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Material Evidence: Making a Case for Meaning in a Material World_conference presentation

via ZOOM on 03.02.22 / IDEC National Conference
Co-authors/ presenters: Irina Schneid, Karin Tehve, William Watson & Edwin Zawadzki
Featured image: Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna, Italy) + Analytique (Yasmeen Abdal, FA19)
Description: An analysis of pedagogic frameworks informing Materials, Methods, and Meaning (a required junior theory class)

Proposal text:
Design theory classes offer an opportunity for students to contextualize their work in a larger body of ideas. Design theory, however, can lean towards issues specific to design-for-design sake, discrete from the everyday.

How, then, to best teach a course about the theory of materials to interior designers?

Interior Design education can fragment the study of materials: physical characteristics of materials taught in construction classes, visual and haptic properties in color and materials classes. Design studio may synthesize that understanding and yet: it is common practice not to consider factors as basic as cost. This autonomy may be appropriate, but it leaves pedagogic gaps.

One possible response to these issues is the subject of this proposal, a required materials theory class for juniors in a BFA program. Our goal: to reimagine the potential role of a theory class as a space for synthesizing (rather than analyzing or commenting on) material content from other courses.

Each week the faculty chose one material around which we organized class content. These ranged from the ubiquitous (GWB, plastic) to the sublime (marble, gold). Lectures and readings consider each material through the prisms of technology, political and social structures, economics, history and the environment.

One example: in considering oak, the class investigates the history of technology, of cutting thick to thin. Oak is not simply the subject of the lecture, it is the catalyst for societal change in which both the material and the perception of its value changes with advances in technology.

Weekly assignments are multi-faceted, homologous to the issues at hand.

A weekly reading-response post on a communal MIRO board (title: TAPESTRY) enables students to contribute to one another’s work, a collective weaving of ideas and images in pursuit of a deeper understanding.

A case-study project requires students to research and present the specific physical and social conditions of a material’s application in a particular project- asked to consider micro and macro contexts, construction and fabrication methods (including labor conditions, implications of waste and wear) and to interpret the material vis-à-vis its users and the larger culture.

A drawing project requires a student to propose an analysis of a material assembly in the form of an analytique, identifying a polemic between the project’s material ambition and its observed material effects.

Other factors: a team of faculty with diverse expertise- from active design practitioners to community design activists to academics pursuing the most abstract and theoretical aspects of the discipline.

The multi-modal model has contributed to student work in both the junior year design studio and the thesis project. Since the launch of this class in 2015, materials and materiality are consistently positioned as more central to design process. Students are more aware of the costs, implications, and impact of their material choices on their occupants, their communities, and on the interior design discipline. They are significantly less likely to rely on the good-taste model of materials selection (uniformly new, costly and neutral in color).

The architectural historian Kenneth Frampton, in Studies in Tectonic Culture, argues that no material has a stable universal meaning, that it must be understood in context. This class enables students to position materials in multiple contexts, and enables them to identify, distill and visually communicate their collected evidence. Their work demonstrates how heterogeneous frames can alter those contexts and affect understanding and assessment of materials in our environments. A design theory classes can (and should) embrace material inquiry as a hallmark of responsible pedagogy and equitable practice, through collaborative research embracing place-based, political, and environmental narratives.

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