This is the second in a series of posts examining the future of STEAM through primary sources. We’ll be looking at a number of works in the Library of Congress and other collections that illustrate key STEAM mindsets.The first post in this series can be found here.
As a rule of thumb in design, less is often more. A contemporary, everyday example of this can be seen in Apple’s work, a company well-known for its simplicity and restraint. But designers have been working to achieve “less” for decades. Contrary to one’s intuition, “less” is often more difficult to achieve because each decision carries greater consequence. In this post, we’ll take a look at two examples of a "less-is-more" approach from the mid-20th century:
Compared to most homes, Philip Johnson’s Glass House is quite unique: its design drapes glass over a minimal steel frame, eschewing privacy. It has no curtains, exposing each room to the outdoors (with the exception of the bathroom, thank goodness). Its open floorplan has no walls, allowing daylight to reach nearly every inch of the interior.
Located on 47 rural acres, Johnson’s design emphasizes the home’s relationship with the landscape, wildlife, and weather. While one can make a compelling argument that the Glass House is not a practical home, its simple use of geometry and respect for the land on which it sits are instructive. The design tells us that nature is what’s most worthy of our attention, and the home respects its site by receding into the background.
To create such a spare, airy aesthetic was a complex challenge at the intersection of art and engineering. For example, the Glass House had no means of concealing ductwork or insulation, so heating occurred through two radiant systems in the floor and ceiling. The home’s ceiling floats above the ground with nearly no support, and while it was replaced in 2017, it survived for 68 years without developing a single crack.
The Glass House is so compelling, in part, because of what we don’t see. Much of contemporary design continues to reference the restraint Johnson exhibits here.
This minimal phonograph and radio was designed by Dieter Rams and produced by Braun in the late 1950s. The majority of record players and radios from the time were ornate, highly-decorated objects, but Rams’ interpretation was just the opposite. Whereas record players often were disguised as furniture, the transparent Perspex lid on the Phonosuper exposes the platter, tonearm, buttons, and dials. The form intentionally and elegantly explained the function.
Rams’ products represented the pinnacle of product design: they were elegant, unobtrusive, honest, and thorough to the last detail. Many of Rams’ ideas about design live on at Apple, where Chief Design Officer Johny Ive often references his work in the creation of their products.
Under Rams, Braun products developed a reputation for exceptional design. In the late 1970s, after decades of work in the design field, Dieter Rams reflected more deeply on what makes a design “good”. He developed his Ten Principles of Good Design, an everlasting reference for all students of design.
Rams 10 Principles of Good Design:
An exhibition of Rams’ work is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through April 14, 2019.
For decades, much of the meaningful innovation advancing our economy has been associated with the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. But as knowledge becomes more freely accessible and technology expedites our ability to do nearly everything, future innovations will rely on a different skillset: creativity. This marks the first of a series of blog posts about STEAM education from the perspective of a designer and educator working with STEAM every day. I’m the Founder and Design Director of PlusUs, an interdisciplinary firm designing human-centered learning solutions for problems and purposes of the present. We work with schools to consult on matters of curriculum, learning environments, and communications. I also serve as the Program Director of a new design program at The University of the Arts focused on environmental consciousness and entrepreneurship. Throughout my career, I’ve been intentionally integrating art and design mindsets into learning opportunities around the world.
In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson argued that “creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status”, an idea that underpinned the most popular TED talk of all time. Two years later, John Maeda became president of the Rhode Island School of Design, where he sparked a national movement by urging legislators to integrate art and design into the education agenda. Today, the importance of STEAM (an acronym that adds “Art” to STEM) manifests itself in multiple ways: maker education has become a physical representation of these ideas, with many schools investing in new makerspaces or rediscovering their existing shop space. And there’s real momentum behind integrating design thinking into coursework. Where I work in Philadelphia, the Charter High School for Architecture + Design, The U School, and String Theory Schools have missions and pedagogies built around design thinking, where skills like prototyping, iteration, and empathy work are infused into all subjects, even state-tested biology, algebra, and literature. It’s clear that art and design are here to stay. So what’s next for STEAM?
I believe that we’ll continue to see art and design mindsets woven into curriculum, even in the most traditional schools. The ability to think like an artist or designer is about making interesting and unexpected connections, and as these mindsets become more deeply integrated, learners will begin to make creative connections not only within a particular subject, but across subjects. As this happens, we can expect to see the silos that still exist between many classroom subjects begin to dissolve. History’s great creators moved fluidly between fields because they thought in a way that transcended discipline. Leonardo Da Vinci was an engineer and an artist. Michelangelo sculpted, painted, and constructed. I fully expect the future to produce many more creators who think and work in this manner.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to hear Neri Oxman speak, a rockstar contemporary architect and designer creating work at the intersection of computation, fabrication, and materiality. Oxman’s work is mesmerizing, and rightfully in the permanent collections of prominent museums like the MoMA. I think she is a wonderful illustration of what this future may look like. And there are many others who’s creative practice spans multiple arenas that are often siloed: designer Karim Rashidcreates products, space, graphics, fine art, and more. Emily Pilloton is a powerhouse working at the intersection of architecture, environmental design, and education. Bruce Mau began his career as a graphic designer and transitioned to architecture, film, and organizational design. His worked received the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2016, the AIGA Gold Medal in 2007, and his Incomplete Manifesto for Growth is essential reading for anyone working in interdisciplinary spaces.
So rather than advocate for the deeper integration of art and design in our classrooms, this series of blog posts will champion the creative mindsets that must be integrated into all disciplines in order to stoke the meaningful innovation our education system and economy crave. To do this, we’ll look at a number of primary sources in the Library of Congress that illustrate these mindsets throughout recent history.
The University of the Arts offered another week-long Local Collections course last summer. We explored STEM to STEAM: Connecting the Arts to STEM and Local Collections. One of the several local collections we visited was Fonthill Castle. Fonthill is an incredible 44-room house built by Henry Mercer to house his extensive collection of tiles and prints.
Fonthill is fascinating not only as an aethetic experience, and an expression of one man's vision, but as a technological wonder. The house is made from poured-in-place concrete. You may know that concrete has been used as a building material since the Classical era. Romans used it extensively to create structures that were strong and complex. Technological changes, incuding the invention of Portland Cement in 1824, allowed cement to be developed into a building material that was less labor-intensive than the andient Roman methods.
Thomas Edison found that his Edison Ore-Milling company produced large quantities of waste sand. He had been selling this sand to concrete companies, but in 1899 started his own concrete business. He started experimenting with domestic applications for poured concrete, including building a garage and gardener's cottage on the grounds of his mansion in 1908. He had hoped that concrete homes would take off (and that he could supply the concrete!) but sadly, it never really did.
Mercer started building his home the same year Edison had his structures built. However, Mercer did not complete his work until 1912. His home is filled with built-in concrete furniture, and much of his collection of ceramics was enbedded in the concrete.
We chose Fonthill for our STEM to STEAM class as an example of techonogy and artistic vision coming together. I am looking forward to learning more during our visit to this extraordinary site.