Design meets Art: interview with Helen Maria Nugent


Helen Maria Nugent is a Professor of Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects (AIDADO) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she also serves as Director of the school's Designed Objects Programs (1999). Nuget's multidisciplinary design practice, Haelo, founded in 1994, offers furniture, objects, site-specific commissions, lighting, installations, and consulting services. Nugent believes that in addition to working with specific client needs many contemporary designer are utilizing vehicles such as Kickstarter to put innovative and experimental products into the market place and directly into the hands of consumers. The pleasures people experience when looking at art, listening to music, or enjoying good food should extend to our interactions with the objects and spaces we use and inhabit everyday. Although design is often considered a problem solving activity, designed things clearly serve our more abstract human needs for beauty, comfort, pleasure—many of us choose objects because they make us laugh or make us think. So much is exciting about the design world, and Nugent is ready to seize the moment, and take her creative students with her. -GV

CGN: Where do you think design fits in with art? How is it seperate? 

HM: We are constantly talking about this. One of the ways I think design is different from art is that designers are typically thinking about how their work will fit into the life of another person; most design work is not complete until it has a life beyond the designer. Even if the work is self-initiated, the goal is often for it to be able to function in the world. It's not that artists don't think that way too, but it's not as common. In the independent design studio as well as in commerical industrial design studious, it's a balancing act between the designer's concepts and the desire to connect with ther needs or desires of a potential end user. 

I would argue that today there's much more room for designers to design without a client in mind. It's often called "speculative design"—it's quite a common practice in architecture. There are many more opportunities for designers to work independently. The International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF), which is an exhibition of what's best and what's next in design, invites designers to show their newest work with the idea that will get attention of manufacturers and/or buyers. It's becoming more common that designers are thought of as intiators of design and not service providers. 

What is design and how is it related to art? 

When I studied Environmental Art at the Glasgow School of Art [in Scotland] the goal for us as students was to imagine art outside of a gallery. Is it on the street? Tied into a community? So, we looked at a lot of public art, and we had to think about where art should be. At the end of each year we made a public project. On Buchannan Street, in Glasgow, which is sort of like Oak Street her, I persuaded the government to take up the street covers and I made replacements that looked like blocks of gold. To get permission to do the project I had to make drawings and maruqettes, meet with clients, and be very persuasive. One faculty member I met said I should be a designer since design is an organized kind of art. It was exactly the right fit for me. Many artists from that program use elements and issues of design in their art. Martin Bouce, who just won the Turner prize was in the program with me. He is an example of an artist utilizing design, whereas I moved further into design but still rely on my art training. There are all these opportunities now for artists and designers. 

As a designer, what are some guiding points you rely on when coming up with a new idea? How often do you rely on classic design tenants or tried-and-true objects from history? 

That's really interesting. I try to get my students to undertand the precedents for what they are doing. They can look at art history, and every day culture, but they also need to try and understand the design territory they are in and what's been done before. I try to approach it broadly. If you just research design precedents then you can get stuck in an approach that is only about incremental change. For instance we wouldn't have the iPhone if we didn't have all these other designed things that came before. You should know your design history—and it's good to understand not just what has been done but, more so, why it was done. Two chairs may be very similar but their reasons for being created are quite different. For students, the undertanding and the historical knowledge can make the design process less daunting. There are so many factors that go into design—from understanding cultural conditions to just whims. 

What are you working on now? 

One thing I'm working on is a craft focused project. Previously I was very interested  in porcelain casting and made these porcelain stones called 'Aggregate'. Some were sold as a set, as contemplative objects you could stack, and others you could buy singly and wear as a necklace or brooch. One thing I like to do is get deeply into the material process. My new venture is in glass enameling. It's really a super simplified look—I am making these slightly domed medal shapes that are enameled in pale neutral colors—almost skin tones—so they're sort of the opposite of what we thinking of as decorative jewelry.  

I am also revisiting a project I did a while ago for Dan Devening Editions. It was a collection of etched mirrors. I had to work with a cognitive psychologist to understand how people look at each other—how they recognize features as well as characteristics of race. Then we took the recognition lines or eye movement paths and etched them onto mirrors, which of course the user would then look through to see them self. The next version of that project is about capturing the look of love. I'll be using similar technology as before but this time focusing on how people in love look at their lover's face—maybe again it will result in a collection of mirrors. The mirror is an interesting object to me, as it's somewhere between a functional object, a decorative object, and in this case, a discursive object that reveals something about how we see things. A lot of eyes tracking technology is being created for marketing purposes, for analyzing the way people track websites with their eyes. For me it's fascinating to use this technology to understand other aspects of human behaviour. 

You are a professor of design at SAIC. What do you try to teach your students as well as learn from them? 

Every year I take a class to Milan and they exhibit in the most cutting edge design showroom there, Spazio Rossana Orlandi, during The Milan Furniture Fair (Salone Internazional del Mobile)—it's the largest fair of its kind in the world, and last year they marked their 50th anniversary. Rossana Orlandi has a store as well as a gallery, so she actually represents designers. Their works are bought as well as shown in the context of both art and design. It's a super hybrid situation. You can buy a one-off piece of work by a major designer, or you can pick up simple table linens. Orlandi curates the objects thatyou can buy there, and she also commissions work that is more experimental and less utilitarian. The students spend two semesters at SAIC researching and creating the work that will be exhibited in Milan. So, design becomes very close to art in this instance. They bring their work back to Chicago and then show it as SAIC's Sullivan Galleries for the thesis show each June. 

We are really serious at SAIC about the idea that a designer can have a studio oriented practice just like an artist. They can be independent, do self-initiated projects and also work with clients or manufacturers. This hybrid practice is still more common in Europe than in the U.S.. Next year there will be a new class at SAIC for design and sculpture students—The Collectable Object. We'll explore the idea of making design for the collectors market. 

What do you think are the strongest forces driving design today?

Design is often driven by function—the client's or consumer's need. I think one of the things that stores like Target, and some others, realize is that design is now just about someting utilitarian. Objects play a big part in how people want to be seen—they express themselves through objects, like with clothing. When looking for objects or furniture, many people now demand that the design meet their functional needs, but they also want it to have aesthetic appeal, be smart, and be made of good materials, even be disposable if that's appropriate. People make so many choices and sustainability is a huge concern. They will think, 'Why should I buy this cup versus another?'. I think people are interested in things now that are technologically advanced but also simple to use—in some ways they want to be able to fix, or at least understand, the things they own. For instance, there is a trend now for bikes that are super simple, so anyone can get a tire off to fix a flat. In this case it's not about the fanciest bike but having one they understand and that they know will last. I think people want to connect with their objects, and one way of doing that is to take care of the things they own. You can see that desire for the handmade—the DIY aesthetic is everywhere in the design world right now. 


Top image: Helen Maria Nugent, Strangers, Mirrors