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Student design competitions produce products for real-world companies

Win a student competition, and you’re likely to get a bit of money and a lot of accolades. Often, the most over-the-top and impractical idea scores first place.

Philadelphia University students and faculty visiting designer Lori Weitzner’s showroom. HITOSHI UJIIE
Philadelphia University students and faculty visiting designer Lori Weitzner’s showroom. HITOSHI UJIIERead more

Win a student competition, and you're likely to get a bit of money and a lot of accolades.

Often, the most over-the-top and impractical idea scores first place.

But in the last few years, corporate sponsors are taking a new tack: Welcome to Student Design Competition 2.0, where producing work that others want matters. That means instead of working in isolation and presenting a surprise design to a roomful of skeptical judges, teams are schooled in production, sourcing, and salability. And winners get the ultimate prize — a product that leaves the drawing-board wall for the showroom floor.

Red-carpet treatment

Langhorne Carpet president Bill Morrow thought a contest would educate his future customers about weaving techniques, and in the process introduce a fresh design to the market.

So eight months ago, his Penndel company invited 49 students from six local design and fine arts programs to visit its Bucks County facility to see how the work is done. Then, for inspiration, the students visited the Philadelphia Zoo and, in March, the Philadelphia International Flower Show; each of 22 teams submitted a "flora" and a "fauna" design.

Students conducted market research. They studied what colors were popular, what patterns were selling. And their designs would have to be able to be woven on the mill's historic looms, programmed using hand-cut punch cards.

Finally, they presented to the judges — Philly decorator Bennett Weinstock; Hilary Jay, executive director of DesignPhiladelphia; and New-York based designer Alex Papachristidis — who last week chose several winners.

Tia Bianchini and Caleigh Stednitz, from Temple University's Tyler School of Art, won in the fauna category for their hexagon pattern, inspired by honeycombs. Their subtle color offerings of mauve, blue, and mustard won praise from the judges.

"The one judge liked that the pattern wasn't too large so it would not take over the room it was in," said Bianchini. For Stednitz, the win reaffirmed her desire to go into textile design.

"That a homeowner gets to experience our work ... is neat," said Bianchini.

Teresa Percontino, Olivia Jones, and Qiang Gong, from the University of the Arts, won the flora competition with a dangling mussel design based on a photo Percontino shot of a shell formation. A fibers major, she and her teammates had to take a crash course in Photoshop and Illustrator to map out the design. "Working with a group was new to me," Percontino said, "and really rewarding to explore an idea and get feedback."

Winners receive $1,000 and the bragging rights that they sold a design. Sales reps should be selling it by summer, Morrow said, and part of the proceeds will go toward nonprofits, including the zoo and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

"It is super for the kids to have this on their resumé or to say on an interview, 'My carpet design is already being sold,'?" Morrow said.

Winning designs can be viewed until May 11 at the Marketplace Design Center, 24th and Market Streets.

Wall-to-wall ideas

Textile and wall-covering designer Lori Weitzner of Weitzner was on an advisory board for Philadelphia University when she approached two professors last May about their graduate students' getting "real-life experience."

A competition to create wall coverings for three of the designer's innovative brands was the goal.

Weitzner visited the school in January to explain the project, and that was followed with a February visit to her New York studio and showroom to show students her lines. They chose to design for her Smart brand — wall coverings with a dual purpose, such as linen that is also magnetic.

After a first-round elimination in April, all the students were working on presenting five designs, including one made of jute and clay, one of moss, and one comprising wine corks.

"I like this more than my class work because it had a definite end use," said Madia Willis, a graduate student whose team of eight created the winning wall-covering design — recycled, cleaned, and reworked wine corks mixed with resin, which doubles as a pin board. "Lori was so inspiring. We knew her aesthetic and we had parameters and real-life applications. It was a project that focused on the design process."

Throughout the semester, professor Hitoshi Ujiie of the design engineering and commerce program underscored the importance of being creative while mastering business needs.

Weitzner hopes all of the designs will be produced by Weitzner. In a month, her sales team, Ujiie, and faculty member and textile engineer Mark Sunderland will review the projects to consider their viability. From there, it can take one to two years before a design is ready for the showroom — time needed for making prototypes, partnering with manufacturers, and creating samples.

The presentations to the judges last week "blew me away," said Weitzner. "I even learned through this that if I guide and let them design, rather than hover, the end result is great."