This Virtual Lecture Series Offers a Crash Course in Authentic Design

In response to Covid-19, Be Original Americas democratizes its annual student fellowship through a webinar series about the virtues of authentic design.

The nonprofit organization Be Original Americas aims to raise awareness about the negative impact of knockoffs within the design industry by starting conversations about the value of preserving original design. (Unsure why this issue merits scrutiny? We’ve got you covered.) One way the advocacy group achieves this is by spreading the message to rising design talent. Every year, the organization hosts a summer fellowship in which two undergraduate design students embark on an immersive five-week journey to visit a multitude of member brands, such as Emeco, Louis Poulsen, and Bend Goods, to gain invaluable insights into original design, craftsmanship, and business. 

This year, however, played out differently. The prospect of visiting firms and studios in multiple locations proved impossible due to travel restrictions arising from the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the program director, Alyssa Young, suggested going virtual—a crucial way to reach more students while bringing the Be Original Americas mission to the global stage. The group then organized a series of live webinars from 26 member brands, who presented to more than 3,400 students around the world about various stages of the design process while focusing on the intrinsic value of authenticity. Though the fellowship ended on July 17, students now have access to each lecture through a YouTube channel, which officially went public on September 1. 

Below, a group of attendees share their most unexpected takeaways and revelations.

Kazuki Guzmán, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

I loved the webinar session by Magis. It’s interesting how a company can maintain consistent branding while working with a diverse range of designers. Also, learning about how the famous chair that you’ve seen in trade shows and museums came to be was really exciting. The webinars got me interested in working with a bigger firm one day. I’ve always thought of my practice to be a self-directed, small batch, high-quality production one, but seeing what you can achieve when you partner up with a bigger organization was inspiring. My main takeaway from these webinars is that there’s no one right approach to design; each organization had their interesting stories on how they got to where they are at now.

Nino Chambers, Tuskegee University

I’ve been a true Emeco fan since visiting their factory in Pennsylvania last summer and have noticed countless reproductions of their classic Navy chair. Through their conversation I gained more insights into their philosophy of sustainability through durability and a greater appreciation of the products that I can share with others. As an architecture student primarily designing buildings at university, the virtual fellowship again reinvigorated my interest in furniture and lighting design. As my friends and family can confirm, I am ALWAYS talking about design, and participating in the fellowship has twice dialed that up. 

Rickard Whittingham, Senior Lecturer, Northumbria University

The sessions came at such a great time given the unsettling time we’re experiencing. The range of the content was appreciated and meant I came back for several more. Amy Auscherman talking about archives and brand heritage at Herman Miller raised fascinating questions about both the future and past of the design profession. 

Saloni Kapur, Academy of Art University in San Francisco

As an international student pursuing a masters in interior architecture and design, these sessions gave me exposure to the industry here. Since I completed my bachelors in architecture from a different country, the diverse ways to approach projects was fascinating to discover. It was intriguing to learn so much over one-hour video sessions and it has, of course, helped shape my ideas and concepts, from sustainability and simplicity to technology. 

Laela Baker, The Cooper Union

I want to study architecture in Denmark, but living in America, I’ve never witnessed the work ethic of a Danish company. Fritz Hansen showed me that though I’m studying architecture, I can broaden my horizons. They design furniture, and since watching their session, I’ve started to study furniture design and blacksmithing. Everything I learned from this fellowship has offset my original trajectory. Now I want to branch out—instead of sticking strictly to architecture, I’d also like to learn to create a variety of different objects, from furniture to toys.

Daniela Madaria, Otis College of Art and Design

One of the most valuable and unexpected parts was hearing Yellow Goat Design speak about personal matters that aren’t discussed as often, like struggles faced at work, handling stress, what to expect on our first job at a design firm, organization tips, and quarantine tips to stay sane. It seems like real-world designers have their life completely together, which can be intimidating for design students. Even if you’re starting out or have been working for many years, I learned that we all face similar struggles.

Priyanka Sanghi, Savannah College of Art and Design 

I absolutely loved the session by Marcel Wanders Studio. I’m an interior and product designer and could very well relate to their work and style. The session made me think about my ideologies and ethics as a designer, and made my beliefs stronger about using design to evoke emotions. They lay their foundations in craftsmanship and anti-industrialization and I absolutely stand for it: “The Contemporary Renaissance of Humanism.” Watching these sessions offered valuable insights into the professional interior and product design industry and not only reassured my design beliefs, but helped me see many other approaches to take a career path and understand that no matter what, staying original and taking a stand for oneself always works out in the end. 

Elira Duro, Pratt Institute

Magis encouraged us to be brave in our designs and to freely present unconventional projects because there are companies out there welcoming it. Also, it was great to see Daniela Fantini so passionate about bringing her love of water into the homes of others. (It was also great to see a woman in charge for a change.) The fellowship taught me that an idea alone isn’t what makes something great—it’s the meticulousness in making which turns a thought into an original design. This discovery has shifted my focus to making with a level of intense attention that perhaps I didn’t have before.

Jonathan Kaye, Iowa State University

The session with Gabriele Chiave was riveting, exploring the design direction practiced at Marcel Wanders Studio through vignettes of completed work and their offices. I often have a notion that expertise in everything is required for excellence, but this idea was challenged by Gabriele’s inspiring perspective on being a design “generalist,” extolling the virtue in simply connecting disparate dots to make the things that do not exist. This session clearly conveyed the firm’s brand of whimsy in presentation, interior decorating, and product form, delivering a powerful vision of design direction not beholden to capital, but instead sponsored by and symbiotic with it.

I was also surprised by the story of Cerno, the young lighting brand based out of California. Cerno’s founders differentiated themselves from lighting heritage brands through their particular brand of ingenuity practiced in their designs, manufacturing, and marketing. Daniel, Nick, and Bret found a way through the storytelling of their pieces to convey innovative technology, historical reference to form, and respect for materials. These ideals inspire me with their emphasis on perspective, tradition, and candor in defining democratic design. Moving forward as a designer, these experiences will ground my work in the reality I now know to be true—the reality where design excellence, design access, and design innovation are possible together. 

Sergio Salazar, Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey

I loved Marset’s session—it was fascinating to see how they think outside the box by experimenting with materials and concepts. The sessions in which people who didn’t study design were so stimulating because it showed design’s versatility and its opportunities for everyone. Overall, the fellowship showed me all the options you have to get involved, which gave me a boost of energy to continue my design career.

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