2017 Essay | MFA Applied Craft + Design

2017 Essay | MFA Applied Craft + Design

Design Thinking Through Hands On Making

By Heidi Schwegler, Julie Beeler, Leslie Vigeant and Randy Higgins

Becca Gore
Ritual of Locating the Self, Part 2, 2017
Plaster, birch and walnut plywood, gesso
72 x 60 x 84 inches
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci
Design Build Intensive, 2013

The Oregon College of Art and Craft, together with the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon, welcome students with a wide range of creative backgrounds to enroll in this mentor-based entrepreneurial MFA design program.

The Bison Building, Metal Shop

The MFA Applied Craft + Design Program, or AC+D, gathers students together who have a shared goal of making original work with an applied purpose. Our studio environment is cross-disciplinary, a space of inspiration and productivity in which we can collaboratively experiment, exploring various design and making processes. This unique MFA program connects design thinking to design doing, grounded in hands-on making, entrepreneurial strategies, and social and environmental engagement.

Design Build Intensive, Escuela Viva, 2016

At its core, the mission of the AC+D program is to provide students with a real chance of making a living as an independent artist, designer, thinker or maker. Students will not only graduate with the potential to become desirable employees within creative industries, but also with the skills needed to one day begin their own small businesses. By means of an exceptional visiting artists program, this program allows students to work one-on-one with nationally and internationally recognized designers, makers, and scholars in a self-directed curriculum which will challenge them to bring to life the full strength of their innovation, inspiration, talents and skills.

Too often, designers in education and industry assert that design thinking strategies can deliver the “game-changing” ideas which are needed to address the critical and complex problems of our times. However, it’s more often the case that while we are seduced by and fall in love with the promise(s) of these ideas, we find trouble maintaining that passion through to their realization and implementation.

The AC+D Program begins with a 10 day, collaborative Design Build Intensive, which seeks to challenge this tendency by means of a close-contact, start-to-finish studio project in which students actively design and build a project for an actual client. This process allows the group to learn how to work together, while designing and creating pieces intended for target recipients who could best benefit from students’ skills. Emphasizing a philosophy of civic engagement, projects are selected based on their potential to benefit an organization or population that generally does not have access to the services of designers and makers.

Each student's individual space is located in a workshop environment, and their studio practice will orient towards an approach to design rooted in the culture of making. During their time in the program, students will have an opportunity to combine traditional hands-on making with practical design thinking, and to consider the possibilities that tradition can bring to modern art and design practice. Through critique and in one-on-one meetings with their mentors, students will engage in thorough, critical analysis of work-in-progress. Frequent discussion and critiques with visiting artists, designers, and guest critics will allow students to develop and deepen their skills in communication and rhetoric.

With a groundbreaking curriculum focused on the development of a strong artistic voice, the realization of a finished work to benefit a specific community or client, and a strong foundation in the entrepreneurism which connects making a living with making a difference, this MFA in Applied Craft + Design is the only graduate program of its kind.


Heidi Schwegler is drawn to the peripheral ruin, modifying discarded objects to give them a new sense of purpose. She has exhibited widely and is a Ford Family Fellow, a MacDowell Colony Fellow and a Yaddo Artist in Resident. She is Chair of the MFA in Applied Craft + Design, a joint program of Oregon College of Art and Craft and the Pacific Northwest College of Art. She is represented by Upfor Gallery in Portland, OR and Asphodel Gallery in Brooklyn, NY.

Nathan Paul Rice
Untitled, 2016
Ink, watercolor, paper, wood and acrylic house paint
Various sizes
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci
Jennifer Cooke
Diamond Warp, 2015
Machine stitched, hand dyed cotton and wool quilt
53 x 64 inches
Photo credit: Sam Estrella

Creative Entrepreneurship

The MFA Applied Craft + Design Program offers a year-long course called Creative Entrepreneurship for the purpose of providing students with a comprehensive introduction to establishing and sustaining a creative entrepreneurial endeavor. Keeping with the mission of the AC+D program the course offers students strategies for building a foundation for a financially viable, sustainable career in the arts – creating a real chance for the students to make and maintain a living as an independent artist, designer, thinker or maker.

Creative Entrepreneurship is structured as a series of modules exposing students to the fundamentals of business, marketing, and financial planning. In support of the AC+D philosophy of engagement through service learning, each student has the opportunity to network with creative professionals through off campus studio visits and potential internship opportunities.

Each student in the AC+D program brings their own unique talents, interests and backgrounds to the course generating a need for a self-directed curriculum that challenges students to bring to life their ideas and skills through a ‘make+think’ philosophy of learning through doing. This is founded on the idea of individual inquiry by which the student takes control of their path to learning. With this model, students are motivated to be better, more engaged citizens, developing their skills in critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, self directed learning, and individual fulfillment.

The Creative Entrepreneurship course, organized across two semesters is split into quarterly modules that serve as intense thematic workshops. The modules are a la carte, tailored to the specific interests of an arts based practice or a small business endeavors, resulting in personalized curriculum. This strategy gives the student more control over the year by allowing them to select when in their studies they would like to take the modules that best address their most immediate needs, while ensuring they are being challenged. Each thematic workshop results in a series of assignments and requires students to make and produce materials outside of class.

Students actively participate in the modules through dialog and discourse that facilitates fundamental aspects of critical thinking and life-long learning skills such as group discussion, peer review, guest lecturers and reviewers, and field trips to artists and designer studios. Assignments are given to the students with specific parameters, which the students must work within but still offer them freedom to go beyond and discover their own methods. By focusing on self-inquiry, students are motivated to not only create but to think and apply it to their creative entrepreneurship endeavors with the goal that their path will lead to creative excellence in all areas of life.


Julie Beeler is a designer and co-founder of Second Story. Collaborating with some of the world’s most respected museums and institutions, she led in the creation of a wide variety of digital media experiences that support cultural vitality. She believes that story-driven design changes minds by bringing the voices of the people into the fabric of communities. B.F.A. in Graphic Design and Art History, University of the Pacific. 

Leslie Vigeant’s work considers the hierarchies of "low" vs "high," expectations vs reality, and focuses on employing a domestic visual language to critique the distemper of the perceived female disposition. She has exhibited at Cambridge College, MA; Woodbury Art Museum, UT; Tempus, FL; and the Winnipeg Underground Film Festival, Canada. Grants from RACC, Oregon Arts Commission, and UMass Arts Council. Residencies with GLEAN, Artspace, and Penland School of Crafts. She received her MFA in Applied Craft + Design (OCAC/PNCA). 

The Bison Building
Photo credit: Wildlife Blocks
The Bison Building
Photo credit: Wildlife Blocks

Our Oneiric House

As the socioeconomics of our cities have shifted from making to services, it’s common to place the new services in buildings originally designed for making. These conversations often share the same two-fold aesthetic. They exhibit a desire to expose the now rare materials, retired building systems and antiquated equipments while at the same time introducing new elements consistent with the original industrial use.

The Bison Building, Student Studio
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci
The Bison Building, Student Studio
Photo credit: Mario Gallucci

At face value, the MFA Applied Craft + Design Bison Studios follows this trend. It is a 13,000 sf. interior tenant improvement inside a warehouse converted to attract creative services. Nothing about the interior design tries to deny this association. However, this recognizable style is not its identity but is extended as an invitation rendered in a familiar style. For those who accept, it is an opportunity to experience how we craft environments that are designed to help us make better worlds.

The AC+D program was started by and is sustained by creatives who understand that applied craft and design is not just the program’s name, but a mnemonic for what it does. It reminds us what we often forget – the way we have always and will always make the world better is through a constant application of craft and design.

Both the AC+D program and its interior was created by J. P. Reuer. As the first chair, he defined the program, and selected the original community of faculty and students. As an architect, he planned the interior, secured its occupancy and purposely left the school design to original groups of incoming students as the program’s first 10-day Design Build Intensive. J. P.’s greatest skill is his ability to create both physical and psychological environments that allow others to flourish. This ethic of creatives helping others create their world is intentionally designed into the program and continues to guide the students and faculty as they collaboratively craft the interior into the world they need.

Except for individual student studios, the entire interior is shared common space. Every term begins the same, all common spaces are cleaned and only what is deemed necessary remains. Student reviews begin in their studio and classes are held in the common spaces. As the term processes, the amount of work increases, the students expand into the common areas. Classes give precedent to student work, faculty become nomadic and gladly occupy unclaimed spaces. This pattern is interrupted when visits artist lectures require transforming the commons into a lecture hall. The students work together to take down their work, set up and take down for the lecture and then return their work to the commons.

All reviews and exhibitions take place in the building. Towards the end of the term, the students designate exhibit space, design and build the exhibit. The exhibit is hung and is used for final reviews. After the reviews, the students prepare the space for the exhibit, and as hosts, design, make and serve what they wish to give to their guests.

At term’s end, the space is once again cleaned and only what is considered necessary remains. However the term has changed the building and what remains at the end of one term is always different that what remains at the beginning. By summer, the interior has gone through two term change cycles. As the faculty spend the summer planning ways to better the program, they years changes inform summer modifications designed to keep the interior improvements in kind with improvements to the program.

For students and faculty of AC+D the interior environment they create is not just an aesthetic object but an instrument they master to help themselves and others create their world. Only environments that are both physically and psychological permissible can help this goal. Perhaps why creatives have made these coveted spaces popular is because they reveal a desire to regain what was lost when making left our cities. As Gaston Bachelard warns “Leave out the oneiric forces of work and you diminish, you annihilate the artisan.” AC+D through applied craft and design makes the world better by giving a home to artisans who dream.



In 1987, Randy Higgins began practicing and eventually teaching architecture. In 2002, he made a career shift and has spent the years since practicing and teaching design. He is currently the Senior Designer at The Felt Hat, a strategic design office. He has always worked to create residential, workplace, retail and educational environments responsive to the complex desires of those who need them.     


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