San Diego State University's School of Art + Design is housed in nondescript buildings tucked away on the northwestern edge of campus. The somewhat-hidden location is symbolic of the school's greatest weakness—extraordinarily cool things are happening there, but not enough people know it.
Kotaro Nakamura, a longtime professor of interior design, recently stepped in as the School of Art + Design's interim director. Nakamura is a well-known architect whose firm, Roesling Nakamura Terada Architects, is behind an exciting new building at Balboa Park's Japanese Friendship Garden that's breaking ground this month (in addition to other high-profile, award-winning projects). He says his No. 1 priority is to focus on the good work teachers and students are doing and get the public to pay attention. The School of Art + Design now has a Facebook page, and Nakamura recently put together a slick digital flipbook showcasing student work—two examples of how things have already changed for the better.
Soon, Nakamura says, all School of Art + Design programs will be as well-known and highly regarded as furniture and jewelry, two disciplines for which the school has gained international attention
Another of Nakamura's goals is to break down the barriers between the departments in the School of Art + Design, which, in acts of self-preservation, retreated to their corners and became silos during the economic crash and resulting budget cuts of 2008. Nakamura's research has taken him from San Diego's inner-city schools to disaster areas such as New Orleans' Ninth Ward and the earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged Tohoku, Japan, and he's learned that giving people a common goal and purpose is the best way to rebuild and reinvigorate. It's an approach he plans to use to build an enthusiastic and tight-knit community inside the School of Art + Design.
Eight professors in the school are currently in early retirement, including some of its biggest names, like ceramics professor Joanne Hayakawa, graphic-design professor Susan Merritt and furniture and woodworking professor Wendy Maruyama.
"It's a brain drain, but, at the same time, it's an exciting time, because we can hire new teachers," Nakamura says.
The new hires will augment an impressive staff. Under Nakamura's leadership, the folks at the School of Art + Design are ready to head in a new direction—one that includes more willingness to seek some limelight and a concerted effort to produce more conceptual and research-based work (a direct challenge to similar arts-and-design programs offered by the University of California system).
Meet three of the SDSU professors on the design side who are ready to start showing off:
Matthew Hebert, furniture and woodworking: Wendy Maruyama was instrumental in taking SDSU's furniture-and-woodworking program from more of a craft-based, trade-school approach into one that embraces artistic expression. As she phases out, Hebert will take over and continue doing more of what he does best—heightening the digital literacy of the program by using new technology and growing the digital-fabrication lab. A rising star in the fine-art world, Hebert also brings deep knowledge and interest in conceptual art that will surely affect the program and influence the next generation of students.
Patricia Cué, graphic design: Cué is stoked. SDSU President Elliot Hirshman's recently released strategic plan includes a commitment to enhancing the arts. The university-wide arts-visibility initiative is already taking shape in the form of 19 benches designed by Cué's graphic-design students and placed in the heart of campus. Cué's interested in the intersection of graphic design, public spaces and subcultures. A good example of her approach is found in Mexican Wall Painting Bardas de Baile, her recent book examining the hand-painted advertisements for music, dance and other celebrations found throughout Mexico. Cué will take over as head of the graphic-design program in the next few years. One of her goals is to create a more competitive and rigorous fine-arts bachelor's degree in graphic design and continue community-based work like the comprehensive branding projects her students have done for nonprofits in National City.
Richard Burkett, ceramics: Together, Joanne Hayakawa and Richard Burkett have shaped SDSU's ceramics program into one that bridges the old art-versus-design divide. While Hayakawa is set to retire, Burkett plans to maintain the program's diversity, offering a wide range of techniques and methods of glazing and firing while continuing to nudge students toward finding a unique aesthetic voice. A member of the Allied Craftsmen of San Diego, Burkett's own work ranges from functional to quirky and beautifully abstract. And Burkett's technical expertise is unparalleled in his field. One of the first to publish a website dedicated to ceramics, he also created and sells HyperGlaze, software that helps with storing clay and glaze recipes and glaze calculation. A champion of the ceramics field overall, Burkett is also one of the founders of the annual San Diego Pottery Tour, which showcases some of the city's most interesting designers working in the medium.