meet the design students graduating into a pandemic economy

Emilee Geist

In normal circumstances, the Royal College of Art graduate shows are a big deal — and not only for the students. In 2019 the displays of graspable fabrics, tactile furniture and 3D forms attracted 45,000 attendees across three London campuses. They brought cheque books, industry contacts and job offers. In […]

In normal circumstances, the Royal College of Art graduate shows are a big deal — and not only for the students. In 2019 the displays of graspable fabrics, tactile furniture and 3D forms attracted 45,000 attendees across three London campuses. They brought cheque books, industry contacts and job offers. In 2020, its gallery spaces have been replaced by a website.

The RCA is a postgraduate-only institution, ranked first in the QS World University Rankings for art and design last year. This summer, 860 of its students will graduate. But the economic circumstances they face are extremely difficult.

Rathna Ramanathan, dean of the School of Communication and chair of the RCA 2020 show, says that physical graduate shows all over the world act like an employment exchange.

“You have to articulate your work in a particular way,” she says. “You would normally do that standing next to your work. A stranger would walk past and you would have to talk to them about it.”

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In the virtual world, that degree of communication is much harder. Each student has created their own webpage with photographs and statements. Jony Ive, RCA chancellor and former Apple chief designer, has curated a selection of projects for part of the website, which he describes as “the tip of a glorious iceberg”.

In a video message to students, he says it is clear the work was “made on the dining-room table”, but that it is “victorious” nonetheless.

Ramanathan describes the RCA’s online show as a stopgap (the school has set aside a budget to hold a physical show when it is safe to do so — possibly in the autumn). But its graduates come from more than 70 countries and, having returned home, many may face a 14-day quarantine if they want to participate in the event.

It is an inconvenience that highlights the limitations of the old model. “It will give us a moment of reflection about who comes to our shows and who does not, and I hope that more people will be able to discover and engage with the arts in general,” says Ramanathan.

For example, the digital show may give graduates a wider global audience: “We have been able to invite people from North America, Hong Kong, China, south Asia.” She suggests that rather than three London-based campuses, there are now 860 — one for each student around the world.

Physical shows work well partly because they allow buyers and industry contacts to hold and touch the work. Now that tactility is a health risk, might more haptic disciplines such as product design be held back compared with, for example, graphic design?

Physical shows act like an employment exchange: you would stand next to your work and talk about it

“If you asked our students that they would protest at that definition,” says Ramanathan. Students’ work frequently crosses (or ignores) their chosen discipline’s boundaries.

A photographer might produce sculpture, for example, or a ceramicist may work with video. “If we stripped out all the captions, you would struggle to say which school something belonged to.”

Patricia Johnson is the graduate programme director of Rhode Island School of Design’s furniture department. She too is optimistic: this year’s virtual show has “offered students much more reach and, as a result, much more press coverage and many more inquiries”. Although circumstances are difficult, “it has produced extraordinary work”.

“We need new directions,” says Ramanathan. “The way that our graduates are looking at the world now will lead us in those new directions.”

Here, we ask five students on leading design courses around the world how graduating into a pandemic economy has affected their most recent work, and what happens next in their careers.

Emma Fague, MFA furniture design, Rhode Island School of Design

Fague makes “queer, conceptual, furniture-like objects” and says that having worked between the fine art and furniture studios at the school, this flexibility means the current situation has been easier to adapt to.

Design students rely on studio space and equipment at their universities. When institutions closed in March, as work was beginning on their thesis projects, all teaching switched to online. That worked better for some subjects than others. Few students have the space or money to purchase a loom or kiln, for example.

Fague is lucky to have enough space to work at home, but equipment such as industrial ventilation systems are not possible in a Rhode Island apartment, no matter how big.

Equipment is not the only resource that leads to good work. It requires input from other people. “The final show is laid out in a way that mixes the different natures and departments. So a furniture student might be next to a painter,” says Fague.

“It gives a collaborative or collective feel to a show. Having not had that, our work has been very isolated. I don’t think that is how furniture is meant to be experienced.”

Fague had planned to move to Miami, but has stayed in Rhode Island preparing for a group exhibition in January and “urgently looking for any and all jobs”.

Isla Cruickshank, BA (Hons) silversmithing and jewellery design, Glasgow School of Art

Cruickshank grew up on a farm in the north of Scotland and she works part-time as a cook. Her love of produce and natural forms inspired a collection of spoons encased in quail, duck and Araucana hen eggshells that would otherwise have been thrown away.

“They’re really capable materials,” she says. “There’s a lot of innovation in them and they’re wonderful colours and textures.”

Cruickshank remained in Glasgow during the pandemic but moved her workshop to her shared flat. Working at home without her classmates led her to focus on developing her work as a business and brand, including jewellery and homeware.

“I went to art school to learn how to make and to create a practice. The degree show for me was about exposure for my work. It’s announcing your arrival on to the scene.”

She thinks those students in the earlier stages of their courses will be more affected by the period of lockdown. “There will be a domino effect. These are technical schools. How do you expect them to come out feeling confident in their practice to go onwards?”

Will Choui, MFA furniture design, Rhode Island School of Design

Choui’s furniture is made from laser-cut fluorescent acrylic panels. Lack of studio space under lockdown meant much of his work was designed digitally. He had planned to move to Los Angeles to work after graduating, but when the school closed in March he had to leave the US and move back home to Montreal.

This period will have an impact on the industry, he says. Many furniture companies that would have been hiring are small, and are caught up in the economic effects of the lockdown.

“I know that people who graduated in 2008 during the last recession could not find jobs and a lot of them started their own practices,” he says. “That might be something we will see.”

Choui is “just trying to find a job”, he says. “I know that everyone is struggling to find a job. People are resigned to it.”

Tiffany Loy, MA weaving, Royal College of Art

Having originally studied industrial design, Tiffany Loy came to the RCA with a scholarship from the DesignSingapore Council, a body that aims to raise the global profile of the country’s creative industries.

Part of Loy’s work was to have been a collaboration with Gainsborough, one of the UK’s oldest silk mills. She was not able to complete the work, so the project has been postponed to coincide with London Craft Week in September. Instead Loy has worked on a project called “The Weaverly Way”, using weaving techniques to create sculptures.

When she moved back to Singapore at the beginning of lockdown she lost
studio space so was unable to create her large-scale final pieces. She was also unable to ship materials, so had to work with what she had at hand.

“In the end I continued the exploratory process,” she says. “So I don’t have a final ‘ta-dah!’ piece, but what I do have is a much meatier piece of research. Which in some ways does prepare me a bit better. This has taught me that process is definitely more important.”

Moving graduate events online had its benefits: “An online graduation show is democratising,” she says. “I got to present my work for the online private view and I could see there were 300 participants. In a physical event I would not have the chance to speak to 300 people.”

Loy is now working on her postponed collaboration with Gainsborough. But she still has “a lot of plan Bs”, she says. “Everyone is coming up with a plan B. Plans are so fluid now that we assume things will go wrong.”

Shawn Adams, MA architecture, Royal College of Art

Adams sees his final year show as “a celebration but also an opportunity”. When he graduated from his first degree at the University of Portsmouth in 2015, he received a couple of job offers “just off the back of the exhibition”.

“You invite people from the industry, you try and make new connections. The tutors would introduce you to people and you would explain your project to try and see if there is any opportunity for collaboration.”

Having a virtual show is still a good way to celebrate the work, but it is not the same. “You just can’t engage with the work in the same sense.” This is particularly true for architecture and its “massive models, sometimes 1:1 scale”.

Adams’ MA project proposes architectural forms for the precarious communities of Agbogbloshie, Ghana, the world’s largest e-waste site. “I still have ambitions to become an architect, but I don’t know how badly the industry will be hit,” he says.

He plans to focus instead on his work with the Power out of Restriction (POoR) collective, a project to look at how architecture can help communities and young people. “I want to be proactive,” he says.

“In a few years’ time, when there is some normality, it is important for employers to realise what students achieved during this time,” says Adams. “Somebody getting a first or a distinction during the lockdown shows how committed and how hard they worked despite the chaos and trouble.”

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