April 25st  2016 RISD Hot Seat VII

John Dunnigan

is the current Department Head of Furniture Design at RISD. He has been a graduate student, staff member, part time faculty, full time faculty member, and administrator at RISD. He is a Mellon Fellow in the RISD Museum. He has taught in Industrial Design, Interior Architecture, and was involved in founding the Furniture Design Department in 1995. His work has been shown in over 100 exhibitions, including 10 solo exhibitions.



          I feel very fortunate to be able to combine teaching and studio practice. I didn’t plan that. When I started out I just didn’t want to do something predictable. I wanted to do something creative like be a writer. I have a bachelor's degree in English. I was curious about an alternative life and I started making things because it was different. I started making furniture then. Several years later I went back to graduate school to get better at it. My simple goal was to improve my skills but when I got involved in RISD it was a new world. It was a great experience and as a result of my growing interest in integrating design, making, writing and history, I was brought on to the faculty. I loved teaching but was very focused on my studio at that time so I taught part time for 15 years. The motivation for changing that arose when we were asked to form a department of Furniture Design.  It was a wonderful challenge and opportunity and because of that I became a full time faculty member and now my studio is in part time status. 

           What are the fundamental goals of art and design?  On the one hand raising consciousness, on the other solving problems. One may get more associated with art and the other design, some want to make that distinction. We don’t always make that distinction here at RISD though. I think there is a real commonality in the different disciplines though there are differences in territories of practice and in scale. Sometimes we’ve talked about reorganizing our disciplines along small, medium, and large. One could say, the investigation in terms of ideas, theories, expressions, problem solving, dealing with users and systems are very similar endeavors across multiple disciplines. It’s much more difficult to build a building yourself than it is to build a piece of furniture.  The way you think about it, approach it on a fundamental level shows that its frame is similar but there are differences in intent and in the relation to human scale.

          I design for production and I make things myself, and one of the big things that is a consistent factor for me is that the work must be made well and be durable. If something is durable and you have it for a while then meaning can attach to it over time. Meaning adheres to things in a way that is independent of the intent of the creator of the object. Meaning really adheres to things through the association that other people make with them through use. Things that are useful, especially over time, allow for life to happen around those things, those things in a way become the props, the sets, for life. Meaning attaches to them in those instances. There is the whole issue of mobility and carrying things with us.  Some things are more ephemeral but things that do last can make a big difference in some ways including economically and environmentally. A good example of this is the rocking chair that used to belong to your grandmother. Whatever your thoughts are, that thing is going to be loaded with meaning. I’m not talking nostalgia. There is less interest in keeping things these days, which is more about culturally based patterns of consumption but it doesn’t erase meaning. I’m talking about meaning that is relevant to you. You can’t force something to have meaning, the meaning sticks to it through use and association which changes as one goes through life. There are times we are more aware of this change and others not so much. In this sense, it doesn’t matter if you have one thing or a lot of things, the same thinking applies.



          The rich, diverse backgrounds that the graduate students bring to the experience contribute to making it special. What’s consistent about RISD is that range of diverse experiences combined with a singular, focused, motivation. There is a motivation that I see in risd students on all levels that is truly remarkable. Even though levels of skill vary greatly I would say that the motivation is the key thing that I have noticed. 

          In the department of Furniture Design there are a distinct set of graduate courses. I would say that the most important way that our graduate students and undergraduate students mix is not as much in the course structure as in the studio. We made a choice to have our graduate students physically working in the same space as our undergraduates. We know that is where all the magic happens. I personally have no doubt that much of the really cool stuff happens later outside of class. It’s that wonderful rubbing up against one another that happens when students are in the studios. 



          There are things that are difficult to teach. The ability to think critically about what’s going on and the habit of challenging all assumptions. Do that in the pursuit of living a creative life and making a contribution through a creative practice while being a good citizen is a worthwhile goal.  It’s better as a collective endeavor. As artists and designers, we need to link the personal with the universal somehow to make our work effective. Be part of the world. Students need to think about turning their work outward from themselves so that it faces others. In some instances that means designing for others, or making work for others. Think of others. Take the deeply personal thing and make it in a way that is consequential by facing it outward towards the world. That creative practice that you are trying to build while here as a graduate student is a foundation, a model for trying to do that outside of RISD. Bring it to your family, your town, or launch it on a global scale. When everyone is so focused on personal expression, especially now as students are focused on thesis, it helps to be able to face outwards along the way.  



Question from John Caserta

How big can furniture be before becoming something else? 

           Wonderful question. The answer is 42. Seriously, there is no actual limit how big a thing can be and still be considered furniture. Despite some similarities in design process, furniture is not small architecture. A more useful answer would depend how you define furniture.  In some of our introductory courses we ask this question. We ask it earnestly but it would be a shame if we ever came up with a simple answer. There is no single definition.  You could say that furniture is a type of functional, useful object, that carries meaning.  But you could follow that up and say isn’t that the same definition you would give to other things like ceramics or apparel? Asking the good question is a more interesting endeavor than nailing down an answer. Furniture is related to a human scale that is unique. If you think about what furniture does and how it is part of our lives, it’s the stuff that furnishes our lives. In many cultures the term for furniture is built around words like mobile, it’s the moveables. It’s a way to distinguish the things that are not moveable. It’s way to get ethnographic clarity. It’s a practical way to distinguish between things when you need to.  But I’m particularly attracted to the term furniture as an idea and a metaphor as well as a practical solution to a problem.  It begins to get at the subtle broadness of it that is part of our lives. 

            I find it useful to understand furniture as an expression of symbiotic or interdependent relationships between things like technology, culture, and identity. If you look at it that way you  not only can understand the way things look, but look at the way things happen or did happen. You can also understand what’s happening now by looking in this way. We are agents in that. This is how I think about furniture. It’s a wonderful question because it’s answerable but also unanswerable and rich with possibilities. 

           For instance, why did you choose Hot Seat as the name of this project? It’s a perfect example of the power and richness of references to furniture. When you had an idea about this project and then used the term hot seat, you added meaning and interest to it. The idea of the seat is a fundamental thing of importance in many cultures. Even in the cultures where people aren’t used to having a lot of seats. Perhaps they consider them to be more important, where they are scarce. Here we have them by the millions. For example, one of the things I try to do with my students is to think about objects and patterns of behavior. One way is to think about the place we each come from. We start to count the number of seats available in that place. We count the number of people in that house. And it’s often a big difference. For example, if you have 4 people living in the house but have 30 places to sit. It tells you something about context and culture.



Question for Nicole Merola 

What are the tools, materials and processes for making in the literary arts?



Hosted and edited by Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio



Look out for May 2nd

RISD Hot Seat with Nicole Merola from Liberal Arts!

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RISD Hot Seat is a new, student-led interview getting to know individuals at RISD found by Yu Cao and Rebecca Buglio in Graduate Student Alliance.

Through understanding the unique perspectives and interests each individual contributes, and asking about the ins and outs of different programs, our goal is to bridge conversations between graduate students, faculty, and staff to build a stronger, interdisciplinary graduate community in RISD.