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Mastering Materials

Mastering Materials

Last week the Furniture Design department hosted Material Lessons, a two-day symposium exploring the importance of materials research and knowledge in the practice of art and design.

Last week the Furniture Design department hosted Material Lessons, a two-day symposium exploring the importance of materials research and knowledge in the practice of art and design. On Thursday, March 20, Department Head John Dunnigan MFA 80 ID welcomed students, faculty, alumni and other guests, ushering in two days filled with critiques, workshops and a series of panel discussions.

Nearly 30 accomplished scholars and practitioners – ranging from fellow faculty members Eric Anderson, Dale Broholm, Debra Folz MFA 10 FD and interim Provost Pradeep Sharma to alumni such as Josh Owen MFA 97 FD and Fo Wilson MFA 05 FD – participated as speakers, panelists and workshop coordinators. After thanking the many people involved, Dunnigan shared a few fundamental thoughts on critical making and embodied knowledge. “Objects are the manifestation of ideas,” he noted. “First-hand knowledge of materials leads to a better understanding of processes, and the studio is where this happens – where theory meets the material world.” He invited the audience to participate in an ongoing discussion of these ideas throughout the symposium, starting with the first session of the day: an open critique of student work.

Each of the two critiques that followed – one focused on undergraduate, the other on graduate work – spurred open-ended discussions about process, intention and such concepts as “object Darwinism,” as undergraduate Eric Schiller 14 FD put it. For instance, in discussing such practices as standing on open dishwasher doors, the group considered whether the behavior is ingenious or a blatant misuse of the product.

Graduate students Kaichuan Wang MFA 15 FD and Alex Kuzio MFA 14 FD focused on the importance of engaging the user in the material aspects of an object. Kuzio considers mass-produced objects to be “indecipherable” and takes pride in the way the bronze-topped stool he presented – hand-cast in an unsanctioned “back-alley” foundry he set up with friends – reveals its means of production. Participants appreciated the “DIY-ness” of both his stool and the piece Wang presented, with Assistant Professor Chris Specce 01 ID likening Kuzio’s bold experimentations in metallurgy to the Wright brothers figuring out how to fly.

Workshops on everything from lighting and wiring to woodturning, metal casting, steam bending and experimenting with CNC routers kept the questions and conversations flowing. Working with Assistant Professor Peter Dean BArch 77, seniors Matt Muller 14 FD and August Lehrecke 14 FD demonstrated their latest inflatable – a giant mylar pod that quickly sprang up from the terrace behind the Chace Center.

To top it all off, interim President Rosanne Somerson 76 ID, an award-winning furniture designer/maker, and Glenn Adamson, a renowned curator, historian and theorist who now directs the Museum of Art and Design in NYC, offered their reflections on the series of stimulating discussions focused on practice, engagement and pedagogy.

Having frequently presented together at professional events, the two experts shared an easy-going exchange of ideas before inviting questions from symposium participants. Adamson spoke appreciatively about RISD’s Furniture Design studios as a place of “glorious chaos where magical things can happen” and expressed his strong conviction that “a growing impatience” with our “increasingly frictionless and networked world … creates a hunger for physicality” and the materials-based making found at RISD. He added that the caliber of “traditional expertise” taught here is now almost “radical” because it’s “so hard to come by.”

In noting frequent mentions of “transdisciplinary” learning during the symposium, Somerson referenced Barbara Hurd’s book Stirring the Mud: On Swamps, Bogs and Human Imagination, noting that the “interstitial” spaces between studio disciplines are analogous to the swamp – the place “with the most interesting life forms” and “where the most interesting junctures happen.” She also likened the rhythm of learning in art and design to the slow food movement: “It takes a lot of time and hard, disciplined work.” But the “slow,” materials-based learning at the heart of the symposium discussions is what “will carry us through the challenges of the 21st century,” Somerson contends. “Mastery [of materials] is one way to create the future.”

– Liisa Silander