A few years ago, I got a phone call from a woman at a Chinese university asking if I was interested in moving to China to teach and run a design department there. Surprised to receive a call from so far away, I asked a few questions: What was wrong with their design education in China? And why did they want me?
She answered the first question sincerely by saying, “You probably know that if I were to give any object to a manufacturing company in China, it would be able reproduce it exactly. The problem is that it doesn’t have the design skills needed to create its own designs.” This was clear and thoughtful insight, and it built upon thoughts I already had regarding this matter.
She answered my second question by acknowledging that for a person to convey the right kind of knowledge to China’s students, he/she would have to be experienced in a broad range of design thinking from both Europe (where I studied) and the United States (where I currently work). This was a flattering and appealing offer, and I was almost ready to accept it and move there, but at about the same time I received another proposal to run a design department at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia, which I decided to take instead.
For the past four years as the chair of the Furniture Design Department at SCAD, I often recall my conversation with the Chinese woman about giving students the right design thinking and design skills. The challenge was particularly interesting to me, not only when I started teaching in my current position, but also earlier, when I was working at another large state university. I learned that design schools are very “shop oriented” in the United States, which was a different way of thinking than in Europe. In Italy, students do not spend a lot of time in shops making prototypes, but rather use it to think about the process and to learn about the design philosophies that fuel the designs. Because in my current role, I was in the fortunate position of having the ability to change a department, I decided to try to impart a European way of thinking, balanced with the American way of teaching.
I hoped my method would take students away from depending on all the best tools and equipment and give them a different kind of knowledge, based on travel, working with manufacturers and design offices, study abroad, and so on. In a way, this was a kind of experiment aimed at giving students a new kind of real-life experience and thinking process, which they will need to become professional designers. After only one year, the change has resulted in a student body and the department that has been dramatically improved. And after 3 years on the job, the furniture department became the largest and one of the most respected at SCAD.
Of course, making initial changes was not easy. People often do not like change and see it as something negative. One of the main opposing beliefs I encountered when I began the process of transforming the Furniture Design Department was the notion that students need to spend time in shops actually making things in order to be successful designers. This was the concept I disagreed with the most based on ideas from many of the masters with whom I studied—from Castiglioni, Zanuso, Sottsass to the new designers like Starck, Urquiola, Citterio. Many of these great designers from Europe did not spend time in school shops, and they too would see this theory as false.
I also noticed that, in order to attract students, some design colleges in the United States race to have the best and flashiest shops and equipment. To me this approach is wrong because instead of focusing on the shop, the school should be proud of the bright minds it has hired to teach the curriculum. Having good educators with great knowledge in the field is always more important than high-tech tools. What I find missing in design education in America is passionate instructors who can instill in their students the right motivation to be successful. And without this type of educator, who can transmit design passion to the students like the masters did for me when I was in school, it will be impossible to create a future of good designers. Technical knowledge is not enough. People must be in love with what they do in order to evoke change in our society.
We have some of the smartest and most talented students enrolled in design education; let’s guide them toward a better future. Last year, with the help of the Merchandise Mart, I created the Furniture Revolution Gallery to help students and young designers to get exposure at NeoCon® show. It’s a good start but not enough. Just like the woman from the Chinese university who believed that design thinking—and not tools—is the essential ingredient to a country’s future economic growth, I do believe this is the only direction design schools should take. And I hope design education will move in the direction of my motto: “Less tools, more brains.”
Show your support for design education and visit the Furniture Revolution Gallery at NeoCon® Space No. 8-1140.
Italian-born Antonio Larosa studied architecture and design at the Milan Polytechnic University, Milan, Italy, and moved in the United States following graduation. Larosa has designed interiors, furniture, and accessories for the residential and contract markets. He has been the creative and driving force behind two important events: The Furniture Design Revolution gallery at the NeoCon in Chicago, and the Furniture Design Summit. Larosa splits his time between Savannah (Georgia), Phoenix (Arizona) and Italy. More at www.LarosaDesign.com