Well Crafted Objects: UH Students Take On Product Design

As Cord Bowen sees it, architects are charged with designing everything from “salt shakers to cities.” As an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Houston’s Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, Bowen embraces the “grey boundary” between the conventional notions of what architects do and their evolving role in the design world. Over the last eight years, he has challenged students to adopt the multidisciplinary nature of architecture by indulging in his product design course, Architecture and the Object.

His goal is to expand students’ knowledge of the manufacturing and production processes that go into making a "shelf-ready" product. Many studios focus on designing hypothetical buildings, but Architecture and the Object is an immediate, intensive concept to completed-product experience. “I want to teach my students to make products that are enduring in their design,” said Bowen. “The class teaches them to make things to last.”

To kickstart the course, Bowen asks the students to research and evaluate current consumer culture, stressing that they need to understand “What is selling?” and “What is working?” Each year, the curriculum responds to different, time-tailored parameters. In the fall of 2013, the student teams were asked to respond to post-recession economic pressures by carefully selecting their materials. Low-cost materials, such as canvas, were employed to make well-crafted products affordable for the average consumer. Throughout the semester, students collaborated with manufacturers to make the designs feasible for consumer use, and to produce the final products. Each team completed 10–30 units within the budget and set the market value of the products between $12–$60.

They achieved a wonderful diversity of products including: a locally-sourced coffee grounds and bio-resin vase, a stitched canvas case to house pencils and art supplies, a high-grade leather women’s wallet, an encased wooden bowel in geometric concrete cast, a hand-carved Walnut storage plank, an androgynous canvas tote, molded concrete paperweight/bookends, and a unisex leather travel wallet.

The Houston-area design firm PH Design provided the venue to exhibit and a marketing display for these uniquely designed products to be sold to consumers during the 2013 holiday season. Owners Amanda Valentine and Chris Promecene offered the students guidance when it comes to product design and the retail process. As creative agency/retailer, PH Design provided instrumental help and broadens the students’ understanding of the process.  

Bowen commented that as he continues to raise the bar for the products as well as the constraints under which they must be produced, the students “do more than ever expected.”

When speaking about the relationship between the imposed framework of the class and moving target of consumer culture, he noted: “You own the design process, but you cannot own the product. Designers are just the filter between what the consumer wants and the product desired.” Once the product is finished and on the shelf, it takes on a life of its own.

That said, Bowen looks forward to seeing the trajectory of Architecture and the Object as our ever-evolving consumer culture moves on to the next trend, and as innovative, new minds enter into his studio. There is no doubt that the students learn valuable small business and product design skills, but Bowen honestly believes the most prominent educational component of the course occurs when the students “begin to truly understand their value.” 

Charlotte Friedley is the newest addition to the Texas Architects staff; she joined the Society as a communications and advertising specialist in January. A recent graduate of UT Austin's Architecture and Urban Studies programs, Charlotte looks forward to lending her unique perspective to enriching untold architectural narratives.

This article is expanded content for Texas Architect, March/April 2014.