This past spring, more than 350,000 people flocked to Milan, Italy, for the design world's biggest event of the year. An intersection of art and commerce, Milan Design Week brought together the world's top furniture makers, architects, interior designers, and tech companies. Dozens of the city's historic buildings and exhibition halls teemed with trendsetters. They explored avant-garde furniture exhibits, ethereal light displays, AI-powered robots, and other glimpses of a hyper-stylized future.
It wasn't just the Herman Millers and Louis Vuittons of the industry dazzling visitors. In Milan's Tortona district, inside a sprawling old industrial complex, show-goers stopped to admire a collection of sculpture-like lamps that would look just as at home in a museum as a living room. The functional art pieces weren't created by a big-name European design house, but by a group of American students from the Midwest. Over the past decade, the University of Iowa, which has a proud tradition in the fine arts, has emerged as an incubator for contemporary design talent. UI students regularly compete at prestigious shows for top honors with some of the world's best design academies.
Led by art professor Monica Correia (99MA, 00MFA), the UI's 3D design program has been invited to exhibit at Milan Design Week each year since 2014. This spring in Milan, five undergraduates and five graduate students took part in the Ventura Future exhibition, which showcased up-and-coming designers from 18 schools alongside professional talent. Correia's students spent the week exchanging business cards with industry leaders and ideas with peers from major international design academies.
"I don't want any of my students' work to look anything like my work or somebody else's work. I foster an environment where people look for their voices to express their creativity. They always surprise me." -Monica Correia
"Being able to present their work at events like this, not only do my students see the trends and what's being done professionally, but they also get the opportunity to talk with these people that's just priceless," says Correia. "When their full-size piece is done, it's a big thing. But it's when they take that piece somewhere, set it up, and people talk to them about it, that's when they feel the real accomplishment."
The Iowa contingent exhibited a selection of artful table lamps they crafted in Correia's workshop at the UI Studio Arts Building. Over the past two semesters, seniors in the 3D design program's two most advanced courses—Furniture Design I and II—produced a collection of furniture pieces using skills honed during their time as undergraduates, from sketching to computer modeling to machine cutting.
For the undergrads, it's a year filled with long hours and late nights in the studio, countless restarts and revisions, and soul-searching critique sessions. You'd be hard-pressed to find two more demanding courses than Furniture I and II, students say. But by the end, they emerge as confident designers with impressive portfolios. "Do I torture them? … Yes," jokes Correia. "But it's not bad torture; it's good torture."
Correia worked as a commercial architect in her native Brazil before her husband's medical career brought the couple to Iowa City in the 1990s. It was here that Correia studied under her mentor, the late professor Hung-shu Hu, as she pursued her MFA. When Hu retired in 2003, he successfully lured Correia back to Iowa to take the reins of the program.
The UI's 3D design program is a comparatively small one, with 11 undergraduates and seven graduate students in the studio this past year. But under Correia's direction, the program is producing work and developing talent on caliber with some of the nation's top programs, says Steve McGuire (83MA, 90PhD), director of the UI School of Art and Art History.
While many design schools have a more industrial or commercially focused curriculum, McGuire says what makes Iowa's program unique is that it's housed within the School of Art and Art History. The result is a cross-pollination of ideas, technology, and techniques between the designers and artists using other mediums. The program also collaborates with the UI College of Engineering, and students have at their disposal an array of manufacturing tools that would be the envy of many professional design firms.
"On one hand, this is a classic furniture curriculum," says McGuire, who also teaches courses in 3D design. "On the other hand, this is a fine arts curriculum. Monica straddles these two worlds with her students producing idiosyncratic objects that have a function."
In Furniture I, Correia tasks her seniors with an ambitious assignment: design and fabricate a chair that can be disassembled and flat packed, as well as an accompanying functional object. Students begin by brainstorming in their sketchbook before moving on to small paper models. Eventually they transfer their vision to 3D design software, then use laser-cutting tools to produce prototypes from foamboard or Masonite. Students become comfortable with sophisticated in-house tools, including the computer numerical control router, or CNC machine, used to cut pieces from sustainable materials like bamboo, plywood, or solid woods.
Max Gates (11BFA) doesn't have to go far to see his designs being put to use in the world. "I'll walk through my neighborhood and see one of my chairs on someone's front porch," says Gates, a senior product designer for Lowe's. Gates is the creative mind behind the home improvement company's patio furniture lines, as well as its ever-changing offering of outdoor accessories and holiday decorations.
The Springfield, Illinois, native grew up sketching detailed fighter planes and helping his father with woodworking projects. Still, Gates never considered himself much of an artist. "I'd been a doodler and builder and tinkerer forever, but I didn't know you could actually make a living at it," he says.
It was in the UI 3D design program that Gates discovered how his interests—sketching, business, and engineering—could dovetail into a career. After working for a time at a small design company in Illinois, he is now one of eight product designers at Lowes' headquarters in Mooresville, North Carolina. He divides his time between conceptualizing new furniture, traveling to China to meet manufacturers, and working with the business team to find the right price points for his products.
"I didn't want to be just a drawing machine and then turn those drawings over to others," says Gates. "It was important for me to be able to guide a product all the way from drawing it to getting it into a consumer's hands."
The finished pieces range from elegant and modern to ornate and experimental. Correia allows her students plenty of space to find their aesthetic, so long as it remains functional. "It's amazing how every semester the ideas are different and fresh," says Correia. "That's something I fight for. I don't want any of my students' work to look anything like my work or somebody else's work. I foster an environment where people look for their voices to express their creativity. They always surprise me, and in the end we see these beautiful things."
The spring semester's Furniture II is essentially a capstone course that builds on Furniture I's projects. This time, Correia ratchets up the difficulty by challenging students to create a collection of side pieces to complement their chairs. Stools, end tables, and coat racks are typical selections. Along the way, the seniors develop a personal design website and print portfolio to showcase their work— two résumé components that give them a head start in the job market after graduation.
Max Gates (11BFA) is among the many 3D design program alumni who credit the UI's innovative and individually tailored curriculum for putting him on course for a successful career. Gates discovered as an undergraduate that he was just as interested in the business and production aspects of the field, so Correia helped connect him with complementary courses in the Henry B. Tippie College of Business and College of Engineering. Today Gates is a senior product designer for home improvement giant Lowes (see sidebar).
"She knew what journey I wanted to go on and pointed me in that direction," Gates says of his former professor. "She's able to put a finger on what everyone wants to do with their lives in design and helps guide you down that path."
Program graduates have gone on to careers at architectural firms, design studios, and exhibition companies. Justin Bailey (15MA, 16MFA) landed a teaching job at Indiana University's School of Art, Architecture, and Design after graduation and is now a tenured-track assistant professor (see sidebar). Exhibiting in Milan was a highlight during his time at Iowa—but it wasn't a once-in-a-lifetime trip, as it turns out. Bailey returned to Milan Design Week this past April to exhibit his collection of colorful, crenellated lamps and serve as an example to current UI students that, yes, you can stay in the Midwest for world-class training and a rewarding career in design.
"Working at another Midwestern university, we do have this stigma to overcome in art and design that we're living in these cultureless places, and that's just not true," Bailey says. "But the only way to show otherwise is to actually show up and prove it."
That's just what the UI has done at events like Milan and New York's International Contemporary Furniture Fair, where a UI group exhibited work in May. The trips were facilitated by the 3D design program's student group, the UI Product Design Studio, in which members sell self-made furniture to raise money for their travels. "These are really hardworking, creative students, which I really like sharing with the world," Correia says. "Most people think Iowa is all corn, but when we arrive at shows, people are impressed."
Which is just how Correia and her students design it.
Kim, who graduated with her MFA in May 2019, focuses on tool-free, user-friendly assembly with her geometric furniture. "Less steps and less pieces," explains the South Korea native, who studied graphic design as an undergraduate before finding her calling in 3D design. Says Kim: "Furniture is a need and not a luxury, so designing something that not only looks good but is functional and necessary for living is really meaningful."
Before enrolling as a graduate student in the 3D design program, Tran earned an engineering degree at Iowa and worked as a research assistant at the UI's National Advanced Driving Simulator. But something was missing. "I wanted to get back into making things," says the Iowa City native. As an undergrad, Tran had taken the 3D design program's popular hand-built bicycle course and was intrigued by the merger of artistry and engineering. The first-year MFA student's background has given him a unique ability to problem solve—for example, how to use a single piece of sheet metal to create the casing for a table lamp with no wasted material.
When Li set out to design her latest furniture piece, she knew she wanted it to be geometrically interesting, yet soft and inviting. The result is this sleek but cozy chair in which the first-year graduate student put to use the skills she learned during a recent upholstery workshop. "With design, I enjoy that you can make something in your mind that comes true," says Li, a China native who had studied accounting before discovering the 3D design program.
For McEniry, few classroom experiences have been as rewarding as designing and building pieces in the Furniture I and II courses this past year. McEniry gravitates towards sharp, angular designs, which resulted in this throne-like chair. "I really like to work with my hands," says the Urbandale, Iowa, native, who earned his bachelor's degree in 3D design in May 2019. "After all the work you put in, with the end result you can see the progress and you have something you're proud of."
While exhibiting art at a design expo in St. Louis in 2012, Justin Bailey (15MA, 16MFA) made a serendipitous connection. Bailey had recently graduated from the sculpture program at Webster University in Missouri and was working at a midcentury furniture store. But he was uncertain what was next for him artistically.
That's when Bailey met students from the University of Iowa's 3D design program and their professor, Monica Correia. "I had this burgeoning interest in furniture, but I wasn't sure how to involve it in what I was doing," he says. "When I saw the 3D design program students' work, I was blown away."
The St. Louis native decided to come to graduate school at Iowa, where he channeled his talents as a sculptor into furniture and lighting design—as well as teaching undergrads. Today he's an assistant professor at Indiana University's School of Art, Architecture, and Design, and an emerging designer who has gained attention internationally. Bailey, who creates functional but experimental furniture, was named a top new talent last year at Toronto's Interior Design Show by Azure Magazine.
"With design, it's connecting with other people through objects," Bailey says. "I think it's a beautiful thing that we can have this shared experience that transcends language through an object. We can implicitly know how to use something based on our past experiences and perceptions, but we can be surprised by seeing it done in a new way."