Innovation by design: How CIA students are transforming Cleveland

Patricia Sheehan was beginning to notice a trend. As editor-in-chief of VMSD, a leading national interior architecture trade magazine, she was seeing more and more Cleveland Institute of Art students featured in their Designer Dozen, a who’s who put together by the publication that honors major players in the industry under the age of 35.

Last year, the Lakewood resident decided to visit the annual Spring Design Show to see the up-and-coming ingenuity in her own backyard firsthand. The event displays works by students of the school’s interior architecture and graphic design program, as well as the industrial design department, which is largely regarded as one of the top in the nation.  As three disciplines that work closely together, the show highlights their interconnectivity.

This year’s Spring Design Show opening reception takes place April 21 from 6:30 - 8:00 p.m. in the second floor design studios of CIA's new George Gund Building (11610 Euclid Avenue). The Runway Show, hosted by the jewelry and metals department, will take place the same night from 7:30 – 9 p.m. at the Reinberger Galleries.

“I was blown away by the quality and maturity of their work,” Sheehan says. “It was sophisticated, and not only that, their passion and enthusiasm was fun to witness.”

It’s not just publications taking notes of CIA’s roster. The Spring Design Show is noted as a way for local and national companies and consulting groups to recruit rising stars. Cleveland companies are eager to retain local talent and as more opportunities continue to arise for design students, their work is continuing to define the city.

"The Spring Design Show provides a great opportunity for the public to experience our students’ innovative, creative design solutions and to talk to our students, in real time, about their work,” says CIA President Grafton Nunes. “I love to see the reactions of people coming to this show for the first time. They’re typically so very impressed by both the variety of projects our students tackle, and the quality of the execution of each design."

Industrial Strength

Though the show began in the 1980s, in recent years industrial design chair Dan Cuffaro has lead the way in sculpting it into what it is today.

<span class="content-image-text">2014 Spring Design Show</span>2014 Spring Design Show

“This is where design begins,” Cuffaro says on the ground floor of the East Blvd. Gund building, standing in a hallway surrounded by giant, floor-to-ceiling renderings of sporty fast cars, new Browns uniforms, and other products from the imagination of industrial design students.

In the main studio, wooden workstations on wheels line the space. The innovative “Hive” cubes made from reclaimed materials were created by Cuffaro himself to foster open, modern learning experiences. The mobile set-ups will soon find a new home at the Euclid Ave. Gund Building when the school completes its unification this fall. CIA remains one of the few schools that offer students their own studio area.

Between the stations, it’s not uncommon to see a Little Tikes cozy coop minicar and other toys scattered about. Hudson-based Tikes collaborated with students on a recent project that examined ways to make products with higher value for lower labor costs to encourage domestic production. Along with the likes of Fischer Price, Chrysler, GM, and Ford, Tikes is just one of the many companies that come to the school to work with students for hands-on projects and to survey the Spring Design Show for interns and future full-timers.

The show began as a way for automotive companies to view the works of industrial design students before opening up to include graphic design and interior architecture. Though it was formerly one of the key ways for companies to scout new employees, Cuffaro says the advent of social media networking and greater opportunities for students to market themselves online often leads to employment well before the show. Because of this, its role has shifted.

“Now it’s about fostering relationships with the companies,” explains Cuffaro. “Both students and faculty are getting feedback from the employers. It’s become a community building event.”

Among those are many Cleveland-based companies bidding to keep talent in the city such as consulting firms Nottingham Spirk and SmartShape and corporate employers GE Lighting, Invocare, and Step 2.

Senior industrial design major Geemay Chia will be one of 107 students presenting. The Gates Mills native’s Hive studio, where she spends early morning into late evening between classes, is lined with mock-ups labeled with sticky notes reading “super bionic features.” Chia is busy at work on her senior thesis project, but she’s already had opportunities through the school to garner a wide net of accolades before graduation.

<span class="content-image-text">Current CIA Industrial Design senior Geemay Chia</span>Current CIA Industrial Design senior Geemay Chia

Just this March, Chia competed with students from more than 30 colleges in the International Housewares Association’s Student Design Competition. Her Clean Mate Personal Cleaning Companion, a walker that aids individuals with limited physical mobility to store cleaning supplies, took home second place.

“I was in the grocery store and I saw an elderly couple struggling to put some cleaning tools into their grocery cart. I’ve lived with my grandparents for a few years and they struggle with home cleaning on their own,” she says of her inspiration, which echoes a hurdle facing America’s aging population.

Support can be found throughout the community as well. CIA’s University Circle neighbor the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art sponsors an annual furniture design competition, where the winner’s work is fabricated. 2015’s chosen design by senior Justin Henry is a warm, wooden structure with unmistakable contrast to MOCA’s cool interior.

While the work of CIA grads can sometimes be hidden in plain view, their designs illuminate the art of the everyday.

Designing Cleveland

After René Polin graduated in 1994, he had a brief stint in the corporate toy making world before he caught the entrepreneurial bug. When it came time to start his own product design consulting firm, he knew he wanted to plant its roots in Cleveland. Today, Balance, Inc.’s full design staff of CIA grads work on crafting products for local and national companies.

In 2012, they partnered with Cleveland’s Diebold to create the first ATM of its kind to integrate with mobile devices via the cloud. They’ve also worked with local company Findaway to collaborate on the digital video player Playaway View and Newbury’s Kinetico to develop a water filtration system.

“The region was always strong in manufacturing,” says Polin. “I thought to be able to be here and really focus a little more on the local and regional clients to help keep the region strong and healthy was exciting.”

While the company first began in Chagrin Falls, Polin soon devised that he wanted to be part of the renaissance of downtown Cleveland. He moved Balance, Inc. into the redeveloped St. Clair – Superior industrial complex Tyler Village. The history within the walls of the former factory is an inspiring mindset for a group of designers, Polin says, not unlike the architecture of CIA’s McCullough building, a 1915 Ford plant.

Polin’s team now maintains a steady flow of interns from CIA. Internships, which Polin credits as his own personal key to success, not only provide real world, in-studio experience to industrial design students, but to bring in a fresh perspective to Balance’s seasoned staff.

“Internships benefit the students but they equally benefit the designers,” Polin says. “Sometimes it reminds someone who’s been out in the professional world how special the opportunity is to be able to do this for a living.”

Only half a mile away on Superior Ave., Richardson Design, founded by CIA alum Scott Richardson, is laying out floor plans for Cleveland landmarks and hot spots. The interior architecture firm has crafted many of the most iconic settings of popular bars, restaurants, and shops throughout the city.

One of VMSD’s 2015 Designer Dozen included Richardson’s creative director Garrett Thompson, a 2006 CIA grad. For Thompson, dreaming up the “biker bar chic” tattoo art for Michael Symon’s B Spot restaurant or creating the ambiance of old school charm for Flats revival concert venue Music Box Supper Club is all in a day’s work. In 2010, Thompson returned to his alma mater to teach interior design.

Of course, so many of our most ingrained Cleveland memories and motifs wouldn’t be complete without the graphic branding we associate with them. Think the cartoonish pig logo for Chris Hodge’s Hodge Podge truck, which trekked its way across the country on Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, designed by ‘02 grad Aaron Sechrist, also known as OKPants. Or the brightly hued gears that make up Joy Machine Bike Shop’s logo, created by CIA grad Trevor Marzella, which you see whenever you’re strolling – or, better yet, cycling – through Ohio City’s bustling West 25th St.

A cog similar to Joy Machines’ can be seen encasing the new Cuyahoga County official seal. Meant to represent Cleveland’s industrial past, CIA student Nolan Beck designed the emblem with four quadrants to symbolize the region’s strength in healthcare, its wealth of forests and parks, Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River, and its bridges.

From Workshop to Runway

All eyes were on CIA when illustration graduate Valerie Mayen took to national television to compete in the fashion design show Project Runway. She would go on to be an integral part of infusing new life into Gordon Square Arts District, where her storefront Yellowcake operated for four years, and continues to add vibrancy to Cleveland’s clothing scene independently.

But even before Mayen’s debut, it was no secret that Cleveland is rich in wearable art. CIA’s Runway Show, spearheaded by the jewelry and metals department, aims to display cutting edge, forward thinking fashion.

“Being in a fine arts setting, we’re taught to conceptualize our work and bring forth deeper meaning through different materials and different creations,” explains Ana Hall, who has been an organizer of the show for three years. “A lot of schools may go over the technical aspects of creating rather than how to bring an idea into a physical form.”

Students not only have access to a cooperative workshop, but many are beginning to integrate new technology like the school’s 3D printers, Hall explains. As technology becomes more of a driving force in Cleveland’s economic landscape, CIA’s fashion evolves along with it.

From the program have emerged artisans like ’93 graduate Heather Moore, who started her company Heather Moore Jewelry in Brooklyn in 1996 before bringing it home to Cleveland. Her customizable charms, seen on television shows like Ally McBeal and featured in magazines such as Martha Stewart and Home & Country, are handcrafted from the largest archive of stamps in the country by local employees, many of whom are CIA grads.

<span class="content-image-text">Former CIA grad Liza Michelle</span>Former CIA grad Liza MichelleLiza Rifkin had just graduated from CIA in 2010 and finished a residency in Tennessee when a recruiter from Moore’s company called.  Rifkin went on to work for Moore for two years while also mentoring CIA students as the school’s artist in residency. She had begun seriously considering the prospect of her own line while in Tennessee, but it was with access to the CIA workshop that she really began ramping up production on her own venture, the nature-inspired Liza Michelle Jewelry.

Today, Rifkin’s independent business is a model of one of the most successful jewelry start-ups in Cleveland. Though she travels to vending shows out of town an upwards of 25 times a year, she credits stores such as Room Service, Salty Not Sweet, Banyan Tree, and Native Cleveland for tirelessly supporting local artists by giving them a brick and mortar anchor to sell their work.

Like many alumni, taking the resources they’ve been given access to in Cleveland and returning them to the local economy is Rifkin’s ultimate goal.

“I want to get to a point where I can employee recent grads, provide internship opportunities and really set up an infrastructure that provides goods in Cleveland but also opportunities for artists,” says Rifkin. “To provide an outlet for people to make a living is so important because, at the end of the day, that’s the bottom line."

Nikki Delamotte
Nikki Delamotte

About the Author: Nikki Delamotte

Nikki Delamotte is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Diffuser.FM, The Grammys, Cleveland Magazine, Cleveland Scene and others.