Braving the lightning bolts of an early summer storm, Chicago’s intrepid designers and design aficionados , as well as the Object Design League. Since ODL’s inception in 2009, it has grown to be both a social and commercial nexus for new Chicago design, having hosted events, sponsored design charrettes, curated exhibitions, and most recently, opened a pop-up shop carrying objects by ODL participants alongside designers new to the Midwest. Worth Your Salt was staged inside an existing Bucktown boutique for three weeks, and for Smith, it fulfilled ODL’s aspirations to bring young designers together to both share their ideas and sell their work. The shop/exhibit, said Smith, “tried to address the entire design community: designers, retailers, and consumers. The success of the shop was that we sold a good volume of stuff. In design, unlike contemporary art, it’s okay for it to be a more commercial activity.”
Finding a way to put work out into the world is among the biggest challenges for any designer. , director of SAIC’s Design Objects track, “All of the schools have really different but not incompatible approaches. When we were developing the program, we looked really closely at other schools in Chicago and considered [SAIC’s] art context. Many of our faculty came from Europe or studied at Cranbrook. We also looked to programs like London’s Royal College of Art and ECAL in Switzerland, where designers had the opportunity to be independent in a studio environment.” Still, the school has drawn faculty from local talent like industrial designer , a four-person studio founded in 2009 by Hemmant Jha, is one practice exploring ways to bridge Chicago’s intellectual and professional worlds. One of the first projects for Jha and his partners, who all have dual backgrounds in engineering and design, was a self-initiated design for an affordable wheelchair. The social implications were significant, and after a partnership with a local rehabilitation center was slowed by legal considerations, Thinkmore established a nonprofit called Wheelwell in order to open the project to different collaborators to help bring a design to market.
For Jha, research labs at universities offer the benefit of investment in a design’s intelligence, so he began a product design workshop at IIT this past spring. Both wheelchair users and venture capitalists were brought in to critique the final projects, and two designs from the course will continue development. “Designing the object is the fun part, but it is also a small part,” Jha said. “In order to get something like this made and into the world requires a broader set of skills and expertise.” Any profits generated by the project would be recirculated into the curriculum at IIT to fund similar courses.
With growth come financial needs. Designers and educators alike hope the city will offer more support in the form of grants or recognition. There’s a pervasive sense that this is necessary because young American designers, without a more established atelier apprenticeship tradition as exists in Europe, are at a disadvantage to their counterparts abroad. Recognition also attracts funding, of course, and more Chicago designers are getting attuned to raising their profiles by traveling to international fairs.
Volume, Smith, Linder, and others in the ODL like Michael Savona, and Bruce Tharp and Stephanie Munson of Materious, all made an appearance in New York for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) this May. An annual trip to the Milan International Furniture Fair, where it is one of few American schools to show student work, is a standout aspect of SAIC’s education program. “If you want to work in design-conscious companies,” Nugent said, “Milan is one of the most important places in the world to show. The students get a sense of what their competition is, and an understanding of the bigger picture.”
For Zoe Ryan, who along with her curatorial work is also teaching a course at UIC, a new paradigm is emerging. “Designers are thinking in a much more manifold way, with many types of creative projects in one studio,” she said, citing Chicago’s deep design history across disciplines, its schools, and the presence of consulting firms like IDEO as important components of the current rapid expansion of design activities. Rather than calling this new work emerging, however, Ryan puts it differently: “Designers, at their best, are ambidextrous. They make multiple turns in their careers, which can all be said to be very emerging, in terms of using new technology or finding new formal solutions.” In other words, Chicago’s designers are on a roll.