The Beauty of Critical Making

I spend many of my days at RISD trying to relearn what I thought I knew about design; I spend others sharing what I have learned with the rest of the world. Anything I can say about design to CEOs and government officials is far eclipsed by showing the work of our alumni in the traditional form of an exhibition — as presented here in both Milan and New York City.

Does the RISD work in this show differ from any other work? The simple answer is “yes”; the complex answer is “no.” The easiest answer is to enjoy the work in this exhibition and come to your own conclusion. But in choosing a more difficult path, I will attempt to explain my yes/no response. It is this kind of attitude — choosing to swim upstream or run gleefully uphill — that pervades the design ethos of this work, and at RISD in general.

The work you see here is “well made,” which is often construed as a pejorative to many artists. Of course, what I mean is: It’s well conceived. At RISD “well made” simultaneously means “well conceived,” because in our community thinking and making aren’t two separate things.

Consider Ian Stell’s Femten chair. Using a radially-oriented origami approach, he takes something that looks like a squid when flattened and unfolds it into a surprisingly standard chair. It shows how something extraordinary can be made ordinary — how what is organic and sensual can become geometric and dry. In essence, Stell achieves the opposite of Modernism by manipulating material and form.

Misha Kahn’s Pig Bench is an act of violent creation in the manner of mix, mold, slash that evokes a part-pagan/part-chemistry experiment à la Dr. Frankenstein wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt. The impact is so bold that viewers need not wait to understand what they feel; they simply want to take in its energy, immediacy and freshly made essence. Making and thinking intertwine fluidly, and with absolute resolve; this is what we do at RISD.

But this manner of concurrent thinking and making — what we refer to at RISD as “critical making” — is not limited to the works you see here. Many of our graduates teach at colleges and universities, high schools and grade schools around the world. They have trained other students to become teachers — and worked alongside many other teachers — for well over a century now. And so the reason I simultaneously answer yes, the work is unique, and no, it’s not, is because our vocabulary is shared and championed by a global design community.

As a whole, this work reenergizes the importance of making (whether by hand or machine or computer) and thinking (whether materially-based or historically-based or culturally-based) and epitomizes what critical making can achieve for design in this century. We invite all visitors to this show to rejoice in this new generation of critical makers.

John Maeda
President, Rhode Island School of Design
April 2013