Pratt Institute graduate Meg Czaja on the importance of play in design, while striving to empower female designers.
Meg Czaja graduated with a Master of Industrial Design from Pratt Institute. She believes in simplicity and the importance of honest materials and construction. In this interview we discussed her sources of inspiration, the importance of play and her advocacy for the visibility of women in design. You’re in for a very interesting conversation..
Photo: Meg Czaja
Can you tell us where you’re from, and how were you like growing up?
I grew up in a very small farm town in central Connecticut. I was a very curious child with a LOT of energy. I was notorious for unintentionally breaking things trying to take them apart or figure them out. I loved being outside, playing pretend and building expansive LEGO towns with my older sister. I was also very introverted and shy when I wasn’t around my family.
When did you know you wanted to become a designer?
Well, there are a few different times. I always knew creativity was going to be a part of my life in some way, my mother and father are both very talented, creative people; I loved art classes the most during school and craft time during summer camp. I studied fine art in undergrad, and as much as I loved it, a part of me always knew I was too much of a pragmatist to really let myself go and pursue it as a career, though I think a part of me will always wish I could have. I think that comes from my upbringing; we didn’t have a lot growing up so frugality was integral. It always seems like stuff was breaking in our house and we couldn’t readily replace it. I have memories of my mom saying “when is someone going to invent ___ that doesn’t fall apart after you use it once!” It was important for me to make stuff that was, in one way or another, useful (and I promise I do not mean to say that art does not have a use or purpose – it very much does!)
I enrolled in Pratt about four years after I had graduated from undergrad. I needed a big change, and I had taken some design classes there as a part of their continuing ed. program per the suggestion of a mentor at the time. In one class, we were challenged to take an existing object in multiples and make 5 different useful items using only that object and means of adhesion. I had a stack of old t-shirts that were collecting dust in my apartment, so I decided to use those. I cut, tore, stretched, shredded, blended, wove and sewed them together and managed to make a drawstring bag, a pair of flip flops, a woven mat, paper, and teabags. I was so excited to present in class and had this huge rush when I realised people got to do this for a living. I was hooked, and worked tirelessly to build a portfolio and started the MID program in fall of 2012.
Cradle Bench. Photo: Meg Czaja
Where do you get your inspiration from?
So often it’s just conversing (or in many cases, joking around) with friends and colleagues. My partner and I were in the same program and he is this incredible source of ideas. We have these roving conversations that last hours just moving from one spot of our apartment to another discussing anything and everything. When we distill it down, there are some really great gems that present themselves.
Most of the other time it’s by exploring, either with materials, going out for a walk around with no real destination in mind. I feel like a drone in front of the computer, so as amazing as the internet is as a resource, I find it overwhelming. I need to be able to touch things or be around them in order to understand them. Some of my most successful projects have been when I finally put the book or computer mouse down and just started trying stuff.
Many of your projects have the elements of ‘play’ in them. How important is incorporating fun and playfulness in design?
I think my favourite part about the cross section of play in design is that sometimes it is the means and not just the end. One of the best parts of the design process is being able to ideate – I’ve found the results are typically more successful if you can brainstorm in a playful, non-judgmental way. I think allowing one-self to be playful while designing is integral to the process.
Incorporating play into the design itself goes a bit further. My thesis was on the importance of maintaining a playful life through adulthood. The short version is basically that play is used as a tool for development and learning in children. We stop playing as we get older, even though we really never stop developing. There are studies about play’s beneficial impact and I sought to create solutions that could subtly integrate play back into a person’s life. It was important to me to explore possibilities that wouldn’t be discounted as childish (for some, a synonym with unimportant, immature) and make things that were thoughtful, beautiful and potentially interesting to an adult.
Play is used as a tool for development and learning in children. We stop playing as we get older, even though we really never stop developing.
Oblio stool. Photo: Meg Czaja
People tend to look at fun and playful objects as novelty items. How do you balance playfulness and functionality?
I’d first like to say that even though it is contradictory to its definition, even novelty has a purpose. I don’t think people should be so quick to dismiss novelty items or automatically assume ‘novelty’ is synonymous with tacky or junk. Toys bring joy, amongst other things, and providing joy is not lacking a purpose.
To your point though – I think functionality in its more traditional sense of “can I put something in or on this, or use it in some way to get work done?” and playfulness do not have to be at odds. It’s about making something that doesn’t take itself too seriously while still being able to do serious work for the individual it was intended for. Playfulness can be achieved through aesthetic choices like form and colour, or in more engrained ways like the way something operates.
I read in your profile from your portfolio that you are an advocate for the visibility of women in design. Bravo! How can women stand out in a seemingly male-dominated industry?
Ha, thanks! Yes.
And this is a really tough question. I understand women’s issues are a hot-button item currently, but to me it’s of utmost importance for people to continue to talk about it and identify themselves as advocates. I am a woman, I am a designer, I am outnumbered in my field and am paid less for my work than my male peers. It is a truth and I am not going to beat around the bush about it.
How else to help? Promote yourself and your friends who are doing great work. Ask for more women speakers in conferences, organize events yourself. Alissa Walker wrote an article a few years ago about women in industrial design. In it she spoke about how we need to write our own history – I completely agree.
Which female designers do you look up to and why?
Ionna Vautrin for her amazing, distinct work, Ti Chang at Crave, for speaking frankly about women’s sexuality and doing something about the stigma, Christina Kazakia for inventing one of the simplest yet most ingenious toys (Sticklets) for kids I’ve seen, Eva Ziessel for being a pioneer. The list goes on and on and on and on..
I am a woman, I am a designer, I am outnumbered in my field and am paid less for my work than my male peers. It is a truth and I am not going to beat around the bush about it.
8 spheres of play. Photo: Meg Czaja
Finally, what are you doing right now and what exciting things can we expect from you?
I’m making moves and trying new stuff! Everything is at it’s very early stages but I’ve been trying to realign myself with hands-on work. I’m taking classes and getting some new things started!
Thank you for that inspiring interview! When we grow up and we stop playing, we lose that child-like wonder and the curiosity to learn about the world around us as we sink into dull routine. I think that as designers we have the opportunity to change the way we live through the products we craft. I hope female designers (and women in general) will feel empowered from reading this and continue to make an impact in whatever they do, wherever they are, no matter the circumstances.
You can visit her website here to stay up to date on her latest projects.