Two Students Embark on a Month-Long Design Adventure

The fourth annual Be Original Americas fellowship sent two promising design students on an immersive journey to discover how authentic design comes to life.

Claire Lin and Nino Chambers at Blu Dot’s headquarters in Minneapolis

At this point, the importance of original design almost goes without saying. Counterfeits pose an enormous threat to the industry, not to mention jeopardizing the future of design itself. (If you’re looking for a deep dive on this issue, we’ve got you covered.) Be Original Americas, a nonprofit advocacy organization, aims to raise awareness of knockoffs and their negative impact on the design industry by starting conversations about the value of preserving original design. For example, recent events touched upon how Trump’s trade wars impact multiple design industries and how the Midwest played a pivotal role in pioneering authentic design. The organization isn’t alone—Emeco, Ligne Roset, and Design Within Reach, as well as world-renowned firms such as Gensler and Rottet Studio, are all active members.

Aside from engaging the design cognoscenti, Be Original Americas is also spreading its word to up-and-comers. Each year, the organization hosts an annual summer fellowship in which two undergraduate design students embark on an immersive five-week journey to visit a multitude of member brands—invaluable real-world exposure for rising design talents. This year’s action-packed itinerary encompassed glass-blowing at Niche Modern’s Upstate New York factory and touring Herman Miller’s meticulously preserved archives in Michigan, among many others. Throughout the five-week experience, the fellows ascertain how original design comes to life from concept to creation, as well as witness firsthand the intricate step-by-step processes that give rise to the world’s most recognizable designs.

This year’s fellows, Claire Lin of Brown University and Nino Chambers of Tuskegee University, sat down with Surface to share their most memorable experiences from the fellowship—and how they plan to put their new knowledge into use.

Hands-on experience at Emeco’s factory in Pennsylvania

Congratulations, both of you! What was your favorite part of the fellowship?

Claire Lin: I loved visiting Blu Dot in Minneapolis. The brand’s creative studio emphasizes the importance of prototyping to understand designs in context, scale, and material. Our hands-on project offered a glimpse of how low-tech prototyping can be useful for structural understanding, research, and development. I also loved the adaptive reuse in their office design. Their working environment, an open workspace in a former industrial warehouse, is simply smart. As a student interested in architecture, it was so fascinating to hear how the founders, who also went to architecture school, expanded into furniture design to take on an entrepreneurial venture.

Nino Chambers: Visiting the lighting company Niche Modern. We had a candid and in-depth conversation with Jeremy Pyles, the founder and creative director, about his philosophy on light and passion for the business. He was very transparent about the challenges that small businesses face, which was fascinating because I’m interested in the business side of design. I’ll remember that conversation for a long time. 

Glassblowing at Niche Modern

What was your most unexpected experience?

CL: Working at the Herman Miller Greenhouse factory in Zeeland, Michigan. In school, I never considered what happens at the end of a design process in terms of fabrication—my work was generally on the conceptual side. Working in a plant let me view design through a different lens. I realized the importance of considering the manufacturing and construction constraints and viability from the beginning of development.

NC: Definitely visiting Tom Dixon’s showroom. It was interesting to see a brand in which only one designer is responsible for everything, and how his aesthetic manifests throughout the brand’s collections of furniture, lighting, kitchenware, and even candles.

Prototyping at Blu Dot

Tell me about the most important thing you learned.

CL: Designers should be well-versed in, or at least have an understanding of, the whole industry (and even other industries). For example, engineering is often considered a non-creative industry, but understanding it is crucial to the design process and should be more integrated with the language of designers. The fellowship pushed me to be relentlessly curious—more than I was before—to learn and discover. Whether it’s understanding different types of fabrications and trades, or the anthropology and psychology behind how a community interacts, I’ve realized that the most impactful human-centered designs come from people who are the most aware and curious about everything. The experience showed me how different companies and designers create with purpose, integrity, and empathy.

NC: How interconnected the design industry is as a whole, as well as the importance of awareness. I’ve learned to not only appreciate the end user but also everyone responsible for bringing design to life. Even though you can’t be an expert in everything, it’s so important to understand as much as possible to communicate effectively with others in the industry. Everyone depends on each other for designs to successfully reach the world. Realizing the industry’s holistic nature will impact the remainder of my studies and make me a much more thoughtful, well-rounded designer.

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