RISD Faculty Stories

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Shaping Flight

02/24/2014

Without a hint of hesitation, Caitlyn Au 15 GL zips herself into a protective jumpsuit, takes a deep breath and enters a pressurized wind chamber at SkyVenture, an indoor skydiving facility in New Hampshire. Seconds later, she feels buoyed by an unfamiliar – yet pleasant – sensation. The glassmaker is literally floating on air.

“When I was in this state of levitation, I was completely calm,” explains Au after the fact. “It was a truly meditative experience that inspired me to think about the elements of flight from an entirely different perspective.”

Au’s heart-stopping aerial adventure was part of the research undertaken by students in The Shape of Flight, an interdisciplinary studio sponsored by Cessna Aircraft Company, a subsidiary of Textron Inc. During Wintersession – the first part of the phased investigation, which continues with a second studio this spring – students explored modes of flight and how it’s designed and achieved, with the goal of creating theoretical scenarios meant to elevate the experience of commercial aviation. Aeronautical engineers and designers at Cessna will then reference their innovative projects as inspiration for future aircraft designs.

“In many ways this studio is an experimental design lab,” notes Assistant Professor of Interior Architecture Yugon Kim, who is teaching the both parts of the research effort, along with Senior Critic in Glass Chris Taylor MFA 02 GL. “Students are exploring the spatial and temporal experiences of flight and creating varied types of projects based on this research.”

In addition to experiencing zero gravity on earth, students have been investigating the physical affects of aeronautics high above the ground. On a crisp afternoon in January, the group traveled to T.F. Green Airport outside Providence, boarded a single-engine plane about the size of a four-door sedan and took off into the clear blue sky. At one point during the flight – while soaring over Narragansett Bay – the pilot handed over the cockpit controls to his passengers.

“I was surprised to find that flying the plane felt very intuitive,” explains Jeongwoo Lyo 15 ID with a big smile. “It’s a lot like driving a car – only the controls are more sensitive. It feels very different than riding in a Boeing 787 or another large commercial airliner. You feel more free. It was an exhilarating experience.”

As part of the lofty adventure, Lyo strapped on a heart-rate monitor and noticed that his pulse accelerated rapidly during take off and landing. This basic physical response inspired him to imagine soft lighting as a means of pacifying passengers’ nerves during the most stressful periods of a flight. Lyo now looks forward to continuing this line of research in The Space of Flight, the follow-up studio Kim and Taylor are teaching this spring.

“Ever since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by the science behind aviation,” notes Lyo. “I couldn’t stop playing video games that simulated flight. Now, getting the chance to work with Cessna – one of the world’s leading manufacturers of small aircraft – is a mind-blowing opportunity.”

Au feels equally inspired, moved by the magical properties of flight. During Wintersession she created a whimsical altar decorated with found objects and small glass talismans filled with airy bubbles. For a decorative touch, she added thin strips of white cloth to the periphery of the display. “Most people only ever dream of flying through the air,” she notes. “Through my art, I want to recapture that childlike feeling – where the possibilities are boundless.”

–Abigail Crocker

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tags: corporate, collaborations, Glass, innovation, interdisciplinary, Interior Architecture, research, STEAM, wintersession

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In informal crits, students are called on to defend their own work and provide constructive feedback to each other.