Anita Cooney

On Bringing Together a School of Design

LH I’ve wanted to make space for each person to introduce who they are, what they do at Pratt, they’re educational lineage, etc.

AC I’m Anita Cooney, the dean of the School of Design. In terms of background here at Pratt, I’ve been here for a very long time, but I keep doing different things. I started in The School of Architecture teaching in the undergraduate program and doing some administrative work. Next, I did nine years as chair of Interior Design, and this is my sixth year as dean of The School of Design. My undergraduate study was painting, also history; I found myself working in construction for about five years, and I went on to study architecture so I could do the design and not just the execution of making space, which I found incredibly fascinating. Why is all that relevant? Fashion interests me, graphics interest me, painting continues to interest me, space-making, architecture—all of it interests me. I am not someone who always wanted to do one thing in particular except be creative, that’s always been there since I was a very little person. I like thinking across the disciplinary boundaries; that’s why it’s interesting to be in this position. In terms of the institution, “How can we be a school? How can some of these departments and this education start to be less codified by the disciplinary boundary and help to build a culture and educational experience that is more than that?” We have work to do on that, but that’s part of why I like what I’m doing right now.

LH The School of Design is our largest school both in the programs it encapsulates and its number of students. (1) How do you bring these disciplines together? Is there a shared centrality between, say, interior design and communication design?

AC I’m going to tip my hat about this book that we just put together. It’s titled “Design Without Borders.” It came out of conversation; the chair of Industrial Design, Constantin Boym, did the main framework for it, and Michael Dyer—who teaches in graduate Communications Design—did the design of the book. Each of the chairs wrote 100 words on what we’ve decided to talk about. It’s a compendium of student work, but it’s not organized by discipline. It’s organized by “flows;” how design connects, enables, sustains, empowers, and humanizes. There’s an “other” in every one of those scenarios; things made, environments and situations developed. From one body or group of bodies to another, one object to humans. This is the way we can work across the disciplinary boundaries. In some ways, this is the framework for that after five years, here’s one way of how we’re trying to understand that and connect all the ways in which design communicates. “Connect” as in all the ways design communicates in every manifestation. “Enable” gives you an ability to engage—think of prosthetics or ways in which it gives you agency you may not have had. “Empower” is much more political. “Sustain” is all the things we were talking about earlier. “Humanize” is the smallest of changes that makes things palatable—maybe that’s the most formal, in some ways. We wanted to manifest this work in a way where you don’t necessarily know what the disciplines are. You can guess, but that’s not the relevant point.

That’s one way that’s exciting to think about what this school is about. What does it mean to be designers? More on the day-to-day, the curricular, it’s, “How can we start to have classes with more of a mix of students? Where can we find scenarios where groups are put together to work on a particular project?” Even wondering, “How does the building function as a place where people are working?” I’m very happy when people are working in the halls or the lobby. They’re moving through, seeing work in other places; they’re not only going to their corner and back. There’s a lot to be said for bumping up against things and people that you didn’t know about. You see things, you learn from them. It may be accidental, but it’s critical to a stimulating environment and enriched conversation about what it means to design.

LH If we’re talking about interdisciplinary practice, we’re talking about disciplines—but we’re talking about disciplines that defy definitions. I don’t know if I’ve made a ton of disciplinary work while at Pratt.

AC No, you probably haven’t! Not as much as you could! I would like to see more of it.

LH Some people worry that moving beyond the discipline before you understand its boundaries can skirt its responsibilities; maybe you haven’t come to understand the implications of the field. (2)

AC You want breadth, but you also want the depth. I understand that, I think we have to get that deep understanding. Foundation year is cross-disciplinary. Sophomore year is an introduction to critical skills within a discipline. Junior year is about exercising understanding of and competency within a discipline. The really big ambition is that by the final year, you have a degree of authorship. (3) “How do I direct my own education, my own form making? Set my own agenda, write my own project, my own syllabus.” That’s part of what we’re asking in all of these disciplines. In fashion, it becomes, “What’s my collection? What’s the point of view? What are my materials?” It’s all on the body—so there are constraints that are maybe more direct than with your work—but there’s still a whole series of decisions regarding point of view and strategy and message. That’s really ambitious.

I do think that the conversation across disciplines can help you be self-aware about what you’re doing. Sometimes it’s just about having different voices in the room. Those scenarios are what I want more of; students from different disciplines working together on a project with a professor. Spaces that allow you to come together as a team and see what that means.

LH Whenever “Poetics Lab” is brought about in conversation, it’s always talked about as a workshop-oriented interdisciplinary program. (4)

AC They [those instructors and students] may not know how the course will end every time! The cast of characters has a great deal of influence in what will come out of it.

LH What I’ve wanted from my education has changed. As I’ve grown and become more engaged, I’ve realized that I want to be able to bring conversations of politics and ethics into the workplace. With education in general, instructors come in with different views on whether or not you should bring your value system into the workplace. I’ve had professors who strongly believe that you shouldn’t talk about politics with your clients. I’ve had professors who toss that out the window. They advocate for students to be themselves, to bring their belief systems with them, to not surrender their ethos to domination by the larger structures.

It’s interesting that you were referencing a class you took on Marxist theory because texts from Marx and Gramsci have structured the way I thought about all of this—the base and superstructure, how do we participate in one or the other? How do we support one or the other? At an institutional level, you can’t really tell every student to read Marx and develop their practice around that school of thought.

AC No! No, plenty of my classmates when I was in school couldn’t care less about that.

LH How much of this critical and theoretical lens can be implemented at an institutional level? How dependent is this way of thinking on the student’s own initiative?

AC A professor can be very heavy handed. “This is the method I’m going to teach, this is what we are going to read, this is my point of view.” They can also set up a framework in which you ask the questions. They can provide the opportunity for that engagement to happen—not because they’re laying it all out and telling you, “Look at this in contrast to the capitalist society we live in!” At the same time I was reading Marx, there was a shift from reading narratives by historians to reading first-person narratives and constructing the story from readings. First person texts allow you to construct your own narrative. They don’t tell you what the political point of view is or provide a theory about how power is manifested in our culture, but they ask for you to piece together what you are seeing. It’s helpful to have those references to political theories and frameworks, but you have to be able to apply them to yourself. To me, a school does both. “I’m going to show you how to do this stuff, but I’m going to frame it so it shows you how to make these connections.”

LH This isn’t an affront on form, but it’s so easy to reduce graphic design to a conversation of style.

AC Same thing with interior design, by the way. Or fashion! The fashion department provides cultural commentary through clothing; that’s one way to understand what they’re doing.

LH That’s where self-awareness with one’s own practice enters the conversation. I was listening to an episode of Talk Magazine’s podcast with Erik Carter in which Erik and Harry talked about our desire to think about our form-making as a political act when maybe we should also consider that going out and canvassing on the weekends is far more of an engaged political action. (5)

AC Ayse Birsel is an industrial designer who got her graduate degree from Pratt. (6) In 2008, when the economy tanked, she started to do strategic design. She made a workbook called “Design the Life You Love. She sort of said, “I designed a great toilet for Toto, a potato peeler and other utensils for Target at a very low price point, office systems for Herman Miller.” She said that no one ever comes up to her and tells her that her potato peeler changed their life; but with the book, people have said to her over-and-over again, “This changed my life.” She teaches design principles to rethink how one structures their life or how they make. It’s relevant still to designers, not just to someone who doesn’t know design. It shifts people's understanding in a way that’s meaningful and personal; like, yes, I love my coffee cup, but I would never say that it’s changed my life. There’s limits to this stuff!

LH As I’ve started to write more, I’ve realized that much of what I was interested in couldn’t be reduced into a resolved artifact. I love beautiful objects, I don’t think something is unimportant because it has a form, but…

AC I would advocate for the complexity of taking both on. There are different degrees of form; it can be textural, the very surface of things.

LH The first portion of this work was a workbook for my classmates to interact with that helped gauge what parts of this dialogue are resonant for my peers. The workbook’s subtitle read “In Consideration of Ethics and Positionality” because those two pieces feel symbiotic. You can only understand ethical practice if you understand the positioning of your field and work. That’s a conversation of both form and content; it’s a refutation against going to one of those poles, rather a search for mediation. How do you make an object that speaks without encapsulating itself, something that’s the catalyst for dialogue but doesn’t become pedantic in the way it's operating.

AC I encourage you to use play in thinking about this—it doesn’t have to be all serious.

LH As everyone’s thesis projects have surfaced this past semester, “play” has been a focus for many of my peers. I think it says something about our current times. There’s a need to reconnect or have this foundational experience. Play is so in-dialogue with the heavy stuff, though! It’s easy to say, “Oh, play is this activity or this release, it’s catharsis, it’s satisfying.” But it gets all of that by being a foil to the heaviness of the world—and the heaviness of the world gets a lot of its identity by being a foil to playfulness. That’s a dialogue I maybe haven’t worked through yet, but I know there’s potential for play to inform ethics. I haven’t figured out how, though.

AC It might be through the way you approach the artifact or the writing and how it engages others. Sometimes that’s an invitation rather than just the seriousness. I don’t think they’re oppositional at all, actually, but I think perhaps play is a stand-in for things that don’t have ulterior agendas or end-points. It’s about activity that is satisfying in-and-of itself, and that provides an approach.

LH I think the draw toward play as a way of community building ties to what I’ve been thinking about with the publication as community building. They aren’t all too disparate; people might gather to play together, whether that’s a game on a field or a game on a board, but that same gathering and community and sense of social fulfillment is found in publishing spheres. Both support spaces that use their disciplines and mediums to create broader communities and to talk about larger moments than the one they are in. That helps frame both what we do and what we can do; there’s a potential that’s exploratory and hopeful.

How would you situate the idea of “ethical practice?” What does it mean, what are the dialogues that weave through it? Is it something that has a place at an institutional level?

AC I think it's even addressed in the strategic plan—I don’t know if you’ve gone and looked at that. (7) There’s a pillar about diversity, equity, and inclusion. That comes down to who we hire, who we teach, how do we hire, what do we teach? Also—what do we focus our attention to or for? Who’s the intended audience? There’s also a sense of civic engagement; how are we connected to the community around us, whether that’s in the building, in the Pratt Community—you can just keep drawing larger circles. In all of that, what’s interesting about design is that you can’t escape the ethics of what you’re doing. Whether it's through the lens of sustainability or investigating power structures or challenging them or designing for someone who doesn’t have the ability to turn a doorknob easily. There’s ethics in all of it. They may not always be overt, but none of it is without ethics.

LH When I was talking with Jessica Wexler, she noted something similar. I think she phrased it as design being “born of the industrial revolution.” We are inextricable from these socioeconomic structures. We are inherently participating and driving the market and creating the systems that both construct and uphold inequality. That’s what makes it so important to consider how we’re doing what we’re doing. How can we change whose interests we are working for? Thinking about community, places like Pratt and other inner city institutions are part of a really complex conversation. We’re talking about a campus that was constructed under the 1949 Housing Act. Robert Moses’s “slum clearance” initiatives are what allowed the train to be rerouted away from campus and to wall off the school. (8) It’s a meta-study of ethics to try studying ethics while also considering the ethics of the space where you are studying.

AC To contrast that, it was also home to one of the first public libraries. (9) It was one of the first schools in this area that didn’t discriminate based on race and gender. (10) It’s complex.

LH It’s important for students to develop the vocabulary and language to have these conversations. Only through dialogue and exploration can we know how to be our own advocates, how to negotiate our impact. That’s essential to the way I think students need to think when they leave a program like this.

AC It’s not that you have to have answers but that you understand the critical awareness context and your agendas. You need to be able to continue to ask questions about assumptions or underlying practices and habits to be critically self-aware and able to challenge. You can’t do that if you don’t know the history, if you aren’t self aware, if you aren’t asking yourself these questions. It’s not always about saying, “I’m here, you're there.” Instead, “It’s shifting, and I need to understand it. Perhaps if I’m going to push back, I need to know what I’m pushing back against.”

LH My learning here felt more comprehensive in courses that broadened those considerations. When friends ask for advice during course selection, I find myself recommending the teachers that will talk about expanded and critical practice and less so the teachers that continue to preach from a commercial pedestal. I also understand that the school has a ton of moving parts; not every gear will spin in the same direction. What are the limits of the institution’s agenda?

AC That’s always the challenge. To me, design provides a good education no matter the discipline because it requires that you think strategically, that you address conflicting desires, agendas, realities. You learn how to synthesize, and that’s a really important skill no matter what you do.

LH It’s a curious structure; in other fields, you get a toolkit and you know all your wrenches work, all your screwdrivers are the right size. Here, you get the toolkit you build.

AC But you also get to use the toolkit.

  • 1

    Pratt's School of Design consists of Communications Design, Fashion Design, Industrial Design, and interior design at the undergraduate level; plus industrial design, interior design, communications design, and package design at the graduate level.

    Pratt: School of Design
  • 2

    counter/point: The 2013 D-Crit Conference: Andrew Blauvelt, “Graphic Design: Discipline, Medium, Practice, Tool, or Other?”

  • 3

    I have collected all of my available undergraduate Communications Design syllabi for anyone curious about the course content.

    Google Drive
  • 4

    "The Poetics Lab course is an intensive faculty/student seminar, play-space and transdisciplinary think-tank involving a small group of faculty and students from across the Institute. Selected faculty and students explore various aspects of an announced topic, thinking and creating together on a range of relevant problems and provocations. Enrollment is by permission only; a selection process takes place during the semester before the class: please see advisor for details."

    Course Description
  • 5

    Talk is Cheap Ep. 14: Erik Carter

  • 6

    "Ayse (pronounced Eye-Shay) Birsel is one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People 2017 and is on the Thinkers50 Radar List of the 30 management thinkers most likely to shape the future of organizations. She is the author of Design the Life You Love and gives lectures on Design the Work You Love to corporations. Ayse is the co-founder of Birsel + Seck, the award-winning design and innovation studio, and consults to Amazon, Colgate-Palmolive, Herman Miller, GE, IKEA, The Scan Foundation, Staples and Toyota, among others. Her work can be found in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)."

  • 7

    "In February 2018, Pratt Institute initiated the creation of this new strategic plan. President Bronet charged the steering committee to create a plan based on an in-depth consideration of “our legacy, our changing context, our strengths, and our opportunities for further growth and success.”"

    Pratt: Strategic Planning
  • 8

    Themis Chronopoulos: "Robert Moses and the Visual Dimension of Physical Disorder: Efforts to Demonstrate Urban Blight in the Age of Slum Clearance"

    ResearchGate (PDF)
  • 9

    In 1896, Pratt Institute moved its library from within Main to an independent building on Ryerson Street. Opened as the Pratt Institute Free Library, it served as the first free and public library within Brooklyn; the sole restriction to access was a minimum of age 14 years old. Though the library still resides in this Tiffany and Co. adorned building, public access was revoked in 1940; in the context of the campus’ later transformations, this step away from accessibility serves as a fitting precursor to the changes that followed during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

  • 10

    "The college was one of the first in the country open to all people, regardless of class, color, and gender. In the early years, the institute's mission was to offer education to those who never had it offered to them before. Pratt sought to teach people skills that would allow them to be successful and work their way up the economic ladder. Specifically, many programs were tailored for the growing need to train industrial workers in the changing economy with training in design and engineering."

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