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Spotlight:Art Center College of Design

Learning at Art Center occurs in almost every imaginable field of art and expressive communication—from car design to photography to environmental design. Students are encouraged to interact and work together, a process that synergistically combines their talents.

Art Center’s curriculum features “transdisciplinary studios”, where students come together and work on special projects. Fine art students may help car designers one week, while the reverse might be true the next week.The result is that the students learn a common language and see what real-life work is like. Some of the most ambitious student projects are called “blue sky projects” because they challenge participants to envision the world ten or fifteen years in the future.

Stewart Reed, chair of the transportation design department, works on a number of such projects alongside about 200 transportation design students. Reed himself is a 1969 graduate of Art Center and has had an accomplished professional career in car design. He is the designer of the Meyers Manx SR and is currently the president of his own company, Stewart Reed Design. Previously, he worked for nine years at Chrysler’s advanced design department and was the chief designer at Toyota’s California-based advanced design studio for six years.

Reed explains that the founder of Art Center envisioned an institution where professors, as he puts it,“would keep a foot in the professional world,” because it enriches the learning experience.

Now, one of Reed’s overarching goals is to combine the passion of high-performance car design with the responsibility of environmental consciousness. In the fast-paced world of automotive design, the desire to build a flashy hot-rod must be tempered by considerations of safety, sustainability, and urban congestion, he explains. This summer, Reed and his students are working on three main projects that bring those values to life.

The first project, in partnership with the University of Southern California School of Architecture, is an examination of urban transportation in China, with the goal of designing urban centers that are free of congestion and are environmentally friendly. The results of this two-term project will be exhibited at the Hong Kong Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture in December. Another project looks at the future of the Indy Racing League. Students recently traveled to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to observe and learn about the Indy experience. Now, they have put together a transdisciplinary studio and are brainstorming ideas to make open-wheel racing even more exciting and entertaining by 2011.

The transportation design students are also working to create a body for Peter Mullin’s Type 64 Bugatti chassis based on the never-completed designs of Jean Bugatti.This project, Reed admits, is “pure passion.”

One recent transportation design graduate, Brian Oh, echoed Reed’s sentiments. “The classes that are offered are not all based on super cars,” he reveals. Oh explains that about one-third of the curriculum is about researching and understanding car buyers, one-third is sketching designs, and one-third involves building models. “We come up with a [fictional] auto maker, then a buyer demographic, and we go into lifestyle, income, etc.,” says Oh.“Every class is similar to an internship at a professional studio.”

Reed himself notes that car design in the modern era is about much more than sketching. According to Reed, car design incorporates strategy, busi- ness, marketing, and other disciplines.“It is the intersection of art and science,” he says. “It is the ergonomics, sightlines, mechanics, and structure…blended together in the most artful way possible. Most people agree that the last real threshold to differentiate products is design.”

It is faculty like Reed who help make Art Center special—they bring real- world experience and understanding to an incubator of dreams and visions.

“I like the energy of this place—both Southern California and the Art Center…it’s keeping me young,” smiles Reed.

 Laurence Dreiband, chair of the fine ar t media depar tment, also feels that the opportunities provided by Art Center are unique. When asked to com- pare his program with others, he points out that Art Center requires far more units of studio credits than some other, less art-focused programs. Unlike stu- dents at large universities, every student at Art Center is committed to art and design, resulting in a concentration of talent, inspiration, and purpose.

“Here you are with other artists—they are not just taking it as an elective,” Dreiband says.

Still, according to Dreiband, the students at Art Center should not be viewed monolithically. “The car guys are like another species,” he jokes.

Like others, Dreiband sees the school’s diversity as a strength. He talks about a new “skin” project, where students from various disciplines are com- ing together in a transdiscipinary studio to think about the skin of various art forms—including cars, paintings, and buildings.

“Maybe it will change what cars look like, maybe it will change what art looks like. We really don’t know,” he says.

One thing is certain, though—the students of Art Center will be well prepared for whatever the future holds.

Pictured: Stewart Reed,Art Center’s transportation design chair. Photo by Steven A. Heller. Image courtesy Art Center College of Design © 2007.