Unusual overnight bags win big at Art Museum design contest

Posted: November 25, 2011

"Design an overnight bag that brings fun and function back to today's travelers," read the brief for Collab's 19th annual College Student Design Competition.

One hundred and fifteen students from seven schools in Philadelphia, New York, and North Carolina heeded the call, dropping off their entries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art the morning of Nov. 14. Museum staff scrambled to find enough tables to hold the bags. Never before had Collab, the group of design professionals supporting the museum's modern design collection, had so many competition entries.

The contest, begun in 1993 by Collab member and PMA trustee Lisa Roberts, coincides with the group's annual Design Excellence Award. This year's winner was the boundary-pushing designer and architect Zaha Hadid.

Hadid's jet-setting lifestyle - she designs around the world - partly inspired the theme. "Also, we were intrigued by the idea of her packaging," said Roberta Gruber, chair of Collab's Education Committee. To accompany futuristic limited-edition shoes she had designed for Lacoste, Hadid designed a box with two craters perfectly contoured to fit the shoes. Said Gruber: "We jumped from that to 'We'd love to see a bag that solves all the problems of where to put everything for an overnight trip.' "

Five design professionals spent the rest of the day scrutinizing the prototypes and storyboards to pick five winners.

By 1:30, the judges - Susan Szenasy, editor-in-chief of Metropolis; John Edelman, president and chief executive officer of Design Within Reach; Victor Sanz, design director at Tumi; Janet Villano, vice president for product development at Skiphop; and Kirsten Climer, a designer with Smart Design Worldwide - had narrowed the field to 30 finalists.

A large, one-shouldered satchel designed for people who use wheelchairs won praise for addressing the special-needs audience, but it looked too difficult to use. Another contender, a modern interpretation of a steamer trunk, was unusual, but the compartments were deemed too small to hold much of anything.

The judges perked up at "Wanderer," a green canvas bag threaded onto a thick wooden stick, hobo-style.

"I love this one," said Szenasy.

"I love it, too," said Edelman.

"It's basic, honest, and fun," said Sanz.

Excited, they suggested further iterations: Make the handle out of reclaimed wood; let consumers pick their color. Their visceral reaction translated into a prize: Wanderer's designer, Joshua Butz of Philadelphia University, won third place for his unconventional take on overnight travel.

Two winning designs from Pratt Institute students were wearable. The first-place winner, "Under Cover," by Silvia Terhedebrugge, is a midnight-blue cape with a hood and cleverly concealed interior pockets. "Amethyst" by Jeannie Wu, which received first honorable mention, is a soft, handwoven, harness-like garment that doubles as a head rest and blanket storage. Second place went to Elisa Boll, another Pratt student, for "Urban Bundle," a sleeping bag that functions like a jewelry roll - lay out your belongings and roll them into a bundle for self-sufficient travel (pillow included).

Second honorable mention went to "Rio the Robot," created by Seth Teeples of Appalachian State University in North Carolina. Rio is a robot-shaped kids' knapsack with badges indicating what to pack in which pocket.

Except for Rio, none of the winning bags was built to hold much stuff. Their appeal seemed to be aspirational - buy this product, and you'll become the type of person who travels spontaneously and lightly. "I think the judges were responding to the stories behind the products," said Gruber, "and to the strong emotions attached to the experience of travel."

The judges kept returning to one entry: Free2Fly, a "digital suitcase solution" by Eduardo Calmon, an industrial design student at the University of the Arts. Instead of a bag, it's an app that suggests garments depending on the destination's weather forecast. On the traveler's OK, the files are transmitted to a computer-controlled knitting machine near the destination hotel. The clothing is produced and delivered, making an overnight bag obsolete.

Though Szenasy knew Free2Fly couldn't win - its unconventionality placed it outside the spectrum of the brief - she was intrigued. "It's an interesting idea for a world that's becoming dematerialized," she said. "But what happens to the clothing afterward? How do you deal with all that material?"

The Collab members assisting at the competition decided to create a special prize, the Collab Choice Award, for Calmon's entry.

A few days after the competition, Calmon was still mulling Szenasy's questions. Perhaps the fabric could be recycled, or sold, or be biodegradable? On a deeper level, he decided, his project was about changing the culture of travel. "Less luggage means less fuel, and this seems like a small thing," Calmon said, "but if you think about how many flights there are every day, these small changes would add up to something much larger."

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