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The VCFA MFA in Graphic Design Program Blog

Huh? #38: An interview with Natalia Ilyin

March 7, 2018

Natalia Ilyin is a full professor of Design at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. She teaches design history and criticism, design for social activism, apparel design, apparel design history, and wearable tech interface design. In 2012—and again in 2015—she earned Cornish’s Award for Teaching Excellence. She and her co-teacher, Elisabeth Patterson, have created a publishing program at Cornish that is dedicated to making design history more inclusive.

Natalia is also Founding and Core Faculty for the MFA in Graphic Design at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She advises grad students on writing, design history, and critical and contextual studies.

When not teaching, Natalia consults on semiotic analysis for innovations groups and nonprofit clients, and is the co-director of a refugee-relief micro-grant program. She is particularly interested in how wearable tech innovation can contribute to refugee and migrant humanitarian aid relief efforts.

She has worked as an apparel designer, graphic designer, art director, creative director and as National Director of Programs for the American Institute of Graphic Arts in New York, and has lectured and given workshops at Seattle PechaKucha 20×20, Microsoft, Boeing, Rhode Island School of Design, Maine College of Art, California College of Art, Art Center College of Design’s Toyota lecture series, the Wolfsonian Museum, The Henry Art Gallery, and other very nice places. Natalia is a member of the Authors Guild, The American Semiotic Society, and The Design History Society.

Her articles have been published in the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, the Portland Oregonian, the Miami Herald, Metropolis, STEP, Adbusters, Eye, Communication Arts, 2+3D, and in several anthologies of design criticism.

Her first memoir, Blonde Like Me, was published by Simon and Schuster. Just starting out as a writer, Natalia became so worried about future criticism that she turned herself into a ball of anxiety while finishing it. Her agent finally had to walk down to her apartment and take the manuscript from her cramped hand. When she moved to a cottage near Seattle, Natalia looked back at her time in the East, and wrote Chasing the Perfect: Thoughts on Modernist Design in Our Time. Published by Metropolis Books, it’s a personal look at the philosophy of modernism and its effect on life in our era. Her third book, Writing for the Design Mind, has benefited from her years of experience as a writer and teacher. It’s due out in Fall 2018 from Bloomsbury Academic.

VCFA’s Ian Lynam takes some time out to chat with Natalia about Design, design, UX, craft, and heroisms.

What do you see as being different between “Design” and “design” in the contemporary moment?

Hmmm. Well, I would say that Big D Design is a noun. A constructed history and a way of being in the world—and a way of teaching people to be in the world—that people interested in making useful objects have been taught to believe since Gropius threw things off of his desk and proclaimed, “Let’s start from zero!” Everything about Big D is based on industrialization. On modernization and colonization and globalization. So it has a lot to answer for. Little “d” design is a verb. I design scuffs. This does not make me a great patriarch. But I walk in comfort.

What are things that you think folks that are interested in understanding design on a deeper level should read?

Well, for big D Design, they should read Pevsner— Pioneers of Modern Design— written by a Modern about Moderns. He’s such a cheerleader for the Modern that he can hardly contain himself. And then they should read a good book about the Bauhaus, like The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism. It helps us see the great tension: the human, messy, love-drenched, political-animal aspect of the people at the Bauhaus vs. the lure of the clean beauty of the machine, and its lack of emotional complication. This tension is in everything Modern: pre, post, and neo, so it’s good to get your mind around it. If you understand the mindset of the Moderns, you can understand how they led us down the garden path and closed the gate behind. So I would think you might want to read Carl Jung, perhaps Memories, Dreams, Reflections, to understand the mind-set of the designers who have affected you so much without your knowing it. For little “d” design, I would think you should read anything that makes you want to start making things. I have a nice book about making blocks for block printing that always gives me the urge to make something. Though I’m not a block-printer. And cook books are also good for getting into the making spirit.

What are the biggest issues that you see designers and the design-literate facing today?

AI. As AI moves to voice, screens go away. So that’s an interesting challenge for UX. The dehumanization inherent in the ways technological advance has been envisioned—by engineers, not Designers, I might add, until very recently—the self-branding of social media—issues of personal identity all up and down the scale: who am I if my experiences of Self are identical to yours? Too many people. not enough water. Nationalism. Being held responsible to fix all the problems of the world. Too much of being depended upon to fix things can bow young shoulders.

You live in the Seattle area, a place overridden with Big Tech presently—do you perceive issues with the public’s conception of design versus technology?

Hmmm. Well, I believe that Design is the child of technology—even way back, at the start of it all, with the harnessing of steam. Machines make big D Design possible. Big D Design is the devising of things for other people to make. Other people make your idea, and make a lot of it. From my position in the academic catbird seat, looking at what is happening in Seattle—currently a boom town Gold Rush without the saloons—I would say that the public is right to associate Big D Design and Big Tech, because they’ve merged here. In Seattle, little “d” design is comforting. We letter chalk menus on coffee shop boards and try to feel as though our humanity is not slipping away. But chalk menus don’t alter the ways people live on this Earth, and that’s what big D Design is doing right now in Seattle.

What place does craft have in the present moment?

Craft—real craft—reminds us that we are still human. It’s more and more important. It reminds us of our worth. It reminds us that there’s ore to life than communicating and buying things. If we can make things, we free ourselves from the relentless hive.

What are the differences in how, what, and why you teach between your undergraduate teaching at Cornish and your graduate teaching at VCFA?

I have many students at Cornish, so I don’t get to know them as well as I am allowed to at VCFA. I lecture and do some quasi-Socratic questioning there, which is an old-school way of delivering information, but the students seem to like it and I rarely hear snoring. Together with my co-teacher, Elisabeth Patterson, I have undergraduates for a full two years in Critical and Contextual Studies, which is about three semesters longer for history and criticism than any other curriculum in which I have taught. This has allowed us to build a sort of mini-liberal arts curriculum right into the Design department (in addition to our students’ Humanities and Sciences curriculum). They learn about Western Design Canon in the sophomore year, and Parallel Narratives in the junior year, where we start battering the old historical constructs and start to see other, just-as-important design stories that were not somehow deemed part of the tale in traditional Design History.

At VCFA, I have the indescribable luxury of figuring out where a student is in the arc of personal critical development. We sketch out a path together, and then I lob bombs at them for the rest of the semester.

What is your favorite thing/scenario/other that you have designed?

Right now my favorite thing is the program Liz and I just created with the help of 94 GoFundMe contributors. It’s a publishing program that will allow Cornish us to publish annotated bibliographies, created by our juniors, that detail a person, school, or topic they feel is missing from design history. Without my full cognizance, we seem to have dreamed up a project that tapped into a national need for a true grassroots re-evaluation of what should go in, and what should be removed from the generally available Design History curriculum. The first book is being designed by Robert Baxter, a Seattle designer I’m prone to employ for complex projects.

Who are your heroes/heroines?

I had heroic parents and grandparents, so that was a convenience. My heroes and heroines are generally unsung people who are battling the odds and not crumpling. Rita Richelieu is a hero of mine. I’ve got a student who has a brain tumor and keeps coming to class and getting excellent grades. Gil Zemansky is a hero of mine. You’ve never heard of these people, and why should you? This kind of heroism goes on everywhere, every day. I also have had a lifelong crush on Jan Van Toorn, but don’t we all.

Who are the inverse of such?

I don’t like pompous Marxists. I detest people who design for other people without asking them their thoughts. I do not love rich people who could end the homeless crisis in Seattle with their daily coffee allowance, but don’t. The name Jeff Bezos comes to mind. He’s got to hop to it, and so far not a lot of hopping has been reported.

Well, some folks appear a little preoccupied with eliminating checkout staff from retail experiences and snapping up health food mega-chains… thank you so much for this, Natalia!

OK, folks, until next time!