our fascination with pre-industrial times. Yet we still yearn for a taste of the recent past—as evidenced by retro 1950s diners, resorts celebrating the glitz and glamour of Hollywood's Golden Age, and the turn-of-the-century stylings of Disney's Main Street U.S.A.
Dubai is the perfect place to build a global theming mecca for the twenty-first century because, like Las Vegas, it represents a blank slate. When I finished my thesis, the Dubailand project was projected to be completed in 2018, at twice the size of Walt Disney World in Florida—four times the size of Manhattan. But the project has been plagued with delays and financing problems.
The proposal, along with my process documentation, was submitted for my MFA as the below case-bound book: