It’s a networking opportunity to die for. Or, in the case of NC State graduate student Michael Rall, to design for. It’s the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, also known as Milan Design Week, and it’s the most important international design event of the year. The 24-year-old Rall, who’s never been off the East Coast, is packing his bags for an all-expenses-paid trip to the design fair April 22-27 courtesy of LG Surfaces.
“I can’t wait,” he says. “It’s going to be great.”
Actually, it’s going to be a lot more than that. Rall, who graduates in December with a master’s degree in industrial design, gets to rub elbows in Milan with just about anybody who’s anybody in the world of product design – or at least the top couple of hundred thousand designers, manufacturers, buyers, distributors and salespeople in the industry.
While he’s at it, he’ll have the opportunity to exhibit a design prototype of his own at Zona Tortona’s “That’s Design!” show, which draws more than 80,000 designers and exhibitors from around the globe every year. And he’ll round out the week by appearing at a press conference to present his design concepts to journalists from media outlets like Metropolitan magazine.
Talk about real-world experience.
Rall earned the trip by blowing away the competition in the LG Surfaces Beyond Student Design Challenge last month. The contest, which was open to students at five of the nation’s top design schools, required participants to come up with new product ideas using the company’s acrylic surface material. Today, LG Surfaces is a major producer of kitchen countertops. But to stay economically healthy, the manufacturer is looking for new ways to expand its product line.
The contest guidelines were strict. Not only did the design concepts have to be interesting, they had to be easy and affordable to manufacture. And, with a nod to the recession, they had to be products that people would want to buy. As an added wrinkle, the company gave the contest a theme: balance.
Rall was well prepared for the challenge; he’s studied the design applications of a wide range of materials, including wood, metals and plastic. When he read the guidelines for the contest, he got excited.
“Acrylic is easily thermoformable,” he says with enthusiasm. “You can heat it up and it will bend however you want. And you can attach two pieces together and they look seamless.”
Rall pulled out a design for a shelf that he’d been working on for a metals class: a flat piece of wood with an aluminum strip across the top that could be attached to a wall with a hidden metal bracket. By attaching the hidden bracket to a bedroom nightstand, he decided, he could achieve the illusion that the nightstand was balanced precariously and impossibly on a single small leg. He designed the nightstand to give it a smoothly flowing S-shaped curve, taking advantage of the flexibility that acrylic has during the fabrication process.
When he showed his drawings to friends, they reacted just the way he hoped: “They said, ‘Whoa, how is that standing up? It only has that one leg to the side.’”
After uploading his drawings and schematics to the contest Web site, Rall spent a few minutes reviewing some of the other entries that had been uploaded.
“There were 12 entries just from NC State,” he says. “Some of them were so good, I really didn’t think I had a chance.”
But in March, Rall and four other finalists were flown to Atlanta to present their designs to a panel of judges. The next day, the company held a press conference to present the three winning design concepts and the students who had created them, including Rall.
“I think I won because of ease of fabrication,” he says. “And I think I gave a good presentation and answered the judges’ questions clearly. I showed a clear understanding of the project and how it would fit into a home.”
LG Surfaces and its fabrication vendor, Sterling Surfaces, will manufacture prototypes of each of the winning designs and have them on display in Milan. They’ll be among the 12,000 products vying for recognition as the hottest new design trends in the world.
The trip to Milan is not only great exposure for a promising young designer, it’s also an opportunity for Rall to learn about the industry and think about his future.
“I want to design furniture or house wares,” he says, “or kitchen stuff or small appliances. Actually, I haven’t narrowed it down to one thing. I want to do all sorts of things. I want to touch everything.”
He’s off to a great start.