Melissa Merli: Today's art students are branching out

Melissa Merli: Today's art students are branching out

Up to five or so years ago, 80 percent of the incoming freshman art majors at the University of Illinois wanted to be graphic designers.

Now, 80 percent of freshman in the School of Art + Design want to be industrial design majors. Once, industrial design was a little-known field, let alone major.

That was before John Ives invented the iPhone.

Those stats come from Nan Goggin, director of the School of Art + Design, who along with four other faculty members spoke this past Wednesday evening about current practices in their areas during a members-only event at Krannert Art Museum on campus.

Goggin said industrial as well as graphic designers are moving more toward solving the problems of the future and toward interactive design — or how people interact with or use products. She called that the "white space" of design.

She also said art students in general now work across disciplines, blurring the edges among them. They do two-dimensional, 3-D and just about everything else; you see that in student and other art shows.

Some of the most interesting comments came from Billie Theide, chairwoman of the studio division and crafts program, who described big changes in her metalsmithing and jewelry making.

When she was an undergraduate in metals in the 1970s, she and other metals majors worked at a jeweler's bench with precious metals like gold and silver and semi-precious stones.

"We see very little of that today in the field," she said. "It's become very diverse in terms of materials. And young makers want to know where their materials come from."

Some revolt against the use of gold and diamonds because of the way they are mined. So younger jewelry makers use fibers, ceramics, glass, just about everything: One of Theide's grad students a few years ago used sugar to make incredibly beautiful amber-colored necklaces.

A lot of metals makers also incorporate personal commentary in their work and show their pieces on social-media sites rather than in the standard studio photos of yore, said Theide, who by the way was the first art professor at the UI to speak at the new student convocation earlier this year at the State Farm Center.

Also a collector of contemporary art jewelry, Theide passed around two boxes of brooches (visual aids) she had purchased from Ted Noten of Amsterdam. He made the two bright red, shiny metal brooches inside her boxes from a brand-new Mercedes automobile he bought and cut up, using lasers.

"He's not an anomaly in the field," said Theide, who said she appreciate's Noton's sense of humor in his work.

Noten is a member of Droog, an Amsterdam-based design collective and conceptual design company founded in 1993. Theide told me I had to look up their work on the Internet. I did and discovered that Droog opened a hotel in the heart of Amsterdam.

I've visited that fine city before but want to return, this time to visit Hotel Droog and see more designs by the Droog collective.

Eric Benson, an associate professor in graphic design, said his field has changed from a focus on the commercial to creating design "not for but with" communities. Graphic designers are now geared toward social impact, public engagement and sustainability, he said.

I think you can find examples of that in the Champaign-Urbana Design Organization, founded a few years ago by local graphic designers. They are responsible for the local PechaKucha series of events in which creative types, using PowerPoint, have a certain amount of time to talk about their work. The PechaKucha events here attract large crowds.

Laurie Hogin, chairwoman of the painting and sculpture program, said studio art now represents complexes of knowledge.

Contemporary studio artists use a variety of materials and act as intellectual agents and authors who express ideas in their work while trying to engage with the world.

"A work of art is material evidence of human cognitive apparatus," she said, adding that the variety and innovations in studio art can be startling yet fun.

Jorge Lucero, an assistant professor of art education who is interested in the intersection of pedagogy and creative practices, said the shift in art education has been toward standardization and accountability, something that doesn't surprise those of us who keep up with public education.

"It's one of those topics I don't like thinking or talking about, but it's one of those things that can't be escaped," he said.

Still, art teachers have to think on their feet and be able to improvise in the classroom. They are creative practitioners in that they design curriculum, he said.

Hobgood update

The Chicago Tribune's Howard Reich this past week wrote an interesting column about pianist and UI alum Laurence Hobgood's professional break with jazz vocalist Kurt Elling. You can read about it at

Hobgood recently performed with his quartet, featuring Ernie Watts on sax, at The Iron Post. Look for more gigs like that by Hobgood, who grew up in Urbana.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

Topics (1):Art