We are excited to share department news, event information, student projects, and visuals as we dive into the inaugural year of the Products of Design MFA program. Check back frequently for updates.
Intervention/Interaction, taught by Sigi Moeslinger and Masamichi Udagawa of Antenna Design, explores how artifacts in a public space can change behavior by soliciting or enabling interaction. Challenged to design a public intervention, students Damon Ahola, Rona Binay, Richard Clarkson and Cassandra Michel devised Pedal for Change, an installation that entices New York City subway riders to stop, sit and pedal while waiting for their train.
By pedaling a stationary cycle, users both enhance their health and earn credit on their MTA MetroCard. For every dollar of credit earned, MTA makes a matching donation to a local or national physical fitness charity. Select station mezzanine areas with ample space were selected for their high foot traffic, and ability to accommodate users with varying levels of fitness.
One learning goal of the class was to illuminate how shared resources mediate relationships. By encouraging charity, conversation and healthy citywide competition, Pedal for Change spurs new interactions while serving the public good.
It was a whirlwind critique as students presented their final work for Ayse Birsel’s Deconstruction/Reconstruction 5-week intensive. From the course description: “This course introduces a process that encourages designers to quickly abstract the products of design down to their constituent parts; to reinterpret those parts based on a set of criteria (including point of view); and to build them back up to create new instantiations with new design potential. Students are encouraged to think abstractly and with daring, and to question assumptions about design, form, and intent.” [Photos: Kathryn McElroy]
Actor, athlete, model and advocate Aimee Mullins spoke to Products of Design students in an intimate talk this week. Mullins has wielded her status Paralympic star and public double-amputee to become an agent of change. Along the way, she has attracted incredible collaborators in the arts, engineering and activism; been appointed L’Oreal Paris global brand ambassador; and been named by Secretary Clinton alongside sports legends such as Billie Jean King to the Council to Empower Women & Girls Through Sports.
In the sunny studio, Mullins reviewed the evolution of the common prosthesis; from pallid, shapeless form to new feats of responsive bionics, and exquisite “hacks” that nimbly “play the scales of advantage and disadvantage.” Speaking as a prosthesis user, she emphasized the privileged role designers might play in “empowering people to play a role in their own space and body.” Mullins challenged students to empower users and complicate outdated perceptions through thoughtful and beautiful interventions.
Mullins recalled a childhood where her growing form was weighted by huge rivets, leather cuffs, three-ply woolen socks and a compound plastic leg that “hadn’t changed since the Eameses started bending plywood after the war.” She shared family photos to illustrate what life was like for an American amputee before mobility activists hacked Segways to use as wheelchairs.
Nowadays, an influx of returning battle amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan boosts bionics research and development. But in the 1980s, “basic function was the only consideration” of prosthesis-makers, and her working-class parents knew that “insurance only covered what would take you from the bed to the toilet.” Her girlhood foot was thus made of a dense foam, molded into the “horrible template of a genderless foot.” Its gnarly toes would snap off during kickball, and its proportions would change her gait when she tried to run.
Flash forward to 1995, when Mullins was a Georgetown scholarship student competing on carbon fiber legs in track and field. This was an exhilarating breakthrough, but life in the public eye caused woe. Her fresh triumphs were quickly followed by a debate about “disabled” athletes becoming “too abled,” since the C-curve of her legs, free from typical heel strike, eliminated 2 seconds off her race time. At the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, Mullins scored a world record in the 100 meter, 200 meter and long jump. But with triumphs came new troubles: Her leg came off at a meet in front of 5,000 people, and she broke her hips on impact when hot sand in the jump pit made her legs act “like skis” instead of mobility aids. Later athletic prototypes again and again failed to take sweat or heat into account. Mullins showed a model featured on the cover of I.D. Magazine so aggressively propulsive, that she felt always poised on the tip of her toes.
Function and form finally met when Dorset Orthopaedic crafted elegant silicone limbs that claimed the delicacy and detail appropriate to everyday wear–a level of aesthetic enhancement, Mullins noted, available in the prop rooms of Hollywood for decades. Their kevlar-backed casts and molded toes created the look of natural nail beds, pedicures, and even veins or freckles.
Where “discretion was the presumptive norm” in yesterday’s prosthesis-making, the new wave of makers see “human-looking as just another choice.” Mullins encouraged students to think about users “claiming this piece of real estate,” showing legs crossed by gilt wing tendrils of metallic pavement embedded in silicone–a pair she wears in tribute to the early Olympics. Mullins also shared how she was moved to tears when SVA Designer as Author students gave her speculative designs for a latticework arm dotted by twigs and seasonal pods. The arm would blossom and sprout each spring, like a “Chia pet you could wear,” she smiled.
Late fashion designer Alexander McQueen saw Mullins in I.D. and immediately commissioned a London master carver to make her legs of solid ash. “I had seven hours to learn how to walk in them,” she said of modeling the legs, now preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (but decisively not calibrated for strutting). Her runway debut in McQueen’s Spring/Summer 1999 London Fashion Week show (look for Mullins at 15:10) was triumphant. On the experience of being a high fashion model, Mullins quipped, “It’s fun to imagine where the prosthetics are on the other women’s bodies.”
Importantly, Mullins does not limit her work to niche fashion magazines or obscure luxury products. She now works with L’Oreal to represent a brand equally visible “in a drugstore in Jaipur, and Wichita and Bogotá.” She cited a figure that 1/7 of the population of several Southeast Asian countries are landmine amputees, and often treated as “disenfranchised socioeconomic subclass” that suffers shame from their appearance. Global visibility is therefore as critical as vigor and health to Mullins’ project of changing perceptions about her condition.
Mullins has an ongoing acting engagement with conceptual artist Matthew Barney, having starred in his epic art project and feature-length film series, The Cremaster Cycle. A recurring motif in Barney’s series is the Masonic idea that “you lose your lower self to attain a higher self.” Hers were demanding roles. Special effects master Gabe Bartalos took polyurethane to transform her lower body into that of a cheetah for 13 hours before a day’s shoot dashing and pouncing inside the Guggenheim. Other characters demanded that Mullins cut potatoes with her foot, or wear legs cast from soil with a single brass toe, from which she would spin yarn into wool. She mentioned feeling great kinship when later reading about the nurse of ancient Egypt’s Pharaoh Hapshepsut. The nurse had lost a toe to diabetes, but decided to embrace her condition by dipping her new linen toe in fabulous gold.
“Disability is palatable if suffering and struggle is paramount,” said Mullins as a counterpoint to activist critiques of her exuberant public image. Mullins copes with critics by finding inspiration in outliers from other social justice struggles. About her experiences as an amputee athlete in the public eye, she quoted feminist author Gloria Steinem: “Hostility is a step forward from ridicule.” Perhaps these experiences inspire Mullins’ dream acting role: To play Rosalind Franklin, the brilliant but unheralded scientist who discovered the double-helix of DNA.
Citing the early joy of being treated in the vivid red room of a color-coded children’s ward, Mullins encouraged Products of Design students to embrace the universal value of environmental stimulation: “The necessary stability of a hospital does not have to translate into sensory stability.” She encouraged ruthless disciplinary cross-pollination to bridge the awkward divide between the agendas of surgeons and prosthetists. Where one is amputated, she reminded the room, impacts not just design potentialities for mobility, but also for the emotional resonance of a personal touch.
“There are a million iPhone covers, but there’s only ‘Caucasian’ or ‘Not-Caucasian’ for a prosthetic leg,” she observed. Mullins exhorted student designers to take advantage of the “smartest, most engaged and most empowered generation of consumers” and create demand for beautiful solutions.
First year field trips for the MFA students happen every two weeks—alternating with visiting lecturers, and this semester offers an exciting range of sites (and people!) Over the next four months, students will visit The New York Times, Google Innovation Lab, Fab.com, Commonwealth, the Natural History Museum (backstage tour), Stephen Burks/Horse Cycles, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and a couple more surprises. Below are a few snaps of the New York Times Tour from last week! [Photos: Kathryn McElroy]
Products of Design hosted to BioCities’ second event in its Transforming Cities Project: Buildings and Agriculture: Soil, Hydroponic or Aeroponic? The standing-room-only crowd listened to experts present and discuss the merits of three different cultivation techniques for growing food in, and on buildings. Guests to the studio were welcomed by Tom Jost, Senior Urban Strategist from Parsons Brinckerhoff, and Department Chair Allan Chochinov. Student Richard Clarkson spoke about the culture of food and agriculture and his explorations into aesthetics, production, consumption and disposal that inspired his final project for Claire Hartten’s Design for Sustainability and Resilience class – a sensuous white food surface entitled Diptable.
Kathleen Bakewell, BioCities’ Executive Director, introduced the evening as an opportunity to examine three forms of building-integrated agriculture and their potential for creating “sitopian” cities. Speakers Marc Oshima (AeroFarms), Laurie Schoeman (Intervention: Green) and Alec Baxt (FarmingUp), debated the three systems of food production, bringing to light several distinctions in growing techniques, economic structures, energy demands, community benefits, and prospects for expansion.
The evening wrapped up with a lively Q&A and warm invitation by faculty member Claire Hartten to engage in a reception centered upon ingredients made from local, seasonal foods. The “ugly vegetables” selection of paradoxically delicious and nutrient-rich snacks was offered on the Diptable. The evening, co-presented with the Green Rabbits, received support from Whole Foods Market, Greenmarkets, Parsons Brinckerhoff and the Urban Green Council. Special thanks to students Gaïa Orain and Zena Pesta for enhancing the reception as an example of social interaction design through their collaborative efforts.