"A big inspiration was ice sculpture," he said.
Duncan was among more than 84 students from six area colleges and universities who responded to the competition's challenge: to design a vase that incorporated the concept of "variance."
Variance is a general term for describing ways of injecting variability into mass-produced objects, competition director Josh Owen said. It is a central theme in the work of this year's Collab Design Excellence honoree, Gaetano Pesce.
Some examples, Owen said, include the wide range of options offered to consumers by automobile manufacturers, and the Swatch company, which turned watches into a fashion accessory.
"The guts stay the same, but the shell has an infinite number of variations," said Owen, an industrial designer. "And look at Nike. Now you can go on the Web and customize your shoes."
The variance theme proved a provocative one for the contest, launched 13 years ago by Collab, a nonprofit group that raises money for the Art Museum's design collection.
"The judges had some of the most heated debates of any competition we've had," Owen told a room full of student hopefuls, who gathered at the museum to hear the five-member panel announce the results of a day of deliberations. (All five of the winning entries, which were judged blind, came from a single school, the University of the Arts' industrial-design program - a first for the competition.)
Announcing one of two honorable-mention awards, judge Drew Hamilton, owner of Old City's Dane Decor shop, described Matt Tarosky's idea for a genetically modified seed that would be planted in the human body and grow in flesh as "the most preposterous" of the entries, and one that provoked lively discussions about the bioethics of the notion.
"It's disturbing," Hamilton said of the concept - represented by a model of an ear with a slender flower growing from it, like a weird sort of piercing. "He really took that idea of the body-as-vessel to the limit."
Also winning an honorable mention was George Armenantes' delicate-looking vase made from the hollowed-out root of an ailanthus tree. But the judges - who included furniture designer Lyn Godley, Surface magazine editor Laetitia Wolff, and Adam Kamens and Mark Gisi, who run the local company Amuneal Metal Forms - said the entry would have been stronger if its accompanying story board had explained more about the product.
Among their questions: "How would it be packaged? How long would it last? Would it dissolve in sunlight sitting on a table?"
Third-place winner Keith Hatton, who came up with the "Rift" wooden vase, was praised for the research that went into discerning that strips of end-grain cherry would split apart from contact with moisture to achieve a petal-like effect at the vessel's mouth. A polyurethane coating inside kept the rest of the vase intact.
"But we thought if it were taller, it would be much more dramatic," Gisi said.
The judges' critique of second-place winner Sharon Chow's futuristic clear-vinyl, drawstring-bag vase focused on the garish bouquet the piece displayed.
"The flowers she chose were really, really bad," Godley said. "They competed with the beauty of the vase."
Getting high marks for beauty, of course, was Duncan's ice-sculpture vase, whose frozen surface was embedded not only with flowers but with glass beads that dropped with a quiet clatter as the object slowly melted on a plate.
Said judge Wolff: "We were charmed by the poetry of it."
Contact staff writer Eils Lotozo
at 215-854-5610 or email@example.com.