Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Celebrating Studio Days (Fall 2016)

Posted 08 Dec 2016 / 0
2016-12-08aThe Juliana Curran Design Center, where Interior Design, Industrial Design, and Communications Design critiques take place

For the past three academic years, Pratt has instituted a new feature of its academic calendar: Studio Days, four days sandwiched between the penultimate instructional week and finals week, are dedicated solely to critiques, surveys, and final reviews in the studio majors. The implementation of Studio Days was driven by a number of goals, one of them being to give non-studio faculty more of a chance to attend year-end critiques in the studio majors. In the old days, final exams and final class meetings would happen simultaneous to these all-important final reviews. This created a lot of conflicts, one of which was that it was hard for non-studio faculty to both deliver their final assessments and class meetings and attend final critiques. Over the past four semesters that Studio Days have been in effect, I have tried my best to attend as many on-campus studio events as possible.

Sadly, the days of Studio Days are numbered; they’ll disappear from the calendar come Fall 2017. Once Studio Days go the way of the dodo I will still try to make it to these final critiques, but it will be much harder to do so. So I am trying to make the most of what remains.

One of my favorite programs to visit is Communications Design. It’s the program to which I have the most direct personal connection because many years ago I used to do layout for my independent record label. I certainly don’t have anything resembling the skills of our CommD students, but I can appreciate their work because I have done some graphic design. I am used to going to the big survey events that happen in the Spring, where student work from each class absolutely fills the 4th floor of Stueben hall from floor to ceiling and on every surface. I guess I haven’t tried to see CommD student work in the Fall before, because when I arrived I was faced with this:


Apparently in the Fall there’s no open session for just anyone to swing by and “survey” student work. I am sure that there are sound pedagogical reasons for conducting these closed final reviews, but I was sad not to be able to check out and CommD work this semester.

Of all the design majors at Pratt, Interior Design is perhaps the most inscrutable to me. Given that we all live in interior spaces for much of our days, at first it might seem like the field of interior design ought to be rather intuitive. But the problem is that the actual spaces that we inhabit are actually really difficult to represent abstractly in the design process. Architecture faces some similar problems, but its abstractions might be slightly easier to understand because the key designs of architecture happen on a larger scale. Industrial design is a lot easier to understand because it generally creates smaller-scale objects that can be easily represented by scale or literal one-to-one models. But interior design operates in this incredibly tight “middle scale” where one must be able to represent rather large spaces that often are defined by very critical small-scale design elements. And there are so many considerations in interior design, as the construction materials, furniture textiles, and cabinetry/appliances all influence how a space functions and feels. So for many years when I look at an Interior Design project displayed by one of our students, my eyes tend to glaze over. I just struggle to make the abstractions on display into a coherent image of what could become a real space.

2016-12-08bA Junior Interior Design Studio reviews final student work

Of course a big reason why I haven’t been able to make sense of the kinds of work that interior design students produce is that I haven’t spent very much time learning the visual vocabulary of this field. There’s only one antidote to not being able to speak a language, and that is to immerse oneself in an environment where that language is native. So off I went to second floor of Pratt Studios to try to get some education in interior design.

I have been lucky to have been part of a faculty learning community with Keena Suh, who encouraged me to come by her junior studio final reviews. I only had an hour so I only got to see a couple of student projects presented and critiqued, but I learned a lot. Their project was interesting because it involved what I would call client profile roulette. Working within constraints imposed on the whole studio, each student had to come up with a specific family profile that would define the users of the designed space and further constrain the design. These profiles were then shuffled and distributed to different students, so that each student had to design around the family envisioned by another student. In addition, each project was inspired by the “mending” of a piece of broken-but-well-loved furniture retained by the family. Interestingly, students used this mending process to develop a “vocabulary” of design ideas that would define their works.

I think that I suffer from being overly-practical, a personal characteristic that would probably make me a pretty horrible designer and perhaps an even worse design teacher. As such I gravitate to very practical aspects of the designs. One student had a profile that included a family member who played piano, so she made the piano the center of her designed space, including a high-vault ceiling section that looked as though it would resonate the piano’s sounds throughout the entire living space. I found myself wondering whether this feature would unite the family around the piano or drive everyone crazy. Similarly, another student whose design was dominated by a series of shelves designed to house the many collections of its inhabitants had me wondering about whether a big, tall, goofy guy like me would be constantly bumping himself into said shelves.

But despite being overly tethered to rather mundane practical concerns, I was able to learn a few things at these interior design final reviews. I think that it is just starting to dawn on me how difficult it is to develop a really coherent, appealing theme and concept for an interior design space. There are so many constraints to work within just based on what functions all spaces need to have (where does the bathroom go?) that it is a challenge to create something distinct amongst all this constraint. I found it fascinating that the assignments that students were given imposed even more constraint, sometimes to almost an absurd degree (the other studio reviews I visited involved creating a space for the sharing economy that seemed to be really constrained in what it demanded for its users). I suppose that a big part of the design education involves training students how to recognize what limits and opportunities constraints impose, and I can see how imposing almost-absurd constraints pushes students to contend with constraint as a general — and usually less extreme — reality.

I also had the pleasure of dropping into a fine arts drawing and painting critique that also introduced me to a culture that was new to me. I have visited a lot of fine arts exhibitions by my students, and through their patient narration have learned a little bit about what fine artists are working towards. But I had never experienced the critique process in fine arts. In many ways it is analogous to what I have experienced in design: there’s a panel of faculty and invited experts, and they weigh in first (and often for a long period of time) on work that’s displayed in the space. But the tone of fine arts is so different from the design fields. Although the panels speak with authority and clearly command respect in the space, there’s a lot less hierarchy in the fine arts critique than the design critiques. It often feels like design panelists feel compelled to tell students how to do it right whereas the vibe in fine arts is very much one of have you considered going in this direction? In strong contrast with what I have seen from students in design critiques, the students in fine arts also seem very much more comfortable with weighing in, and their comments seem to be well-received by the more accomplished panelists.

I don’t generally have a lot to contribute during these critiques, but I did say a few things in each that I visited. Although I primarily attend to learn more about my student’s studio experiences, I also have a lense of critique myself: I am interested how student work contends with scientific issues. Sometimes there’s not an obvious place for science. But often there is, and more often than not it appears that no one in the room is prepared or qualified (or motivated?) to contend with these scientific issues. Whether the piano in the designed space is going to be reverberated through the space is a scientific question, one that can only be fully understood by having some understanding of the physics of sound and music. Whether a chosen material is “sustainable” is also in large part a scientific question. And I really don’t see these very practical issues being engaged very often or very well in these final reviews, which has made me realize that there’s a really strong need for a presence of math and science faculty at these critiques.

A Major Post, Critiques, Reviews, & Surveys, Higher Education, Sustainability, Teaching

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