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Gallery Night spring 2012: UW interior design students create livable cardboard home
Lesley Sager (left) with Mallory Leichtnam in front of the structure: "It’s very atypical for students to see their projects constructed." Click the Gallery tab for more images.
Credit:Austin Duerst

A little house made almost entirely out of corrugated cardboard sheets and tubing is currently on display in the lobby of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art as a part of the its bi-annual Design MMoCA showcase, in which artists of various fields are asked to use a piece in the museum's permanent collection as inspiration for an original work of art.

Using the painting Abstraction, Belief, Desire by Pat Steir as creative catalyst, the structure was designed in five weeks by students in the Interior Design I class UW-Madison's Design Studies Department. Titled "Disaster Relief Shelter Project," the work is both an art installation as well as a prototype living space for people affected and dislocated by natural disasters.

The project was conceived by UW-Madison faculty associate Lesley Sager and her interest in the works of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, as well as via the concept of "Design Thinking," in which designers investigate problems and devise solutions by working creatively within the context of a particular field. Requiring the acquisition of knowledge as well as the ability to creatively posit solutions for real-world dilemmas, Sager thought the endeavor would be a challenging and meaningful collaborative experience for her beginning interior design students.

Choosing the topic of temporary homelessness, Sager split her class of 21 into seven groups of three and asked each to conceive a living space made out of recyclable materials that could easily be transported and constructed within the confines of coliseum-sized spaces. The project also required students to meet and interview Marytha Blanchard, response specialist at American Red Cross Badger Chapter and victims of natural disasters, who would aid in the compilation of information of what individuals look for in terms of temporary housing.

Citing "privacy" as well as "sociability" as priorities, students proceeded with the goal of creating a structure that would simultaneously serve as a shelter while fostering a sense of community. Final designs would then be voted on by the class and faculty.

"It's very atypical for students to see their projects constructed," says Sager. "It's my goal in class to help create designers that are more divergent thinkers and can pull from diverse sources. I also hope to help teach the students to think more experientially, as in designing with the experience of a space in mind while creating something aesthetically beautiful."

Such experiential thinking is perhaps counter-intuitive for interior design majors, as the students were faced with the challenge of both decorating and thinking of the space as an inhabitable quarter.

"We were stuck for a while as to which route we should take, functionality versus aesthetics," says junior Mallory Leichtnam, who along with sophomores Kala Vanden Heuvel and Rebekka Grady designed the winning entry for construction. "We weren't sure whether or not to take the route of thinking functional, functional, functional, or whether we should simply make something that looks good in a museum."

The result is impressive. Constructed by Ken Hahn from Architectural Building Arts, the home consists of a central square domicile made of cardboard tubing. At each of its sides, door-hinges are fastened to wing-like gates that allow the space to open up to the community in the motion of opening arms. A series of colorful flowers made out of pieces of recycled plastic bags spiral like ivy around barred windows to create colorful flourishes on the brown exterior, and a turntable window is featured prominently, allowing for immediate access to the outside community.

Visitors to the exhibit will be able to walk through the home, where all of the student's original models will be featured. Also on display will be a wall of photographs detailing the creative process, a short film, and even a small cardboard cat.

"We hoped to make something that could realistically be used to help those in need, but we also tried to keep a sense of humor with the exhibit," says Sager with a laugh. "Pets need homes, too."

The Design MMOCA exhibit will be included in the spring 2012 edition of Gallery Night on Friday, May 4, and will remain on display at the museum through Sunday, May 6.

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