Spartan Designers’ Work on Display at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design

by | May 7, 2024 | Featured, Research and Innovation

“Mr. Roboto” is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design through June 30. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design.

Nestled in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood between Potrero Hill and the bay, the Museum of Craft and Design is currently home to “Mr. Roboto,” an innovative exhibit guest curated by SJSU Design Department Chair Virginia San Fratello and Assistant Professor of Design Eleanor Pries. The exhibition, supported by San Fratello’s Artistic Excellence Programming Grant by the College of Humanities and the Arts, features calligraphy, photography, 3D-light painting, 3D printing and stop-motion animation designed or created by more than 60 SJSU students alongside industry partners — and with the aid of a robot.

The robot, which Pries nicknamed “Roberta,” is included in the exhibit, where museumgoers can watch it paint swaths of water in careful lines across a smooth surface. The exhibit features over 100 objects — including 28 3D printed textiles produced in SJSU Assistant Professor of Industrial Design Kohar Scott’s advanced materials class; 26 robotic letterform drawings of the English alphabet designed by Assistant Professor of Graphic Design Diane Lee’s students; 36 robotic light paintings created in Pries’ lighting design class, and a robot-aided stop motion animation created by animation/illustration students advised by Assistant Professor of Animation Angela Wu (learn more about this project in the latest issue of Washington Square: The Magazine).

Each of the objects or materials featured in the exhibit were created by SJSU students with the aid of the robot — students could program the arm to print patterns, project light or steady a camera for photography and videography.

Pries, whose specialty is interior design and sustainable architecture, is one of several tenure-track faculty who have taught their students to take advantage of the machine’s precision and innovation to explore new ideas about graphic design, interior design, industrial design, animation and virtual reality. Scott focuses on the innovative use of technology and industrial design.

“It’s really important to understand that the robot is an extension of the student,” Pries says. “What’s really exciting is that the robot is the helper, and the student is the operator or the designer. The student makes all the decisions about what the robot does. The students decide how much pressure the robot puts on a paintbrush or pen and how much color or light it incorporates in a project. While the robot is a powerful tool, it requires us to program it. It requires us — and in this case, our students — to supply creativity, agency and discipline.”

As a culminating experience in the exhibit, museumgoers can lounge on bean bag chairs with virtual reality headsets to immerse themselves in the paintings created in Pries’ lighting design class. She explains that the VR experience allows people to immerse themselves in 360 degree perspectives of the artwork, creating the sensation that the viewer is neither indoors or outdoors.

“It was impressive to see what the students were able to achieve with the robot arm, and that the technology could have such creative applications in different fields,” adds Wu.

“What’s unique and notable about the 3D printed tiles is not that they are 3D printed by a UR5 robot, but that they are 3D printed on a non-linear surface using gcode produced by Rhino and Grasshopper,” says Scott, who learned to operate the robot alongside her students. “It was exhilarating to learn and operate the robot to 3D print with my students. This is truly a cutting-edge opportunity few institutions are able to offer and it makes me proud of the innovative work we are doing to democratize design education at San José State University.”

Innovation meets art

When Nathan Shehadeh, ’23 Interior Design, first enrolled in Pries’ lighting design course, he had no idea that one of his assignments would later appear in a museum — or that he’d be collaborating with a Swiss research team from ETH Zurich that specializes in creating architecture with the aid of robots.

Eleanor Pries at the Museum of Craft and Design. Photo by Julia Halprin Jackson.

Eleanor Pries admires the light painting by Nathan Shehadeh at the Museum of Craft and Design. Photo by Julia Halprin Jackson.

For Pries’ assignment, Shehadeh and his classmates were instructed to draw inspiration from famous works of architecture. Individually,  they used 3D modeling programs to project patterns onto hemispheres, then took time-lapse pictures that capture the robot tracing the magical, almost ethereal shapes with LED light. Shehadeh’s image, which appears almost as a photographic negative, the blue and purple white outline in stark contrast to the black backdrop, appears as part of a series on the museum wall.

“Part of what I learned at SJSU, and through this class, is that I love learning to code 3D geometries,” he says. “As an interior designer, I’m able to design parametric facades [use algorithms to program designs]; I also love 3D printing.”

In his current role as a designer at an architecture firm, Shehadeh focuses on aesthetic, functional and sustainable design for commercial spaces in keeping with building codes. His experience with 3D modeling using programs like Rhinoceros and Grasshopper in Pries’ class could come in handy if he decides to design and print his own forms. 

Shehadeh was among the alumni present at the museum in late February, when “Mr. Roboto” opened to great acclaim. He recalls how surprising and wonderful it was to see his work, as well as his classmates’, installed on the walls for all to see.

“To prospective students in all areas, I’d say prioritize what’s important, and what’s important is the work you do at school,” he says. “The projects you complete can and will propel you into your career, especially if you’re being exposed to professionals in the industry. So whatever you’re working on, even if you think it’s just an assignment, treat it with respect, because it might get you somewhere.”

Pries and her colleagues are very proud of the work their students invested in the exhibit.

“Sometimes, when I’m working with students on work that is more innovative or speculative, they initially think, ‘Why are we doing this?’” she reflects. “‘How does working with a robot relate to getting a job at a design firm or outfitting the next Airbnb headquarters?’ But as they mature in the program, they see the connection we’re making to Silicon Valley. They see how San José State is an incredibly innovative place, and that we are trying to give them opportunities that will set them apart. I care a lot about my students, and the opportunity for them to see their names on the wall of a museum makes me so proud.”

“Mr. Roboto” is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design through June 30.

Learn more about the exhibit.