Learning to Take the Lead

The 100 Mile Challenge, by students from the Maryland Institute College of Art and the University of Washington.

The student exhibits at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair stand out by default. On a floor filled with big-name businesses, emerging designers, and suppliers, you can tell the school teams not by the signage, but by the extremely enthusiastic young talent waiting to tell you exactly how this idea came about, or how they built that. Eight Schools exhibits were selected to be part of ICFF 2011: Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)/ University of Washington, Rhode Island School of Design, Pratt, Philadelphia University/Sane Jose State University/University of Lincoln, University of Oregon, and The University of Tokyo. In addition, Metropolis’s booth this year was designed by students from Parsons The New School for Design.

The most idealistic exhibit, certainly, was the 100 Mile Challenge, a joint effort by students from Baltimore’s MICA Environmental Design department and students from the industrial design program at the University of Washington in Seattle. The idea was to prove that beautiful design was possible using local materials, produced by local communities. And since the “local” in this case meant Baltimore and Seattle, the students had a very exciting set of resources to work with. Bamboo was cut, bent, and woven into a myriad of objects. Sophie Landry and Kirsten Gundry created delicate lamps out of local clay, and Hans Harland-Hue fashioned a very spartan chair out of Red Oak. But the most intriguing product on display was Cindy Jian’s oyster shell gardening tool. With one of those in my hands, I’d feel like turning up earth was a fine art.

IMG_5974Hans Harland-Hue’s Red Oak Chair.

oystertoolCindy Jian’s oyster shell gardening tools.

The Rhode Island School of Design went high-tech this year, with Recyclable Composites. Students from the school’s Department of Furniture Design worked with a new material called Twintex —  a grey-black fibre that is made from a combination of glass and plastic, is set into shape using heat, and best of all, can be recycled. The material itself is not much to look at – it reminded me of over-pomaded black hair – but the students truly transformed it, bundling and weaving it into chairs, tables and stools. Eun Sang Ernie Lee’s Perm Chair, constructed of tight curls of Twintex, was the sculptural heavyweight in the exhibit, while Misha Kahn’s Entrapment table, with a wooden top “embroidered” with the black material, struck up an interesting conversation between today’s materials and tradition.

Me94b1692085d173333535992f0abc29cThe Perm Chair, by Eun Sang Ernie Lee.

DSC05106Misha Kahn’s Entrapment Table.

The Pratt exhibit was the market-ready one, and that’s probably because of their collaboration with the Italian furniture design firm Capellini. The students were delighted by the totally open design brief set for them by Capellini, with a broad theme of “Perpetual Motion.” It was very clear from their exhibit that they’d had a lot of fun with it. Wang I Chao’s Chair with a Belly Button is actually just a white, plump, chair seat. Carry it around, and add it to any available surface—the floor, a stack of books, a countertop. Dana Oxiles played on the “perpetual” by folding humble chipboard into stools that will gradually show signs of wear and tear, marking the passage of time.

DSC05123Wang I Chao’s Chair with Belly Button.

DSC05126Dana Oxiles’s Chipboard Stools.

Metropolis usually works with emerging designers to design a booth for ICFF, but this time we offered it as a semester-long project at Parsons. After all, creating a booth can be an amazing learning experience – there is a space to be planned, displays  and furniture to be both designed and produced, and everything has to tell the client’s story. In a studio led by designer David Stark, architecture, interior design, lighting design, and product design students worked together to conceive and build a booth for our 30th year of publishing Metropolis. Their booth was an homage to print. Inspired by our 30th Anniversary logo, three walls enclosed the space, each one in the color of a printing ink: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. The walls were constructed of thick yarn wrapped around metal frames, and topped with some of our best magazine covers. The students were really hands-on– they budgeted the project, worked with furniture makers, and even planned how the booth would be dismantled. The work paid off: our colorful home at ICFF got us a lot of attention. And as with all the student exhibits, our young designers from Parsons were there throughout to explain their ideas to visitors.


The ICFF editor’s award for the best School exhibit didn’t go to a design program, but to an elementary school. The Tools at Schools exhibit, which we featured here, warmed our hearts because the students were so earnest and enthusiastic, but it also presented a groundbreaking model for design collaborations.  Indeed, each of the school projects indicated new directions to the professionals at ICFF. The students dealt with technology, sustainability, and changing lifestyles in a fresh but pragmatic way that we might have much to learn from.

Categories: Design Education