Observing Design Through Its Decay

August 25, 2017 | | View Comments

“To see things again for the first time, that’s the point of art.”


Designers, makers, and innovators are often the most inspirational people in a room, yet hardly the most vocal about their achievements. The ability to divulge the inspirations of one’s work is tiresome and often emotional, requesting vulnerability and allowing for unsolicited critique and judgement.

Renowned artist Heidi Schwegler has built incredible strength in both areas; mastering her craft and openly and powerfully speak about her inspirations and process. At Design Museum Mornings this August, Heidi captivated the audience with this unique talent as she spoke about her process professionally, along with her work inspiring students to do the same.

Art is consideration in a different context

Heidi’s art zeros in on objects that were once deemed useful, even intimate, that no longer serve a purpose: an old mattress, a worn pair of jeans, or a damaged decorative item. These objects in their discarded state are then frozen in time as Heidi casts each in material of permanence; glass or even cement. Every enjoyer of art knows that you don’t have to like a piece for it to be considered art; if it makes you think, the artist has succeeded. In Heidi’s case, especially when working with everyday objects, good art makes you look at those things in a different light and a different context. Even when an artwork is intended to be just a naturalistic depiction of something, simply making the choice to depict an object or scene realistically is an attempt at making people see things differently.


Finding value in unlikely places

Heidi speaks of her adventures in collecting inspiration for her work – i.e., discarded stuff. Imagine a fine artist walking down the side of the freeway in Saratoga Springs seeking, well, trash. This treasure hunt consists of three questions: First, what was its original function? Second, what were the events that put it in its current state? Finally, what is its physical position as it rests on the earth? The powerful lens that Heidi’s work allows her to see through has challenged her perception of worth: “Mainstream culture says there’s no value, I say wait a minute, there is still value.” Just because an object is no longer fulfilling intended use, doesn’t mean it can’t be repurposed, or that its decayed state has no value.


The “final” iteration isn’t always the finished product

Designers are taught the importance of iteration, a useful tactic that helps you refine and learn from mistakes. Within this process, we might travel far from our original version without looking back, and without acknowledging that there was a purpose for those initial designs. Heidi argues that original design might be good to revisit; you might even find that the earlier versions are more faithful to the idea than later ones are. This concept is especially relevant for Heidi’s work, as sometimes refining her pieces mean that they strayed further from their genuinely destructed essences: “Casting allows me to be iterative.”


Art education is creating self-sustaining makers

Outside of her passion for her craft, Heidi is a vibrant educator, serving as the chair of the collaborative MFA in Applied Craft + Design with PNCA/OCAC. She is not shy to share the work of her students, constantly referencing their brilliance and experimentation practices as she works with each to experience first-hand their evolving crafts by pursuing their interests and inspirations. Understanding the importance of art education isn’t difficult – what is to be done post-school is a far more hefty challenge to face; enter Heidi and her team. Their main priority is to train students to be self-sustaining makers and artists who aren’t lost outside of their curriculum. Heidi praises her students’ work: “She went from designing for the surface, to designing a product with meaning.”



A huge thank you to Heidi for bringing her honesty and energy to Design Museum Mornings. Our favorite quote: “I’m horrified by my mortality. I have to have humor in my work.” We laughed, we thought, and we left inspired. We couldn’t have made this program possible without the help of our gracious host, Bullseye Projects, who also engaged our audience with hands-on activities to inspire the craftspeople in us all. According to one audience member: “It gave me the urge to make something.”


Images courtesy of Heidi Schwegler and Victor Dallons at the Portland Photographic Society.

Design Museum Mornings is a monthly event series brought to you by Design Museum Portland. These events are meant to inspire you before your day begins and bring you closer to the Design Museum Portland community. Each event will include a short presentation by a local thought-leader, free breakfast, and great people to wake up with. These events are hosted and sponsored by various generous businesses of the Greater Portland area. If you are interested in hosting one of these events, please check out our host page here for more information.

Join us in September for Design Museum Mornings: Sneakers With Soul with Jenn Scholes, 8:30-10am @ Wacom Experience Center.