Teaching Tomorrow’s Product Designers: An Interview With Rama Chorpash

From Fast Company, September 28, 2010

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Teaching Tomorrow’s Product Designers: An Interview With Rama Chorpash

Talking with the new director of Parsons’ product design program.

As an designer heading his own eponymous firm, Rama Chorpash has developed environments, furniture, and art for companies like Herman Miller, Hewlett Packard and Colgate. He has also worked at ECCO Design New York and co-founded the Swatch Lab in New York. This month, Parsons The New School for Design announced that they have named industrial designer Rama Chorpash as director of product design in its School of Constructed Environments. We talked to Chorpash about the changing industry of industrial design, what product designers need to focus on in today’s market, and how humanitarian design will play a role in his program.

Co.Design: Parsons Dean of the School of Constructed Environments, Bill Morrish recently said that Parsons is “blurring the lines between architecture, interior design, lighting design and product design to reflect the evolution of these fields.” How do you see the lines blurring?

Rama Chorpash: In the past, scale of production, place of manufacture, and magnitude of user base have been key separators of practice. But computer-driven machining and 3-D printing have considerably evolved options for making, as have DIY culture and massive shifts in international trade and labor. Perhaps the older title of “product design” is more current than “industrial design,” as it doesn’t assume industry. All of these fields can approach product. There could be “product architecture” or “interior product.” Everyone is employing systems thinking and learning from each others’ systems.

Currently under leadership of Parsons Sustainable Architecture Chair Laura Briggs we are running a Parsons-wide multidisciplinary entry to the 2011 Solar Decathlon with Stevens Institute of Technology. With over 90 students participating and contributing expertise, our project is a tremendous learning opportunity. Many faculty members are helping guide experimentation and critique in meaningful and productive ways. Whether Parsons entry wins or not, a rich exchange is occurring and outstanding knowledge and connections are being generated.

You’ve mentioned that you’re interested in interacting with the other programs like fashion. What can industrial designers learn from the fashion industry?

Scrutiny of fashion superbrands has given us purview to worlds that are sometimes difficult to digest. Fashion somewhat parallels product in questions of labor, material use and yield. More transparent production is a strong crossover point that fashion helps lead. Fabric development and worker equity are of particular interest to our own Angelo Donghia Materials Library where Director Alice Chun recently began a project in Haiti investigating the revival of textile production. On other fronts, the School of Fashion at Parsons explores possibilities of zero fabric waste in clothes production.

In a recent interview with Gadi Amit in our design issue, he argues that green design has to still be sexy to consumers in order for them to want to buy it, and that’s what many companies are missing. Do you agree?

Yes, sex sells, but other qualities also connect us to each other and our things. Amit touches on a number in his interview. For design to have meaning and impact it’s critical it relate with us in an emotional way. I would add that community around products can be vital for their success — and I’m not talking about “being green.” Companies need to better reflect the spectrum and complexity of human relations. Etsy is an exceptional example of this.

As you know we’ve had plenty of debates around humanitarian design on our site. Will humanitarian design be a big part of your curriculum? How will you introduce students to the practice of design-for-good in a way that’s culturally respectful and relevant?

Must it be reduced to a dualistic question? Tibor Kalman’s quote “them = us” is an invitation to our future. He made plenty of mistakes, and talked about them openly. We should do the same, and engage on every level. The New School has 10,000 diverse students in perhaps the world’s most heterogeneous city. Here is there, and there is here, and where is America? Our networks are established, evolving and extensive. In an undergraduate program, introducing students to opportunities for citizenship is critical to preparing them to navigate a complex and often contradictory world.

Under the direction of past chair Tony Whitfield, the program for nearly a decade proactively engaged with numerous local non-profits to imaginatively explore the idea of “A Good Life.” Last year, interim director Robert Kirkbride consciously engaged a fuller spectrum of for-profit, non-profit and hybrid research, producing both challenging and relevant work. While social values of equity and service will remain embedded in the program, students will continue to have greater access to practice and place.

I recently wrote a piece for GOOD on the lack of females in industrial design firms. In it, many people mentioned that in schools, they are seeing a 50%/50% male/female split — but then women end up taking jobs outside of industrial design. What can be done to make sure the field becomes more diverse when it comes to gender?

Our male-female ratio is closer to 40%/60%. We have faculty gender balance and leadership. Looking over last year’s industrial design graduates, woman might be leading the group in publication and jobs. You may recall Fast Company featured Chelsea Briganti. She and several other female designers, including a couple of classmates from Parsons, founded the design studio The Way We See The World. Some years back, Julie Müller Stahl and Parsons professor Jessica Corr put together the exhibition Transformation at Parsons, as well as the book Dish, which gave an overview of the 40 or so female designers. Femme Den has been in the air for some time.

Perhaps striking out on one’s own is one answer. Aura Oslapus’s (chair of my program at California College of the Arts) firm A+O Design Methods works primarily as a consultant as do many independent female designers. She has also departments at IDEO [and was just hired as chief design officer at Best Buy]. I don’t believe there is a glass ceiling. Ayse Birsel’s royalty based work is impressive and has brought her extraordinary success. Today she would be in the Playboy photo in your article [a famous 1961 photo featuring top male furniture designers]. In addition to having required internships and offering a multitude of external contacts and projects, last summer Parsons hosted a post-graduation entrepreneurial workshop for our students run by Mary Howard. Interesting enough, mostly women presented.

You’re going to continue to work at your own studio as you take this position. What are you working on right now?

Between traveling on a fact finding trip to Shanghai, planning a moderated discussion on Quotidian Product: Paris / New York in partnership with the French Embassy, sitting in on countless classes (between schools), doing faculty observations and more things than anyone would want to hear in an interview, my studio is for the moment hibernating. The learning curve and work to be accomplished this year is a fast moving, steady and exciting challenge. Days are full and long. I’ve also said no to numerous outside inquires, but have one proposal out to a forward thinking innovative Swiss company whom I share many values. This one I think will come through, but hopefully not for a few months.

I did push myself and wrote a small grant to create Utopian Gardens, a series of project-based investigations that will imagine and work towards prototyping a collection of objects using often overlooked and standalone industrial processes. Artifacts intended to seed conversation around innovative visions of more localized production and social use. As U.S. manufacturing has been steadily relocating to Asia, what is left is a broken chain of once networked facilities and factories, frequently struggling to function as a whole — unable to organize complete products at competitive prices.

Has your own practice changed significantly due to these economic changes in the market?

Smaller companies I work with have been hit really hard. Their desire to produce in a more sustainable and long lasting way is often challenged by reality of sales and margins. Many won’t survive. The gloomy economy has allowed a clearer picture of the mechanisms behind commerce. It is not a time to wait. Clearly no one can work alone, and shared values with diverse partners seem the only way to productively move forward.

What up-and-coming designers out there are currently attracting your eye?

Jeff Miller, creative director of the furniture company Itoki Design. Integral to his practice is a commitment to a hands-on approach with industry, which has led the Japanese brand to produce in the Americas (Midwest and Canada). Daniel Michalik’s deep commitment to material and process while learning to interface with multiple networks of distribution and promotion has allowed him to create a business around the renewable material cork. Irene Cheng and Brett Snyder’s recent design of a civic photography exhibition by Afghan and Philadelphia students at The National Constitution Center opened a humble but remarkable conversation between worlds. Museum of the Phantom City is another of their perspective-altering projects. There is so much great work going on!

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Alissa Walker

Alissa is a design writer for publications like Fast Company, GOOD and Dwell who can most often be found in Los Angeles.