Graduating shows at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) are always inspiring for the new perspectives their electrifying creative young minds unfailingly provide. A design school whose graduates are international leaders in the arts and founders of entrepreneurial enterprises like Airbnb, and who are routinely recruited as crucial thinkers into areas that are rarely thought of as design related, from Chief Creative Officers in advertising companies and strategists in top medical research labs, to innovative thinkers in government, NGOs and the CIA—must mean there’s something magic in the RISD formula.
My first clue to what this magic might be came in the Class of 2016’s final show, an art-fair layout at the RI Convention Center where the full contents of the separate departments of this year’s intelligentsia were on view and curated to inter-mix. Sculpture, fashion, furniture, film, architectural plans, visual art, textiles, graphic design, virtual reality, landscape architecture and jewellery hung side by side, emanating the spirit of their cross-pollination.
Take for example stand-out pieces like The Story of the Pig, a colour digital video with sound by MFA painting student Ziyang Wu that creates an unsettling hybrid of something like Animal Farm meets Kim Jong-un, alongside Living Room Set by Maria Camarena, an organic set of chairs with dresser, lamp, porcelain water filter and stool in classical materials like white oak, wool, terracotta and copper. This excellently crafted furniture in a retro-Scandinavian style feels nouveau American in a way that almost says, “yes, today’s terrorism and extreme right-wing leaders alluded to in The Story of the Pig are real and hard but you’re safe, we’ll comfort you”.
The dreamy Fluffy Sheep by Timothy Wang was close by and took the retro ideal further, this time to childlike wonder, in the form of an oversized stuffed animal that visitors lay on to put their head inside its head, where there’s a set of virtual reality goggles that transport you into a baby’s room memory, with a wind-up song soundtrack and visions of teddy bears floating in outer space. A performance project by Maggie Hazen, Everyonesaghost, which follows earlier work Embodied Imaginary: From Gendered Bodies in Virtual Spaces to Powerful Bodies in A Physical World fast forwards us by re-envisioning the technologies of the future with politicized lenses on identity.
Amidst this revelation were really memorable adornment pieces, Emergency Blanket in woven wool and metallic thread by Sarah Wedge, and Headset Jewels by Jisoo Lee, a set of cyborgesque headpieces of copper, bronze, silver, brass, pearl and silk displayed with large photos of the designer and a model wearing these pieces like warrioresses. In just these few pieces, and there were many more good ones, the future was visible: Generation Z is dealing with their inheritance of the sexy selfie, cyberbullying, the war on terror, environmental crisis and ever-more-frequent natural disaster by an imaginative mix of lyrical nostalgia, thoughtful activism and a glam emergency blanket that can (and should?) be worn 24/7.
Whilst on campus, select critiques of the junior class end-of-year work can be seen to understand what the students who will graduate next year are thinking, too. In a furniture design class, there was an introduction to three projects: a set of highly fetishised hinges presented on pedestals that had no functional purpose, a poetically beautiful wooden chair that was ergonomically impossible to sit in and a bean bag chair that had undergone a potentially unsuccessful transformation from being what the student called “an amorphous superblob” into something only slightly more stable but with rigorous attention to materials and a deep investigation into the principles of solidity. A more pragmatic presentation would have been expectedly common but this was fascinating: elite furniture students making conceptual work with powerful philosophical principles, what a boundary-pushing act!
In an interior architecture class, two novel works were being presented, a medical complex designed for patients with Alzheimer’s and a piazza shelter for a public suffering from natural-disaster-related PTSD, both which articulated how the emotional human experience, and some of our deepest psychological challenges, can be woven into the built environment to break new ground.
Zoe Schlacter, a student in Textile design is in the early stages of co-creating a fashion line with Amelia Zhang, a student in Painting. They are using Ex Machina, cyberfeminism, Barbarella and VR’s connecting of social media with solid materials as inspirations for a fashion brand that introduces politics and handcrafted feminine aesthetics to the age-old masculine minimalism of sci-fi vision. Zoe (http://www.zoeschlacter.com/) was taken under American fashion icon Todd Oldham’s wing when he came to the RISD museum to give talks and install All of Everything, a retrospective show of his illustrious pioneering decade (1989-99) on the runway that coincides with this year’s graduating show. In a brilliant curation that mixes his collections across periods and themes into new ensembles that feel absolutely Now, Oldham also worked with the Textile students to create the centerpiece dress, titled All of Everything, a full-skirted-universe of a dress whose tulle underbelly makes the colours of the rainbow.
Over a meeting with Rosanne Somerson, who was inaugurated President of RISD last fall, she said that three things are at the core of the education here: an ability to dwell comfortably inside the unknown to learn adaptability and flexibility, an ability to convert failure into the learning of new methods, and “algorithmic thinking”, the ability to see patterns that others don’t see. Somerson gave a memorable speech at her inauguration : “we need the capacity to imagine what does not yet exist. We need to focus on art that does not exist yet, tools that do not exist yet, questions that do not exist yet, ideas, arguments, algorithms, narratives, and even colours that do not exist yet.”
If trailblazing design and creative thinking are the trades of tomorrow, using what doesn’t exist yet to imagine the world with fresh eyes the way this ensemble of work clearly does, RISD intelligence is a mercurial, much needed force that will be leading us towards our world’s newest frontiers and through their most difficult tasks.
Todd Oldham’s All of Everything runs until 11 September. Graduating show work can be seen here: http://gradexhibition.risd.edu/
1. Courtesy of RISD/ photos marked Sittenfeld are by Jo Sittenfeld and those marked Indermaur are by Scott Indermaur.