Live@ICFF Schools: Pratt Institute

I was a little worried when I saw the title of Pratt’s exhibition (a collaboration with the furniture giant Herman Miller): Empathy for Culture. Like oatmeal, it sounded a little bland and a little mushy, and I had the strong suspicion that it was going to try to be good for me. Students were asked to research a particular culture—the Hmong tribes of Vietnam, for instance, or New York DIY punk kids—and design an object that communicated something about it. Fortunately, the 14 projects from the Brooklyn school are often sharp and thoughtful, displaying the specificity that comes from careful study and consideration. Sahar Ghaheri created cardboard boxes that double as modular shelving and are screen-printed with details from Chinese lace umbrellas, Mexican doily flags, and a Lebanese mosque. Reenacting the immigrant experience, the boxes can be used both to move and, when unpacked, to display prized possessions, keeping the old world and the new (whether Bahrain or Bushwick) in plain sight. “It’s a reembracing of what you left behind,” Ghaheri says.

Sara McBeen’s low Aata tables (top), which borrow their forms and colors from the Middle East’s vivid marketplaces and geometric design, replicate the region’s hospitality and convivial meals. They’re meant to be linked together, with the mustard-yellow and turquoise surfaces providing a place to share food. And Stevenson Aung’s light and colorful aluminum stools (below) take the Hmong’s dispersed community and translate it into structural lines that come together and draw apart.

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In keeping with the exhibition’s theme, Herman Miller apparently showed empathy for the students it was mentoring. “Gary Smith”—the company’s director of design facilitation—“actually missed his flight because he had so many students to talk to,” Aung says.

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