Back [in 1986] when The Professor was teaching for the first time at Parsons [now called Parsons/New School], he had the opportunity to run a conceptual project for 3rd-year students in the Clay Metal Textile department. But instead of looking ahead via an imagined or constructed scenario, The Professor imagined a project for his students that involved conceptualizing a new fruit.
The student-designer had to conceive of the color, proportion, scent, size, sound, taste, texture, and feel; but those physical characteristics were just the starting point. The student-designer was also strongly encouraged to consider how their fruit reproduced; what microbe, insect, animal or human was its target consumer; how was it to be eaten or consumed; what its seed looked like; how it was to be pollinated; what overall plant typology was it part of [bush, tree, vine, in-ground, etc.]; what were its roots like; how it would get its energy and water [photosynthesis and capillary action]; whether it was heliotropic or preferred shade… the possibilities, and the questions, were admittedly endless but their was one message that was essential for them to get: biology informs the shape, size and scale of living things, even the imaginary fruits they were creating.
The results of those first student projects were a success and they were, in retrospect, particularly strong in material innovation and in bringing a most welcome sense of humor to bear on the creative process; short version, we all had fun. The Professor ran the project every Fall semester thereafter while he taught at Parsons. Then in 1990, The Professor joined the wagon trains headed westward and the assignment came with him to the San Francisco Bay area.
Four years after that transcontinental trip and a graduate degree later, The Professor began teaching again—this time at California College of Arts and Crafts, now CCA—and that fruit assignment was the kick-off project for his new first-year studio students. From the first iteration of that assignment onward, the students embraced the project. Over the years it became a staple of the first-year industrial design curriculum at CCA.
Even though the intro studio only met once a week, he gave the fruit assignment as either a short two-or three-week project. Out of the gate, it allowed The Professor to assess not only visualizing, presenting and prototyping skills but the student’s commitment and resolve to their craft—as well as their sense of how design must be sensitive to, and find inspiration in, nature and the natural world. Did the students discover the drawings of Ernst Haeckels from a century ago? Did they look at seeds under a microscope and get excited by the micro-textures? Did they find inspiration in the unusual tree patterns represented by the baobab or the bonsai? Did they consider natural forces and the meaning of the term “organic?” Did they explore the intersection between unaltered nature and humankind’s efforts in agriculture, genetics, hydroponics, industrial farming and beyond?
The assignment, however, was a way to tap into the type of knowledge that the students almost always intrinsically possessed yet often weren’t aware that they were connected to. In the most successful projects, that students’ own inner sense of appropriateness, elegance and systemic logic was drawn out and then merged with new information [research into subjects such as change, emergence and growth] and novel stimuli [seeing what other students were producing and the assignment itself].
There were times when it all clicked. The fruit projects pictured in this post by former CCA students Jayson Pegler and Remy Labesque were two of those. They respectively designed “Veal fruit/Nano 7275” and the “neener” fruit. Both projects exemplified “the Power of Design,” and both had what the write-philosopher Joseph Campbell called an origin myth.
Veal fruit/Nano 7275 visualized the darker side of industrial farming and had the direct color, texture and proportion references [anatomy- and physiology-wise] that made the concept of the plant as a field-bound alien organ a viable one, and it pointed in the direction of the cloaked cloaca-kind-of agriculture required for its infrastructure. Neeners, by contrast, grew like wild jewelry on vines that crawled out of rusted automobile hulks and possessed a syrupy goopiness in their interior that played-off of the fruit’s flourescence and its elongatedly fluid, open-centered, almost wearable form.
These results were minor revelations for Jayson and Remy, both of whom later told The Professor that this was one of those projects were they began to believe that they were really and truly in the right place for them: design school. Not to put to fine a point on it but the studio for Jayson and Remy—and a far larger number of other CCA industrial design students over the years—began to feel like home, a place where they could investigate not only the formal issues of design but discover, reveal and/or invent themselves as well.
It’s The professor’s firm belief that assignments such as the Fruit Project were not just empowering for the student who excelled at them; they were confidence-builders for most of the class. In the end, Jayson’s and Remy’s solutions both told a story that lined-up their project’s details so as to fit, and be in support, of one central idea. These were fruits as believable fictions. Two projects that, even after all of these years, The Professor still recalls to this very day [with a smile and a wry chuckle]. For that reason, he’s pleased to have “designed such a design project” in the first place—and that’s why they call him The Professor.
n.b. There was one addition to the assignment that The Professor implemented two years after Jayson’s class. As soon as the fruit was finished and presented to the class, The Professor presented Remy’s class with a two-week assignment to design the tool required to consume, eat and/or harvest the fictitious fruit that each student had just created. That way, the fruit—which tended to take the student quite far out into an imaginary landscape—was roped back in via the practical concerns related to the ergonomics of the hand and the mouth [in terms of eating the fruit], as well as the rational-logical attributes that a tool or mechanism requires.