MFA in Applied Craft + Design Design Build with Urban League

September 5, 2018

MFA in Applied Craft + Design Design Build team 2018

Congratulations to the incoming cohort of the MFA in Applied Craft + Design program on completing the annual design build project, this year in collaboration with the Urban League of Portland. The Urban League identified the need for a gathering space outside of the Urban League’s headquarters. With lots of community members coming and going from the Urban League, there was no place to stop and rest or for students to sit while they are waiting to be picked up. The MFA ACD students worked with the Urban League as well as middle- and high school students in UL programs to create engraved wooden benches and planter boxes lined with hand-painted tiles.

“This is bigger than benches, I told our students,” says MFA in Applied Craft + Design Chair Sara Huston. “Objects facilitate relationships between members of different communities.” 

The MFA ACD students worked with instructors Matt Miller, design build expert and co-founder of Project H, and Portland artist and activist Cleo Davis who with his wife Kayin, recently completed the historic Black Williams project an art project depicting the lives of African Americans along Williams avenue between Broadway and Killingsworth.


“The intention is to orient and expose students, especially those new to Portland, to a more inclusive look at Portland’s history—one of disinvestment discrimination, and displacement in the Black Community,” the instructors say. “By collaborating with the Urban League and its community partners, we have an opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialogue with this history and create work that responds appropriately. The work is about conversation and collaboration, using design build as the vehicle to support interactions/relationships that may not otherwise happen.” 

The project was supported by a grant to the Urban League from the Portland Bureau of Transportation to enhance the right-of-way in front of the Urban League’s headquarters at 10 N. Russell Street. In addition, House Special (Erica Johnson and Rob Melchior) donated laser engraving for the benches and Rebuilding Center donated the tile.

In addition to the Streets Community Grant, Urban League also provided the creative resources of area youth in middle and high school. It was a match made in heaven and evidence of what can happen when community partners come together for a common goal. The overall beautification idea came from the Urban League. The middle school and  high-schoolers brought ideas and inspiration. The art students brought know how and PNCA's equipment and resources. Cleo served as a design instructor and reference for historical understanding and authentic depiction of African American culture. His wife Kayin provided design branding while Matt focused the project through a technical lens, taught courses and introduced students to a experiential design experience. 

In just ten days this month the students designed and built the entire project. Benches will soon line the sidewalk at the intersection of N Russell Street and N Williams Avenue. Decorative tiles will be inlaid in the soil surrounding street trees and raised planter beds will add flowers for a splash of color and vegetation.

MFA in Applied Craft + Design Annual Design Build Project

Each year, for ten days before the start of the semester, the new cohort of students in the ACD program jump right into a lightning fast design build project. These students, who’ve never met before, have just under two weeks to collaborate on a well-designed, elegantly-executed solution for a project responding to a real community need. The experience is intended to help students from a variety of backgrounds get to know one another (and their skill sets!) and learn how to work together by designing and building a project for an actual client. Emphasizing a philosophy of civic engagement, projects are selected based on their potential to benefit an organization or population that generally does not have access to the services of designers and makers. Projects are conceived, planned, and executed in collaboration with community stakeholders. 

In this annual design build process students are mentored by leading national design build theorists and practitioners who have included Steve Badanes, Jack Sanders and Butch Anthony, and current program Chair, Sara Huston (2010), as well as this year's Matt Miller.

In 2011 students transformed an empty housing unit into a dynamic library and learning center at the Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center. In 2012, students built a public bike repair shop and community hub in North Portland’s New Columbia neighborhood in collaboration with residents as well as the Community Cycling Center and Home Forward (formerly the Housing Authority of Portland). Other community project partners have included Project Grow, Outgrowing Hunger and the East Portland Neighborhood Garden, and VOZ Workers’ Rights Education Project.