Student Design Team Competes at Chicago Art Fair

Finalists Head to SOFA CONNECT

Oasis. Photo by Natalie Fiol.

University of Illinois students demonstrated their design skills at a major art and design show in Chicago.

Students in art and design and architecture participated for the first time in the SOFA CONNECT student design competition, part of the Sculptural Objects Functional Art and Design Fair in Chicago November 3–6. The U of I team was chosen as one of six finalists in the competition, which asked students to design a seating area for people attending the show. The finalists built their designs for installation at SOFA, which is open to the public and draws 35,000 visitors.

"There's no real area within SOFA to take a break or sit down. It's all divided into gallery spaces. What students were charged with doing is creating a seating area for people to be able to sit down and relax," said Katrine Trantham, the assistant dean for recruitment and admissions for FAA. Trantham is the college's liaison with SOFA.

The teams were given a footprint for the size of the area they had to work within and were told they needed to include a seating element and a lighting element. The U of I team's design, Oasis, was inspired by Japanese dry gardens, or zen gardens. It includes large, moveable cushions for seating and large lights inspired by weather balloons. The area also has gravel beds that can be raked and that, in Japanese gardens, imitate rippling water.

"I haven't seen anything as structural as what we're doing," Trantham said. "The lighting structures are enormous. [The students] are actually sewing these large, boulder-looking seating elements out of thick felt. It's sitting up on a platform, not on the ground."

The U of I's team includes students from art and design (most of whom are studying industrial design) and architecture. They came up with their design in the spring 2016 semester and submitted it to the competition. They learned in June that the team had been chosen as a finalist. A class was created for the fall semester to bring more students onto the team to help build the project.

"I had never before been in a class where I was given the opportunity to build a life-sized pavilion," said Neha Rane, a graduate student in architecture. "The exhibit has a unique mix of materials, and the stark white nature of the space lends a visual comfort to the visitors who might be passing through the art expo. Working with materials like felt and fur and the turf on the base really challenged the way we handled this entire project. We have hand-stitched the felt and the fur, keeping in mind the feel of the art expo, which entirely speaks through its details and that every inch is designed and carefully articulated."

FAA's SOFA CONNECT team. Photo by Sean O'Connor.

"This has been a great learning experience for faculty and students," Trantham said. "The college is fairly siloed in terms of curriculum and what students are doing in individual school spaces. Architecture learned about the lab and build spaces in art, and vice versa. They are talking about being more collaborative."

Teams that are finalists receive $1,500 from SOFA to help with the building of their designs, but that covered only a fraction of the cost of the U of I's project. It cost more than $16,000 to build and transport to the art fair at Navy Pier. Most of the cost was for materials, and the money for the project came from the FAA dean's office.

The students were encouraged to use recycled materials. They wanted to make the project as green as possible, but some environmentally friendly materials were more expensive. Trantham said the college would like to get sponsors to help with the cost of materials for future projects.

"It's a significant investment," she said.

But the opportunity to participate is both a learning experience for students and exposure for the U of I. Many high school art programs bring students to SOFA, Trantham said.

"A lot of folks up here are not aware of what FAA has. The U of I is very well-known and established for business and engineering. But we have nationally ranked programs [in FAA]. Industrial design is one of the top 10 in the nation. A lot of people didn't know this," Trantham said.

"We're excited to be there in the company of so many other great schools," she said.

Among this year's finalists is Pratt Institute, which has won the competition several times, and the University of Cincinnati, which competes directly with the U of I for students, Trantham said.

The Oasis installation is currently on display in the Blicharski Atrium of Temple Hoyne Buell Hall at 611 E. Lorado Taft Drive in Champaign.

—Jodi Heckel