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How It Works

Written by Robert Anasi ’89
Illustrations by Bonnie Dain

Good design feels inevitable. The process of creating a good design, however, is anything but. Here, six alumnae/i who make things for a living explain the frustrations and innovations behind their favorite projects.

Sarah Magid ’97

Brooklyn, New York
Organic baker and jewelry designer

The Product

A large wedding cake topped with sugar-paste flowers. “Sugar paste is like edible play-dough. It’s very soft at first, then gets hard, but it’s still very delicate. It has to be dried upside down, so that the petals mimic nature.”

The Problem

Magid needed a mold for the flowers to dry on. The conventional technique is to use a lot of rolled-up paper towels for the job, but drying hundreds of sugar paste flowers would generate a lot of waste, which went against her organic philosophy.

The Solution

“One morning I told myself, ‘There has to be another way.’” She searched her kitchen and found an empty egg carton in the recycling bin. “It had the perfect curved shape that I needed. I turned it over and dried my flowers on it, and the results were stunning. Unexpectedly, a simple egg carton has become a professional tool for my business.”

Why It Works

It’s resourceful. “Sometimes you have to erase the frame of reference for an object, such as an egg carton, and just see it as a beautiful, useful shape.”

Laurel Lipkin ’79

Chicago, Illinois
Urban planner and consultant for community and economic development projects

The Product

The National Public Housing Museum, slated to open in 2012 in a historic public housing building in Chicago.

The Problem

The museum—housed in the last of the Depression-era Jane Addams Homes— needs to tell the controversial and rich history of public housing in America in a manner that destigmatizes public housing.

The Solution

Lipkin and her collaborators will re-create apartments past, one for each decade of the building’s existence. Each apartment will capture the spirit of the time and tell the story of a family that lived in public housing.

Why It Works

It’s authentic. By immersing visitors in the artifacts of the former residents’ lives—including furnishings, clothes, and music—the recreated apartments will tell “a universal story of resiliency, ethnic and racial history, migration, integration, poverty, and public policy,” Lipkin says. She hopes that ultimately, the museum will help address the skepticism and racial and economic prejudice surrounding public housing and foster a deeper understanding of this multifaceted institution.

Michael Haverty ’02

Atlanta, Georgia
Puppeteer and artistic director of Haverty Marionettes, which he founded in 2004

The Product

Two years ago, Michael decided to adapt William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for his puppet theater. It took him over a year to carve the puppets for the show, but that was only the beginning of the challenge.

The Problem

“In the book, you see the same scenes over and over through different characters’ eyes. So my problem was: How do I shift back and forth between characters and have people understand what’s going on?” “In the book, you see the same scenes over and over through different characters’ eyes. So my problem was: How do I shift back and forth between characters and have people understand what’s going on?”

The Solution

“On either side of the main stage we had little doors and on them we painted portraits of the characters with names over the tops of them. The doors would swing open and we would do the scene specifically for that character. We could have several doors open at the same time showing the same thing, but from the different point of view.”

Why It Works

It’s flexible. “I could do dream-like or nightmarish sequences within these doors and it would be accepted as an inner vision. No one in the audience was confused—at least, no more confused then they would have been by the Faulkner.”

Wendy Samuel ’71

Manhattan, New York
Certified professional organizer and owner of Clutter Therapy, LLC

The Product

Organized home offices. “In a nutshell, I declutter people. Everyone has basically the same problem—where do you put everything so that it’s easy to access and keep organized?”

The Problem

Samuel’s client worked from home, but disliked his office in the den, so his dining room table was covered with business papers and supplies. He wanted to reclaim his dining table for its intended use.

The Solution

Samuel repurposed a storage closet in the dining area and transplanted the client’s papers. “We didn’t have to build anything—we just bought stand-up files and folders. Now he just has one small pile of papers on his table that can be taken care of in five minutes.”

Why It Works

It uses what’s already there. “My system is to create a home for everything. I give people a way to live more efficiently in the space they have.”

Daniel Maskit ’88

Venice, California
Technical director at Digital Domain, which makes digital effects for feature films, including Pirates of the Caribbean III, Flags of Our Fathers, and My Super Ex-Girlfriend

The Product

Digital animation effects. “Animators take digital models and make them run, fight, bite—you name it. Then they go to the lighting department for color and texture. Finally, they’re rendered into finished images.”

The Problem

Multiple cooks in the kitchen. “The lighters need something they can work on without damaging the animators’ work. Usually, they manipulate a cube that has all the information tucked inside of it, but sometimes they have to be able to go inside the cube to make final changes. I had to design a program that interacted with all the software and let the artists give the instructions they needed.”

The Solution

A program built around Extensible Markup Language (XML). “Think of a shopping list that you take to the grocery store. If yours looks anything like mine, you walk back and forth in the store with a jumbled list of things. But XML gives you a way of organizing the list. You have the same things you had in your jumble, but you can find them easily.” Maskit’s program gives users access to the information they need, when they need it.

Why It Works

It’s easy. “Part of the reason people hate computers is that they don’t make any sense, unless you’re a computer person. But designing software should be about designing something people are comfortable using. My XML solution gives you a set of buttons that perform the tasks you need. It took people about five minutes to figure it out.”

Jon Papernick MFA ’00

Waltham, Massachusetts
Author of The Ascent of Eli Israel and Who by Fire, Who by Blood

The Product

An action-packed novel. “Who by Fire, Who by Blood is basically a literary thriller. This guy goes back to Brooklyn to take care of his father who was a controversial judge, and he gets involved in a terrorist plot that he thinks his father has started.”

The Problem

“When my agent first sent the novel out it was rejected by everybody. I realized there wasn’t enough story there. There was no urgency.”

The Solution

Adding more characters, which helped develop the plot, add narrative tension, and give the narrator somewhere to go. “I created an FBI agent who brought in a real tension because you don’t know what his intentions are or if he’s trustworthy.”

Why It Works

It energizes the plot. Toward the end of the novel, the FBI agent tries to get the main character on his side by revealing that the narrator’s grandfather had been a gangster in the 1930s—a piece of the story that Papernick was struggling to include in previous drafts. “What I had initially was good writing but it was dead on the page. Having the FBI agent tell him brought the material to life.”

For more information on the work of these alumnae/i, check out their sites:

How it Works spread pastry illustration

house design

puppet illustration

Illustration or person at table

Illustration of pirate

Illustration of spy on book