It's pretty, but will it sell?

Outside the classroom, art students will see if their designs are crowd pleasers

December 09, 2003|By Sarah Schaffer | Sarah Schaffer,SUN STAFF

It's a good thing that artist, critic and teacher Ellen Lupton has the awards, the high cultural standing and the respect of her peers to serve as the director of the Maryland Institute College of Art's graduate program in graphic design.

Because the highly regarded woman also has a dark secret: She loves Martha Stewart, pastel-hued dish towels, scallop-edged trash cans, Christmas-tree shaped skillets and all.

Her graduate students, she said, could learn something from the queen of home decor.

And so they have.

Today through Saturday at the institute, MICA grad students will sell everyday items that would make Martha proud.

The first fruits of a new master's program that focuses on blending the practical with the stylish, the items range from a "turntable," a round glass-top table with a switchable-12-inch vinyl album as its visual center of interest, to a pillow called neopolitan, in the tri-color pattern of the ice cream, to drink coasters made to resemble spilled milk.

Lupton, co-author of 1996's Design Writing Research:Writing on Graphic Design, a pivotal and comprehensive analysis of the field's processes, theories and influence, isn't out to mold a new breed of hobnail vase tycoons, however.

She just wants her proteges to "see themselves as people who can create products" that will be relevant to modern culture.

"I'm a huge fan of Martha Stewart because she's raised the public's taste," said Lupton, a 40-year-old Baltimore native who believes that the flaxen-haired empress of color coordination "has had a huge impact on how people view and criticize the applied arts."

Increase the cultural understanding of the mainstream, she says, and you expand the ceiling of what's possible in art and design.

The so-called store project, which began earlier this fall, demanded that the students function like today's most successful graphic designers, she said.

"Design is environmental. It's things we use, not just things we throw away. Everything [created] in the grad program is going to be real in some way," said Lupton, who noted that her students also produced the packaging, logos and Web site that would further establish a visual identity for their brand, a line of functional and smart items known as BUY*PRODUCT.

"This is an art form that ... is not about the interior self. It's always about the world, not about us. Really good designers like responding to a situation. They know that it's not pure, that it's connected to public life, to social life, to commercial life," Lupton said.

"The stuff that they make is real, usable. I'm so into it being pragmatic."

Graduate student and store project participant Kara Plikaitis said that the endeavor, although labor-intensive, was a worthwhile lesson.

"I didn't even expect it to take as much [time and effort] as I thought it would, said Plikaitis, "[but] ultimately, it was an excellent experience," she said.

For Lupton and her students, the final phase of the assignment - the sale of the finished products - is exciting, valuable and perhaps even a bit traumatic because it will provide a gauge of their victories [and failures] outside the vacuum of the classroom.

"It's just really different from a normal school project," said Lupton. "People will buy it or they won't. That's a very harsh measure of success."

But the retail sale of the items is not as important as the lessons learned through the creative processes.

Lupton hopes her students - and the consumers who see their products - will have a little more knowledge about the effects and influence of graphic designers and their creations.

And, perhaps, their lives will be a little more stylish, too.

For sale

What: BUY*PRODUCT: Maryland Institute graduate students sell products of their own design, with items ranging in price from $15 to $500

When: 3 p.m.-6 p.m. today-Friday and 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Saturday

Where: MICA's Bunting Center

Visit: www.micadesign .org

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