White Plains Storefront Project: Art In Vacant Spaces

Teaching Award Runner-up

Warren Lehrer
Professor
School of Art+Design, Purchase College, SUNY
Founding Faculty Member, SVA (School of Visual Arts) Designer as Author Graduate Program”

For two years in a row, the White Plains BID (Business Improvement District) asked me and my Community Design class at Purchase College, SUNY to “improve the visual appearance of vacant storefronts in downtown White Plains and thereby enhance the ambiance and pedestrian experience in the downtown business district.”

Community Design is a senior level graphic design class that serves the campus and non-profit communities while providing students with “real” projects that interrogate ideas of community, civic engagement, and an expanded role of the designer. The class functions as a design studio that works on multiple projects of different kinds, scales and media with a variety of clients/collaborators. In the fall of 2015, the Storefront project was one of 11 projects. In 2016, it was one of 6.

In year one of the Storefront project, the students and I reframed “the brief” to go beyond “aesthetic enhancement” of the vacant storefronts, by creating works of visual poetry that reflect the conditions of downtown White Plains and the people who inhabit it. As the class had ten other projects on its plate that semester, and the course is not a writing course (I also teach a elective writing course for designers), we brought in Judith Sloan to write poetry for the project. (Judith is my partner in EarSay, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to uncovering and portraying stories of the uncelebrated.) After researching White Plains and interviewing residents, commuters, historians and city officials, Judith wrote five poems that left room for visual interpretation by students.

Each student in the Storefront team did their own primary and secondary research on nearby White Plains and selected a poem or poems they were interested in. From the 20% commercial vacancy stock, students picked storefronts they thought most suitable for their selected poem(s) and began visualizing them within the frame of the storefront using typography as well as shape, color, texture, image, sequence, metaphor. The student’s interpretive “performance” of a text into a space was influenced by the store’s configuration, number of windows, and proximity to other landmarks (train station, bookstore, other vacant spaces, etc). Invariably, the design student’s re-composition of the poem necessitated consultation with the poet, sometimes culminating in collaborative re-writes. This fluid collaboration/negotiation between designer and writer, the whole creative team and the BID/property owners, and with materials and vendors—helped catapult the project beyond a normal class assignment or traditional designer/client relationship. The resulting transformation of a blighted area into an activated public space fusing poetry and art was an enlarging and successful experience for everyone involved. The windows stimulated conversation, enchantment and change in the community. Half the stores utilized in year one have since rented, the commercial vacancy rate is down to 17%, and the White Plains BID approached me to do the project again—with an expanded budget—for a second and now third year. In year two of the project, we expanded the media beyond printed vinyls and lenticulars, to include laser cutting, digital monitors and projections.

LehrerWhite Plains Storefront Project

Warren Lehrer is a designer, writer, and educator known as a pioneer of visual literature and design authorship. Awards include: Center for Book Arts Honoree, the Brendan Gill Prize, the Innovative Use of Archives Award, three AIGA Book Awards, a Media That Matters Award. Grants/fellowships include: NEA, NYSCA, NYFA, Rockefeller, Ford, Greenwall Foundations. Collections include: MoMA, the Getty Museum, Georges Pompidou Centre, Tate Gallery. With Judith Sloan, Lehrer co-founded EarSay, an arts organization dedicated to portraying lives of the uncelebrated. Lehrer is also a playwright, performer, and frequent lecturer and keynote speaker. He is a full professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and a founding faculty member of the Designer as Author grad program at SVA. His recent illuminated novel, A LIFE IN BOOKS, has received nine awards, including the International Book Award for Best New Fiction, the IPPY Outstanding Book of the Year Award, and a Print Magazine Design Award.

Intercultural Design Collaborations in Sustainability

Working remotely as cross-cultural teams, students explore ways design can address sustainable behaviors and lifestyle choices around diverse topics such as food, water, environmental degradation, social justice and cultural preservation.

Kelly Murdoch-Kitt and Denielle Emans work together in an ongoing series of semester-long collaborations with their respective students to make meaningful connections between the concept of sustainability and people’s day-to-day lives. Working remotely as cross-cultural teams, students explore ways design can address sustainable behaviors and lifestyle choices around diverse topics such as food, water, environmental degradation, social justice and cultural preservation. The semester typically culminates in a public exhibition on each campus, enabling students to share their concepts and communications with their local communities. Additionally, the most recent student exhibition, “Co-creating sustainable futures: American and Middle Eastern visual design students explore behavior change” was presented at the 2015 Association for the Advancement for Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Conference in Minneapolis, MN, USA.

gulftogreatlakes.org
restartexhibit.com

Kelly Murdoch-Kitt is Assistant Professor in the Graphic Design program at Rochester Institute of Technology’s College of Imaging Arts and Sciences. She teaches and works primarily in the areas of user experience and service design. Her recent collaborations exploring the socio-cultural benefits of cross-cultural design education and the benefits of integrating sustainability challenges into project-based design courses. Kelly and her collaborator, Denielle Emans, recently presented research at Spaces of Learning: AIGA Design Educators Conference and the 2015 Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Conference and Expo, “Transforming Sustainability Education.” Recent journal publications include “Design Nexus: integrating cross-cultural learning experiences into graphic design education” in Studies in Material Thinking 11: Re/materialising Design Education Futures (co-authored with Prof. Denielle Emans, 2014) and “Sustainability at the forefront: educating students through complex challenges in visual communication and design” in Interdisciplinary Environmental Review (co-authored with Kelly Norris Martin & Denielle Emans, 2015).

Denielle Emans is an Assistant Professor in the Graphic Design Department at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, specializing in the area of experiential design in relation to the conceptualization, development, and execution of visual messages for social change and sustainability. As a designer, she has worked to create print, web, and motion design solutions for clients ranging from software specialists to international institutions. Denielle has published her research in a number of academic journals and presented at numerous conferences across the world. She holds a Master of Graphic Design from North Carolina State University’s College of Design and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Denielle is currently a Ph.D. Candidate within the Centre for Communication and Social Change at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.