“Little Poop Stools” & An Anemone-Shaped Ottoman — Welcome to The Weird World of RISD’s MFA in Furniture Design
Student thesis projects can run the gamut, but this particular collection of them — representing the work of RISD’s 2020 furniture MFA graduates — happens to be much more sophisticated in execution than some of its playful starting points might suggest. Headed by Patty Johnson, the two-year program is co-taught by faculty members Ben Blanc, Lane Myer, Chris Rose and Emily Cornell du Houx. It consists of a hands-on, process-driven core curriculum, taught by Blanc and Myer, supported by an intensive thesis exercise overseen this year by Rose and Cornell du Houx. “The program is really focused on hands-on making and process-based learning — helping the students find their creative voice and what they imagine their creative practice to be,” says Blanc. “What’s really unique about it is that it’s focused on each individual charting their own course through that discovery of their creative practice. I think that’s why you also see a diverse set of bios, because there’s not one path that the students are all on. The common thread is their understanding of materials and their intimacy with process-based learning.” We caught up with Blanc to chat about the various inspirations and challenges unique to this year.
Acrytables by Will Choui
Fluo Cabinet by Will Choui
B Stool by Will Choui
For readers who might not be familiar with the RISD furniture program, can you tell us a little bit about the trajectory for students over the course of their two years?
In the first year we challenge them to leave what they know behind. If the students spend their two years in the program iterating on what they already know, I would say we don’t necessarily consider that a successful outcome. We give them prompts, usually based around materials or process investigations — it might be something as simple as a technology like CNC cutting, laser cutting. or concrete casting, but then we push them to challenge their understanding and become experts in those processes; to discover new ways of working with those materials and technologies. Oftentimes, if they’re incredibly comfortable working with wood we’ll challenge them to work with metal, or if they’re comfortable in metal and wood we’ll challenge them to get messy with concrete, or some other unfamiliar material in order to become fluent, so they can move through materials and processes. It’s a lot about getting uncomfortable with the ultimate goal of expanding their creative knowledge base.
Year one is more project based. They’re given assignments like designing a chair using a material that’s atypical, or pairing dissimilar materials — that sort of thing. Loose project prompts within a defined area. And then year two is sort of building upon the skills that they were working on in the first year. At the end of year one we ask them to create design maps to map out their creative practice and where their interests lie so they can begin to focus. As they move through the summer and into their thesis year it becomes a much more independent track, diving deeper into their area of interest and working with the goal of creating a collection of work and a written thesis document that pairs with that body of work.
And the goal is for every student to have a collection of work to show by the end of the program?
What you’re seeing is an atypical year, because of COVID. Because we value the making of physical objects so much, I think definitely a wrench was thrown into this year’s program. You’re seeing work that was able to be completed ahead of the shutdown. In a typical year, students would produce probably five to seven, maybe 10 unique objects that would be part of a big physical thesis exhibit. The annual thesis exhibit will happen in October of this year. And I think what you’re missing is the tremendous amount of work they did on their written thesis documents. It’s probably the best written work we’ve had since I’ve been teaching at RISD. They created these zines as companions to the larger thesis documents and they’re really involved.
Armoire by Xiangyu Wang
Upholstery Chair by Xiangyu Wang
How do you get from the challenges presented in that first year to a refined second year thesis?
There’s a lot that goes into it. At the end of year one we try to keep them focused on diving deep into material language and process language and becoming really comfortable being uncomfortable. Design and making things is incredibly challenging. These things don’t exist in the world, so you’re taking a sketch and trying to make something exist and that’s a really uncomfortable process for artists and designers to go through. I’ve been doing this a long time and it’s still an uncomfortable process. But in that first year it’s about identifying that this discomfort is actually a good thing. If I’m in this spot and I can work through it, that’s how you get to the good stuff. So the first year is getting out of your comfort zone and asking questions. The questioning is really important because if you already know the answer you’re not doing anything interesting in my opinion. It’s about diving deep down and understanding what you care about and then pursuing that.
I think the big thing that shifts as they move into the second year is that we talk a lot more about context and how you as a designer or artist want to exist in the world, and how you want your objects to exist. It’s as simple as: Where do you imagine these things? As you gain more comfort with the process of making and you’re building up a body of work, where does your work belong in the world? So there’s a shift to looking forward and looking out and starting to consider press opportunities and gallery representation; these things start to come onto their radar. At the same time at this point in year two these objects are just starting to now resolve themselves as finished things, so it’s a lot of self-reflection, too. A lot of looking back at what they’ve made and understanding how they want to move forward with it, and context is a big part of it. So that’s the transition [in year two] and then as faculty, our goal is to prompt them; to make sure that they’re one, asking questions, and two, asking the right questions.
Dumbbell Purse Cabinet by Emma Fague
Daydreams of Mashed Potato Squishy Stucco LoveSeat Minus the Lover by Emma Fague
Walk me through some of the individual graduates.
Ayumi Kodama’s work was based on health issues she overcame while at RISD. She was a graphic designer, but after having to confront her own physical limits she pushed and used process-based making as a tool for recovery. A lot of her writing is about her lungs and breathing and she leaned into glass casting as part of her process in a really interesting way. Emma Fague comes from a sculpture background and really dove into materials and their relationship and understanding of identity and self, using their work as a reflection of that and where they fit into the world. Erik Degiorgi came to the program without a creative background, per se; he was in the military and brought a unique perspective to RISD and his fellow graduates. Joy Zhuo, who made the Anemone Stool, is one of the most creative people I’ve met. She’s obsessed with undersea life and life observations and makes joyful work. Will Choui is a more classic designer with a very product-based designer approach. He makes really beautiful, well executed, process-driven work that’s very technical. Winslow Funaki, like Emma, also makes work that explores identity and challenges the line between art and design. She puts her objects in videos, or she’ll put them in her house or random spots like grocery stores to draw attention to their context.
Xiangyu Wang is like a poet, really stripping materials down to their essence and focusing on only what is necessary. Zihe Gong’s renderings are on Sight Unseen and she just won the NYCxDesign student award; she was part of Wanted Design and has been getting a lot of attention. Her Sweet Table Manners tableware is made completely out of sugar and cast from traditional tableware. It’s very ephemeral work that only lasts a certain period of time, and then she remakes them. Her material fluidity is fantastic. Kainan Lu is an incredibly deep thinker; for his thesis he made a 3D world, but he was one of the most impacted. He didn’t get to the point where all of the work had manifested yet. But the pieces he does have, like the wingback chair, he’s always talking about them coming to life and talking about the way we relate to objects, sort of the emotional qualities.
Bicky Chair by Zihe Gong
Floral Chair by Zihe Gong
Lanky Coat Hanger by Zihe Gong
Little Poop Stool by Zihe Gong
I’m curious about rendering and how else that was utilized this year, but also more broadly how you’ve seen it used in design and how you feel it’s affecting people’s work.
The technology is more accessible and the timeline for that kind of work has come way down. Even in my studio right now we’re working on a project and what we’re able to do now versus five years ago — it would have been impossible. The technology has been around and students have used it as a tool, but it hasn’t necessarily been at the forefront. But everything is online right now and I feel like this last semester rendering emerged in full force. I’m curious to see how it develops, at least at RISD, since we’re such a hands-on practice. We try to treat these computer programs and rendering and modeling as tools, but not the end-all be-all. It’s something we talk about the way you might talk about a table saw or a welder — it’s just another tool, not a focus. That definitely had to shift this semester. It’s challenging all of our notions of what it means to be a maker and a designer. At the end of the day, I think you still have to get your hands dirty. And I think that’s what’s really cool — even though the collections are maybe more limited this year, there are very few objects that are renderings. From the sugar bowls to the furniture, they’re all real things.
Artifact Lamp by Ayumi Kodama
Floor Chairs by Ayumi Kodama
Squeak Anemone Ottoman by Joy Zhuo
Talk to me about context in the midst of a pandemic. What was it like trying to provide the right kind of work environment for students, remotely?
The one thing we said as faculty is that you need to put one foot in front of the other. It doesn’t matter where you go, it’s just important that you go somewhere. One of the incredible things about RISD are your colleagues and fellow grad students and the bonds you make. That’s a huge loss, but it’s been cool to have social media and platforms like Instagram — for years wanted to have an account for the grads, and we started one — and now we’re using Slack. There are all of these new forms for communication. It’s always logistically a challenge to get artists and designers to come in, because of availability, flights, hotels, commitments. We always maybe have one or two guest speakers, but this year we set up interviews once a week where they hopped onto Zoom. The access to all of these professionals has been incredible — people like David Wiseman, Brendan Ravenhill, Bec Brittain, Rich Brilliant Willing. While we all couldn’t be in the same room we were able to have a collective conversation and see how people came at COVID-specific challenges and run-of-the-mill challenges in their own ways. That was a really unique opportunity that would not have happened otherwise.
I’m not trying to spin it positively, but there were a few shining moments in the semester that would not have otherwise been able to happen. The semester is over and usually the grad students move on, but we’ve done a few more Zoom check-ins; it’s created a really tight knit group, which is cool.
Dec 31 (Wingback Chair) by Kainan Liu
Concordic Sideboard by Erik DeGiorgi
Untitled (Shelf) by Winslow Funaki
If you’ve been at RISD for 10 years, you’ve witnessed the rise and impact of Instagram. How has social media affected the way students conceptualize and produce work?
Depending on what faculty member you ask, you would get a different response. I think it’s a good thing. It’s an incredible marketing and sales tool and I think it gives emerging talent access in a way you never had before. Misha Khan was making larger-than-life pieces when he was at RISD and he was able to use social media in an effective way to evolve the work. It provides opportunity. David Wiseman was able to leverage it similarly. At the end of the day you still have to make a thing. What’s really cool is we’re trying and working to encourage both — lean into the hustle of it all and at the same time be able to back it up with actually making the thing.