Introduction: #thinkdavis

#ThinkDavis: UC Davis Installation at SOFA Chicago 2014

Dismayed by the expense of building materials? Does the size of your laser cutter bed (or CNC machine) feel like a limiting factor in your designs? Disturbed by installations that are viewed by the public for hours or days and then the materials are all discarded? Enjoy participating in international exhibitions, but limited by the size of installations that can be shipped?

A team of students at UC Davis created an installation for the 2014 SOFA Chicago that addressed all of these questions and was awarded the audience choice award. Led by Assistant Professor Brett Snyder, six students created an installation made completely from discarded cardboard collected on campus (that would have been recycled). The entire installation was able to be packed in suitcases and brought as checked luggage. In essence, a $2000 budget--that was intended for materials--was instead used for students to participate, travel to Chicago, and be part of this educational opportunity.

Learn how to take a similar design approach, learn from our mistakes, and consider some of these techniques in your next design installation.

Step 1: Concept Design

The first consideration in our installation was, how could we best represent UC Davis, a school known for leadership in sustainability grounded by a strong mission of public education. Any installation made from our design department must grapple with these two ideas.

To this end, a short design charrette, yielded several possible entries to SOFA Chicago, a yearly art and design conference in Chicago. Designs were further scrutinized by how they would be seen by outsiders, since conference attendees would be a combination of artists, designers, and the general public .

Designs needed to appeal to this wide variety while also speaking to the other schools that participate including IIT, Pratt, and University of Iowa. In short, our design narrative needed to be very clear: that we had created an efficient "pop-up" installation; maximal impact from minimal materials. It could not be too esoteric and it must effortlessly represent UC Davis and finally be a comfortable place to visit.

The idea to create a series of combination chair / canopies seemed both grounded as well as feasible. They could be arranged in different manners throughout the four days of the exhibition. The chairs would allow a place to sit -- and the canopies would be visible from afar. The question: how to fabricate this using only an 18" x 24" laser-cutter bed?

Step 2: Testing Ideas

Once the main idea was chosen, students tested the ideas at fullscale. Since none of the parts could be bigger than the laser cutter bed, they automatically would be able to pack small (and thus go into suitcases). Getting the canopy to be rigid, was one of the biggest challenges, and required multiple tests / connections. Doubling up plies of cardboard proved to be useful as well as combining "puzzle" type connections with honeycomb style construction (shown above, an early prototype). Seen above are also several tests to see what qualities the materials could show off, such as light passing through the corrugation, a desirable effect.

Step 3: Design Development

During the weeks leading up to SOFA Chicago, materials were tested, sat on, pushed, and generally put the cardboard to the test. SOFA Chicago brings in thousands of people over four days, so anything we built would need to hold up to a variety of users.

Step 4: Coordination #thinkdavis: Social Media As Design Tool

Throughout the development, one way of coordinating our efforts was to use social media to share design development. So in addition to sharing files on dropbox, we also continually used social media not just to show the final product, but more importantly to share the designing / learning / testing process. We found that this was a way visual way to simultaneously gain support, build awareness, and to make the project a public learning platform.

Step 5: Installation

The installation process was incredibly fast (and even faster to de-install). In a matter of hours, we were able to go from suitcase to full installation. Because of the modularity of the chair, it lent itself to allowing multiple people to be able to build chairs at the same time, rather than the typical singular object installation that needs to have everyone focused on a single piece. In contrast, we were able to work in parallel, with teams of two creating each chair.

Step 6: Exhibition and Interaction

To keep it fresh each day during the exhibition, the chairs could work in multiple ways allowing bigger or smaller seating areas, clustering in different ways, and recombined to create different kinds of sitting stations.

Step 7: Next Steps

Students presented the project to peers at UC Davis upon their return to pass on their knowledge. By documenting the whole process, this becomes a foundation that our department has created allowing future exhibitions, activities and events.

Design Team:

Samantha Block, Malak Dirdiry, Emily Harris, Nima Rahni, Madeleine Salem, Lawrence Yuan

Faculty Advisor: Brett Snyder