SAIC's whatnot series offers students invaluable real-world experience

Learning by Doing

Being design junkies, we're fascinated by the people and ideas shaping the broader design conversation. That's why we were so excited to recently learn about the impressive Industry Projects studio at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). This year-long course, led by professors Helen Maria Nugent and Jim TerMeer, tasks students with conceiving, designing, and branding a product for possible inclusion in the school's shoppable whatnot collection, several iterations of which have been presented annually during Milan Design Week. This 360-degree, real-world approach to learning—offering students a practical sense of what's entailed in bringing a design to market, from a concept to a finished, packaged item on a shop shelf—is invaluable, and provides the students impressive international exposure. Previous whatnot collections have led to collaborations with the likes of CB2; SAIC student designs are currently shoppable in the store as part of a 2-year, 2-collection commitment, in fact.

The 2015 whatnot presentation at Spazio Rossana Orlandi Photo courtesy of SAIC.

The 2015 collection debuted just two weeks ago at Spazio Rossana Orlandi  (notably, this is the eighth year SAIC students have shown at the esteemed gallery), and centered around the theme of "Holes: Everyday objects with gaps, apertures, craters and voids." The works on display by 12 student designers explored how simple actions can transform the commonplace, resulting in  "everyday objects with a twist: pillows that hug you back, messy vases, torn mirrors, soul-searching lamps, and dented platters."

Hot Mess by Tanner Bowman; unique vessels handmade using a thermoplastic extrusion process. Part of the 2015 whatnot collection photo © Jonathan Allen, courtesy of SAIC.

According to Nugent, the chair of SAIC's Designed Objects program, "Whatnot exemplifies one of the school's core values, that meaning and making are inseparable. In the Fall semester the students explore ideas in response to an annually-set theme, and we spend the first semester developing these into viable design concepts through research and intense prototyping. The goal is to help each student find their individual voice as a designer. We produce most of the final products in-house utilizing the school's diverse design and art workshops (from digital looms to a full metal foundry), but we also have elements fabricated in collaboration with local manufacturers."

She goes on, "In the Spring semester, the students work collectively to design and fabricate the packaging and the exhibition fixtures while working with the school’s communications team to develop branding concepts and marketing materials. This comprehensive learning-by-doing approach gives the students a realistic understanding of what it really takes to bring a design to market and present at an international design event. As emerging designers and young entrepreneurs, it’s vital for them to experience all aspects of the process from researching materials and processes, to negotiating with external vendors, organizing the shipping manifest, and engaging with visitors to the exhibition. Showing at Spazio Rossana Orlandi is also an incredible learning experience since the other exhibitors are all design professionals and the students have to rise to this challenge and present themselves as professionals too."

Force by Sarah M. Doonan, a bronze platter composed using artificial wind; part of the 2015 whatnot collection Photo © Jonathan Allen, courtesy of SAIC.

Sinmi rocking stool in plywood and rubber by Norman Teague, part of the 2015 whatnot collection photo © Jonathan Allen, courtesy of SAIC.

Moon Jelly photo © Jonathan Allen, courtesy of SAIC.

whatnot collection packaging Photo courtesy of SAIC.

Congratulations to the entire whatnot crew! We can't wait to see what's next!


*All images courtesy of SAIC

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