A young person walks into New York Hall of Science’s “Connected Worlds” exhibit and, with the wave of a hand, directs the flow of water to their newly created environment. Another gesture plants seeds or transforms the sky into bilious clouds, bringing a sense of wonder and joy to the child.
The 2,300-square-foot virtual world is one of Molly Lenore’s most groundbreaking accomplishments. Lenore’s internationally renowned design and technology studio Moey, in collaboration with Design I/O, helped bring to life one of the most responsive environments ever created for a museum.
In an age of ever-changing technology, Lenore is at the forefront of making complex ideas tangible. The exhibit’s 38-foot digital waterfall, 20 projectors, and a field of gesture sensors help visitors of all ages better understand the fragility and interconnectedness of our natural ecosystem.
That work continues to this day. Lenore collaborates with museums and cultural institutions to create public spaces like Marsha P. Johnson State Park in Brooklyn, New York, where Moey integrated QR codes into the park’s redesign to connect visitors to the historical contributions of the Stonewall Riots rebel through a quick scan and tap on their smartphone.
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“This was a very intimate project. When projects like the Marsha P. Johnson State Park come up, it’s good to interpret the legacy for a larger audience, but it needs to be a community-based process,” Lenore told LGBTQ Nation. “If you’re going to talk about this project, you better reach out to the right communities so everyone has a voice. We need more voices at the table and more collaboration.”
Before launching her company, Lenore worked at the American Museum of Natural History as a senior technology artist, which jump-started two major changes in her life.
First, it is where she met Joey Stein, who was working at the museum as an embedded interaction designer. In 2003, she founded Moey with Stein, a portmanteau of their first names and a multidisciplinary design firm that crafts technology-forward exhibits for museums, public spaces, and multimillion-dollar brands.
Also during her tenure at AMNH from 1997 to 2005, Lenore transitioned. Years before out trans folks found greater representation in the media, politics, and the workplace, Lenore “was going to a doctor and The Center, and for the next three years, I was taking shots and going through this in secret, and then I came out at work, and I told everyone I’m going to go away and come back and be Molly,” she told LGBTQ Nation.
“On my last day of work [before my surgery], my boss called me into his office,” Lenore recalled. “I walked into the room, and the whole department was there, and the women had funny mustaches, and the guys had dresses, so they had a party. It made it a lot easier for me to come back. They were celebrating, and that was quite amazing.”
Lenore brings a similar playfulness to her work at Moey, where her role is to make concepts more accessible using engaging and interactive exhibits. Projects have included everything from a “Whack-a-Virus” carnival game to promote public health at Exploration Place, a science museum in Wichita, Kansas, to “Heroic Journeys,” an exhibit at the Intrepid Air & Space Museum that used hidden transducers in theater seating to create a multi-sensory experience in which audiences could viscerally feel the impact of being on the battlefield.
This year, Lenore and her team celebrate Moey’s 20th anniversary. Over two decades, the company has grown from just Lenore and Stein to a staff of 26, plus a team of freelancers who assist with individual projects. Today, the firm is preparing to move from a rented workspace in the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn to a recently purchased 10,000-square-foot building nearby, increasing Moey’s capacity to take on even larger projects.
“At the start, a lot of our work was just surviving. How are we going to get the next job?” Lenore said. “So the new building feels like we’re taking control of our destiny.”
It’s been quite a journey for Lenore, a native of San Francisco. After studying business at San Jose State University and graduating in 1989, she got a job working for a bank in Los Angeles. During her tenure, she visited a high school friend, Kevin Walker, who was studying the intersection of art and technology at New York University.
Lenore was so inspired that she quit her job and returned to school, studying various disciplines in the early 1990s. She earned a master of fine arts degree in 3D animation and visual effects at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and enrolled in a postgraduate program to study interactive media at San Francisco State University.
In 1997, Walker, who was working at AMNH, offered her a job as a senior technology artist. Today, Lenore collaborates with powerful cultural institutions, often juggling multiple projects and always creating interactive designs that make the esoteric comprehensible.
“There’s a false division between art and technology, but there’s very little difference to me: It’s all about creation,” she said. “People access content in many different ways. Some are readers, some watch animations, some listen, smell, maybe, or they need to touch. That’s where we live. You’re going to forget 95 percent but remember 5 percent. What is that 5 percent? That’s what we focus on: making that 5 percent educational, inspiring, and meaningful.”
On an April afternoon, Lenore — 58 and framed in colorful, dangling dreadlocks — welcomed LGBTQ Nation for a tour of Moey’s various workshops and production studios, checking on projects’ progress and exchanging warm banter with her team of talented software programmers, exhibit fabricators, and scenic artists.
At one stop, an industrial designer crafts machine-cut iPhone case prototypes for the Met Gala; at another, team members assemble LED lights for an art piece that will head to the Venice Biennale.
Lenore leads with a sense of joy. On Moey’s website, testimonials for the company fit under the “Aw Shucks” section. In its Brooklyn studio, the company’s mission statement — “The Moey Way” — is inscribed on a bulb-lit marquee that recalls circus signage more than a stuffy corporate slogan.
A tour through Moey’s facilities reveals an adult playpen, where multi-screen desktops, state-of-the-art fabrication equipment, and floor-to-ceiling tool bins (arranged in rainbow order) empower Lenore’s team to produce unforgettable experiences.
When Lenore promises that “We can do anything,” it may sound far-fetched, but decades of experience and dozens of clients served confirm no project is beyond the grasp of the Moey team.
“I’m always looking for partners who will take a chance,” Lenore said.
LGBTQ Nation caught up with the Moey president in Brooklyn as she worked on Niagara Falls State Park’s new visitor center, public spaces at SAGE’s new senior housing in the Bronx, and construction of Moey’s new headquarters.
Moey’s mission statement, which hangs in your team’s shared office, says to “question accepted truisms.” That feels inherently queer — it means leading with curiosity and subverting norms. Do you see this as a queer approach to your work?
I do. A large part of our Moey people are LGBTQ+, and I think that brings additional perspectives to the work that we do. You need to get out of that comfort zone, and you need to have different ideas. You need to get to a place where you can question. I think being LGBTQ+ helps accomplish that.
If you look at me, it’s maybe obvious I’m trans. I assume most people would think, “Well, you’re a little different.” I think that’s good. Because that’s already doing what we do: It puts you in a different place, right? We have our preconceptions about people: Man. Woman. If you’re already a little different, that’s going to help the people that you work with by putting them in that slightly different space, right? So then you really could take them to a different place, and we like to take them to the creative space when you’re a kid again.
Queer people can sometimes be pigeonholed in specific ways that limit their abilities. How does that resonate with you as a company that tries to expand access and uplift all the ways in which people engage with art and technology?
I was commissioner of the New York Gay Football League for 13 seasons. A lot of gay men were told at a young age that sports are not something you’re good at, even if you’re out, so to see that switch turn on in your 20s and 30s, and 40s, that’s amazing. Education is the same: Can we look at concepts in a different way?
I was hired as a senior technology artist to move AMNH past the trackball, mouse, and touch screen. We made a six-foot walking T. rex skeleton that had the locomotion of an adult T. rex. You can do that in animation, but to be able to walk around it and see it? For that one, we worked with John Hutchinson, the world’s leading expert on theropod locomotion [the study of how dinosaurs move]. Moey is similarly based on experiential techniques.
You’ve worked in many museums, but also outdoors in state parks. What is that like?
We’ve worked on 14 New York state parks over the past few years, including current work on the Niagara Falls State Park Welcome Center. The project includes seven 30-foot columns of waterfall towers. We’re not the designer on that project; we’re the fabricators. But when you’re a fabricator, especially when you’re like us, we know a lot about design and tech — we can bring a lot of steps to the table. We can also talk about making modifications. We were going to have these columns with beautiful images encased in glass — but we have our own LED suppliers, so we could make a modification from static graphics to LED panels [with movement]. We also designed the environmental exhibits at Jones Beach, including wildlife and sealife education and green building practices.
“Connected Worlds” for the New York Hall of Science was a fully immersive, digitally rendered interactive experience where visitors explored how different environments connect. It featured gesture-based technologies that generated and projected images onto more than 100 feet of wall space. How do you approach such a project?
The best thing about this job is to work with other talented people. Cameras and sensors are also a way to track visitor movement and engagement. So we can tell how far or close a visitor gets to the wall or use facial recognition, whatever you want to drive the experience.
There’s always constant evaluation. What’s nice about the time we live in is now you can prototype so fast, right? We can do something, get feedback, and change it. We do that all the time with museums and public-facing work. If an exhibit’s going to be up for an extended period of time, we try not to hard code everything. We put it out in the world, and it learns, essentially. So somebody will ask if it was successful — but we actually know because we can tell how long visitors are engaged, which is really valuable. If you know that, then you can modify things, which empowers the people you’re working with and creates an even better user experience.
Outside of experiential exhibits for cultural institutions, you’ve also worked in the medical sector: You created an injection simulator for the biopharmaceutical group Ipsen. This helps health care workers more accurately administer complex injections. Can you discuss what that mannequin does?
We designed and built a training device, Daisy, the mannequin, by using 3D printing and a syringe with sensors. There’s a screen in front of the user — I’d rather have a physician practice on Daisy than me. It’s for injecting medication into the neck area. When injected, there’s an animation of Daisy and the syringe on the screen, so we know how deep, how fast, and how much they’re injecting. It’s really an amazing piece. And that was meant to travel; it’s not just creating a piece that’s going to sit in a medical institution.
Your website says Moey is a woman- and LGBTQ+-owned business. How do those entities play into your ethos?
When I started this, I was usually the first trans person others met. A lot of the stuff we’re doing is not just museums; I’m dealing with Google and Meta and AT&T, so being LGBTQ+ — I want them to know. It’s so funny talking about this now because it did mean something 10 or 15 years ago. I thought it was my responsibility to show people we were talented and this, if that makes any sense. Things are much different now, being out and open. Now, we have nonbinary and trans people working for us, and we want to make sure we have a good environment. More trans people are coming to us. I get emails every week from people looking for work, and it’s really cool.
Moey just turned 20 this year. What has been a career highlight?
You transformed the museum’s main hall into a collection of personal stories presented through primary documents (letters, photographs, artifacts) and multimedia presentations. It was a kaleidoscopic look at the heroic efforts of military folks, from those in World War II through those, more recently, in Afghanistan and Iraq. What was special about that project?
We focused on defining moments. Regardless of politics, we really wanted to show the human side. We went to the Pentagon; we visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and interviewed Sgt. Robert Bartlett, a phenomenal man injured while serving in Iraq. We incorporated all these tangible feelings into the exhibit.
One of the biggest pieces was an audio theater. You walked into a space about 20 feet in diameter, and benches were all around the perimeter. We had sensors in the seats and speakers. So you’d walk in, sit down, and then you’d hear first-person narratives of people in battle. It wasn’t about the entire experience but just those moments they felt at a specific time. And we had abstract graphics on the ceiling to get to the most primal moments. It’s just trying to get to the point where you could understand a little bit or create some empathy.
Who inspires you?
Everybody that we work with. When I was at AMNH, I loved the roundtable discussions. You have a table with [the astrophysicist] Neil deGrasse Tyson, designers, architects, curators, and writers — everyone working together and feeding off of each other is really great. I’m a big believer that everyone has a story to tell.
What does your life look like outside of work?
It used to be sports, Big Apple Softball League, but I’m kind of retired now. I’m on the board of directors for SAGE. I learn an incredible amount from LGBTQ+ elders. A lot of them don’t have the support they would have if they had a “traditional” network — kids, extended family. We have two housing complexes for queer elders, one in Brooklyn and one in the Bronx.
We’re designing some outdoor graphics for SAGE’s new Crotona Pride House senior living facility, and they’ll also be commissioning a mural from a local artist. The most important thing was to have residents vet the process so it’s what they want, not what we want. Decorative disks will be installed on wraparound fencing in the complex’s courtyard. Initially, we thought we’d feature LGBTQ+ icons, but they came back and said they wanted flowers and birds from Puerto Rico and other places of origin.
There will also be quotes on some of the outdoor furniture, and we asked what kind of quotes they wanted, and they said quotes from themselves. So that’s cool! Every step of the way, they vote, take a consensus, and move on. They’re driving this 100 percent. When the project is complete, we’re out of there, but they live there, and they own it, which is wonderful. It’s been a great experience and has really empowered the residents to be part of the process.
What does innovation mean to you?
I go back to being a kid and saying, “We can do anything.” What do we want to do, and how do we get there?
You’re at the park — “put away your phone!” People don’t, so acknowledge that. If people aren’t going to put away their phones, then what are you going to do? You may walk around a lake and will only see it through the lens of where I can take a nice selfie. That’s not good or bad, it just changes how you experience it. We know a fair amount about educational theory: How do people interact with the world?
That’s changing all the time.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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