When Professor Mia Hall first visited the site of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Applied Design workshop, located in a strip mall on Asher Avenue south of the main UALR campus, she wasn’t sure what to think. “When they brought me here for my interview, I thought, ‘What is this?’” she jokes. “But when I saw the inside of the facilities…I’d never seen anything like it.”
Hall’s initial surprise is understandable; from the street, the home of UALR’s recently accredited Applied Design program is inconspicuous, nestled among a sea of parking spaces and a line of other nondescript commercial storefronts. But on the inside, the space is 18,000 square feet of a craftsperson’s dream, including row upon row of workbenches, looms, woodworking machines and tools of every shape and size. The peaceful, high-ceilinged workrooms practically buzz with creative energy as students work independently on the many half-finished projects scattered throughout the studio.
Hall, the program’s first full-time professor and principal furniture design teacher, explains that the Applied Design program focuses on the four cornerstones of craft: including furniture and wood, small metals and jewelry, fiber, and functional ceramics. A division of UALR’s bachelor of arts degree in studio art, the program differs from other studio arts in that it emphasizes traditional functional craft skills, particularly those native to Arkansas. “There is an incredibly rich craft tradition in Arkansas, but there was not a single program like this in the region prior to this one,” she says. “The closest program is in the Appalachian Center at Tennessee Tech University.”
Professor Win Bruhl, chair of UALR’s Art Department, explains that he and his colleagues became acutely aware of the lack of any programs devoted to studying, preserving and expanding traditional craft techniques when they conducted a survey several years ago concerning art programs in the region. Realizing that most universities in the area were providing essentially the same coursework for art students, Bruhl says, “We decided we needed to define ourselves in a unique way.” With their goal set, they moved with impressive speed to create the new Applied Design program. By fall 2006, they began enrolling students in the program’s first courses in furniture design. With each passing semester, a greater number of course offerings are becoming available, and Bruhl says that one of their biggest challenges is simply making potential students aware of the program.
The wide variety of students who have discovered the program—from traditional college students pursuing art degrees to non-degree-seeking senior citizens hoping to broaden their skills—share one thing in common: the passion for creating with their hands. “Everything is handmade,” says Hall. “That’s what fuels us—this idea of being able to work with our hands. Design is one part of it, but the making is a bigger part.” While the students and professors take pride in their commitment to manual construction, they aren’t limited by it. “The furniture program has become very experimental,” says Hall, who admits she is continually surprised by the risks her students are willing to take in their designs. From re-inventing found objects to re-purposing cheap building materials for fine furniture, students are encouraged to push the boundaries of their mediums and their own skills.
“We try to make the artist come out,” Hall explains. “We focus on individual artistry, not creating reproductions of existing pieces. We want to accommodate students’ visions.” Bruhl adds, “Putting applied design in an academic community turns it into a specific liberal arts discipline. We’re not training technicians but artists who express themselves through traditional skills.” Though Hall and Bruhl emphasize the creative freedom and experimentation their program affords students, they’re also quick to point out that the program also teaches skills that will translate easily into the workplace. For example, though students will learn hand processes like embroidery, quilting, wood-bending and blacksmithing, they’ll also be exposed to computer-aided printing and drafting techniques used by modern design companies.
As the Applied Design program is producing a new generation of Arkansas craftspeople, Win Bruhl hopes the growing interest in the program is also helping to create a deeper appreciation for our state’s native crafts. “It’s easy to attend art events and see traditional studio mediums like prints, paintings and drawing. What we’re trying to do is simply make craft a much more conspicuous part of the art community in Arkansas and the Mid-South.”