Design students learn by working with pros

Philadelphia U. course pairs sophomores with a large company - and offers a prize.

At Urban Outfitters' headquarters, student Kristen Mathas shows off her prizewinning design, My 'Stache Flask, a flask that looks like a mustache when used. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)

It's hard to avoid comparing the BUILD Studio, known as Course 202 in Philadelphia University's undergraduate industrial design program, to reality TV shows like Project Runway - no one's voted off, but students do collaborate with a large company and compete for a prize.

This year, they worked with Urban Outfitters, and the accolade was a lump of cash and a guarantee that the winning student's design would be manufactured and sold by the company during its 2010 holiday season - not bad for a sophomore's portfolio.

Kristen Mathas was the sixth of 32 BUILD: Manufacturing Education sophomores to present her design last week, the culmination of a semester's work. The students made their presentations to a group of Urban Outfitters buyers and designers in a conference room at the company's headquarters in South Philadelphia's Navy Yard.

"My 'Stache Flask combines two of your best-sellers: mustaches and flasks," Mathas pointed out, getting a laugh as she tipped the flask back to demonstrate how the object's hirsute silhouette makes even a dainty person like herself look mustachioed. She passed around the palm-size object, and the Urban Outfitters crew, playing roles like those of TV judges Nina Garcia, Michael Kors, and Heidi Klum, inspected the flask's handsome hang tag and weighed its heft.

In the five years since Josh Owen, designer and holder of the Craig R. Benson Chair for Innovation at the university, conceived of BUILD, his students have collaborated with companies in Philadelphia and New York, where commissions are hard to come by for even experienced professional designers.

A few of the students' designs have gone on to significant success. The 2008 BUILD winner, Aodh O Donnell, introduced his Armadillo Chair at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in New York City in 2009. The massive design trade show attracts major players from all sectors of the industry. The chair, made from shingles of Wilsonart Laminate layered over a curvilinear form, received extensive press and four major international commissions. O Donnell took a year off from school to accept an offer to work with Council Design, a San Francisco firm. He'll return to Philadelphia University this fall with plenty of real-world experience.

Last year's BUILD winner, Brenden Feucht, a senior, will debut his Gas Money Bank, a ceramic, cherry-red piggy bank shaped like a gas can, at Kikkerland's booth at ICFF 2010 this weekend in New York.

As a working product designer with pieces in the permanent collections of several museums, Owen knows the significance of real-life experience. He conceived of BUILD as a way to impress upon students still in early stages of their design education the importance of what he calls "the compressing world of industrial design."

"There's not much separation between design, business, and engineering," Owen says. "We want students to be aware of and immersed in these realities so they can compete in an increasingly demanding marketplace."

Coming up with a fresh concept isn't enough. Designers need to think holistically - to consider production, packaging, and how the piece will be displayed in-store, online, and in a catalog, and how to align it with a brand. "Our students need to be able to take a meta-view of the project they create," says Owen, "without losing the ability to see the details."

Each BUILD semester has a different focus. With Kikkerland, the students were challenged to confront the economic realities of mass production. The company, which specializes in clever utilitarian objects (glow-in-the-dark playing cards, a laundry sack that looks like a money bag), is continually approached by designers who haven't thought through the technicalities of mass production, or how to manufacture an object that can be sold for $20 at the cost of $1 or $2. Simple molds for ceramic and plastic pieces start at around $10,000, says Laura Kellner, a member of Kikkerland's design team who worked closely with the Philadelphia University sophomores last spring. Feucht had to continually simplify his Gas Money Bank to make it work for mass production - its first iteration was considerably larger and had a window to allow the user to gauge the collected coinage.

"The process was a lot longer than I initially thought it would be," he says. "I had to keep up constant communication with the company for more than a year."

The Urban Outfitters challenge was more about understanding the demographics the company targets (predominantly women in college or in their first apartment who use housewares as a means to showcase their individuality), and the subcategories of those types (the feminine girl, the bohemian girl, the dude), plus working within three specific themes the Home team had already hatched for the Holiday 2010 collection.

"Ordinarily one of the challenges of teaching young people to be successful designers is convincing them to go beyond their own preferences and cultural perspectives in order to provide honest and appropriate solutions for their clients," says Owen. "The Urban demographic was very close to our students themselves, so they needed to take a hard, objective look at themselves in order to work clearly."

Back at Urban HQ, as the students present their prototypes, it's easy to see how the paint-your-own gnome, the salt and pepper shakers that resemble two humping bears, and the bottle opener that slips onto a Bic lighter could easily be accessories in their own designers' lives.

In the end, Mathas' My 'Stache Flask wins the Grand Prize, both for its obvious appeal and for her persistence. Based on feedback from senior buyer Paul Denoly and senior designer Jennifer Gibbs, who helped students develop their designs over the course of the semester, Mathas tossed out two previous projects before coming up with this home run.

But she's not the only student whose product may hit shelves this winter. Urban Outfitters is interested in pursuing 17 others. This might be the first semester of BUILD when the company has learned as much from the students as the students have learned from the company.

"Students have great imaginations," says Denoly, "and they're living the lifestyle we're marketing toward, so what better way than to have our target customer design for us?"

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