Industrial design program gives students real-world experience, competition

For more than a century, Western North Carolina was a global center for furniture design and manufacturing. Over the last 20 years, most of the furniture industry has deserted North Carolina in search of cheaper labor and lower manufacturing costs. Appalachian's industrial design program in the Department of Technology and Environmental Design is contributing to an effort to revive the art of U.S. furniture design by providing students an opportunity to apply classroom instruction in a real-world and potentially profitable setting.

During the 2010-11 academic year, students in Professor Richard Prisco's furniture design classes were given the chance to enter their creative work in a competition sponsored by Groovystuff Inc., a Dallas-based wholesale manufacturer and supplier of traditional rustic home furnishings and décor. Those students with winning designs then received the opportunity to see their work produced as part of Groovystuff's recently licensed Dick Idol Legends collection.

"The home furnishings industry is no different than many other industries in America today. We are losing our young talent to overseas competition," explained Chris Bruning, co-founder and president of Groovystuff. "We need to embrace these talented students and encourage them to seek a career in the home furnishings industry. If we are going to appeal to Gen X and Gen Y consumers, we need designers with a fresh, young perspective."

Twenty-three of Prisco's students accepted the challenge and designed a piece of "modern rustic" furniture. According to Prisco, the project was rigorous and called for real creativity.

"As far as class projects go, this one definitely had a high degree of difficulty. The students had to work with reclaimed teak from Thailand and other components that are part of the Groovystuff line and design a piece that reflects the Dick Idol brand. In addition, their designs had to be environmentally friendly and lend themselves to being mass produced using sustainable manufacturing practices," Prisco explained. "If they could be successful under those parameters, I felt they could design just about anything."

Each of the 23 students produced scale models, renderings and CAD drawings of their designs for display and presentation at the 2010 Fall Furniture Market in High Point, N.C. There they were judged by industry professionals to select the design best suited for production and sales. Lee Shan Beatrous of Durham, N.C., won the vote and $500 for his design, "Stasis Coffee Table."

Beatrous and 15 other Appalachian students then had full-size models of their designs produced in Thailand by Groovystuff to participate in part two of the competition, which was to see which design could actually generate the highest volume of sales at the 2011 Spring High Point Market, held in April. To create additional depth to the project, Prisco and his students also designed and built a professional quality tradeshow booth to show case additional work from the industrial design program.

"This was another aspect of the real-world experience this project provided the students," Prisco said. "Creating a trade show booth to display and feature your product, while trying to stand out among the hundreds of other booths, presented a new set of design challenges and considerations for the students."

Jeremy Maher of Charlotte proved to be the ultimate winner, generating the most written orders for his "Balance End Table," which will retail for $499. Maher received $1,000, inclusion in Groovystuff's Dick Idol Legends collection and will collect permanent royalties for the life of his product.

"Sales are where the rubber meets the road," Bruning said. "Our goal with this competition was to provide these students with a platform for creativity and encourage them to embrace the home furnishings industry."

Bruning hopes Appalachian and more universities and colleges will participate in the 2011-12 Groovystuff Design Challenge.

"Buyers and guests at the spring furniture market in High Point showed a lot of interest in the design work of our students. The students also got an opportunity to network, develop contacts and set up internships," Prisco said. "Perhaps industrial design graduates from Appalachian will one day become the next prominent designers in the furniture industry."