Designing from the
at Art Center
By Mike Winder
Ask Environmental Design students at Art Center to describe their area of expertise, and you’ll often get a list of things that they’re not. They’re not architects, though the two disciplines are related endeavors. They’re not interior designers, though they can design interiors. And they’re not ecological designers, though these days sustainability is always a major consideration.
So what exactly is environmental design? Environmental Design Chair David Mocarski, principal of Arkkit Forms Design and an Art Center faculty member who recently celebrated his 100th term teaching at the College, defines environmental design as a discipline that encompasses the total spatial experience. “From the first moment of encounter to the last moment of interaction, it is everything that touches you on a visual, tactile or sensory level,” said Mocarski, who explains that designing furniture, fixtures and innovating with materials are all activities that stem naturally from designing a total experience. “We look at what’s going on inside. We look at the social, cultural, emotional, psychological and physical needs. And then we build that project from the inside out.”
Think environmental designers cover a lot of ground? You’re right. Environmental Design students at Art Center work on projects that range from exhibitions, residences, restaurants, retail spaces, hotels, furniture, lighting, graphics and, increasingly, brand strategy. And that list is sure to grow as the department expands in the fall of 2012 with a new graduate program that will give students the time and resources to pursue personal areas of interest.
On the following pages, we give you a sneak peek at the department’s future and introduce you to Environmental Design faculty, alumni and students who have brought their design skills to projects ranging from a barstool to a public park for teens, from a pop-up retail space in Berlin to laundry solutions for impoverished neighborhoods in Chile.
Spaces with Emotion
Mocarski likes to compare the strategy behind designing an emotional and meaningful experience within a space—be it a residence, exhibition, restaurant, hotel or public space—to the manner in which filmmakers structure a movie. “A movie’s opening scene introduces you to the subject matter and, as the story evolves, the film engages you frame by frame,” said Mocarski, who added that it’s actually the nuances and encounters along the way that provide the real impact. “When you hit the end of the experience, what are you thinking? What is the emotional take-away?”
Environmental Design instructor Emil Mertzel thinks one way for designers to achieve that emotional take-away is to let deeper cultural meanings inform their designs, rather than engage in form for form’s sake. Mertzel, who cofounded Lookinglass Architecture & Design, says a space should also tell a story, but not something so straightforward that the designer’s intentions are conveyed absolutely. “Ideally, the design of a space should encourage others to see that there are multiple possible interpretations of a space,” said Mertzel, who likens the experience to lying down on a lawn and seeing shapes in the clouds above.
For his firm’s 2008 proposal for the Cheongna City Tower in Incheon, South Korea, Lookinglass took inspiration from “Songs of Flying Dragons,” an epic poem of heroic tales and Korean mythology commissioned by King Sejong (1418–50) during the early years of the Choson Dynasty (1392–1910), an era significant for both the country’s scientific and technological innovation and its independence from foreign rule. Their design incorporated imagery from the poem—the dragons took the form of six intertwining, skyward-reaching strands and the tower base evoked the form of Korea’s innovative “turtle ships”—to subtly pay homage to the past as well as assert South Korea’s emerging influence in the world. “Looking at the tower, you would never know that all that context is in there,” said Mertzel. “But it’s an example of how research on deeper cultural influences can focus a design.”
For Environmental Design student Ini Archibong, who won the first Bernhardt Design + Stylus’ “Student Designer of the Year Award” in 2010, the context he’s most interested in exploring comes from within. Archibong’s philosophy toward design involves putting as much of himself as possible into the objects and spaces he creates, with the hope that others will see similarities between his experiences and their own. “I want to take who I am, and all the things that make me different, and transform them into something that shows that I’m actually no different from anyone else,” said Archibong.
Archibong points to his fourth-term project, a concept for an installation called Destiny—which draws inspiration from both The Hero with a Thousand Faces, writer Joseph Campbell’s examination of the archetypal hero, and the “Fortress of Solitude,” Superman’s secret crystalline Arctic headquarters—as an example of how he wants to use his creations to share and engage with others. In the Superman films, through the use of “memory crystals” inside his headquarters, the titular hero is able to access holographic memories from his home planet, most memorably, recorded messages from his deceased father. Archibong conceived Destiny as a collapsible, roving 21st-century “Fortress of Solitude.” The structure itself resembles Superman’s hideaway, with large glass slabs jutting out of the ground. Projected onto these slabs are videos depicting archetypal heroes throughout the ages, from King Arthur to Luke Skywalker, interspersed with videos of real-life individuals who have visited Destiny and have recorded their own stories of heroism, whatever that means to them. The take-away message? “Heroes aren’t one in a million, heroes are everywhere,” said Archibong. “Heroes are within every person. You just have to decide to be guided by what you believe to be right.”