Growing sustainable design

By Senah Yeboah-Sampong

Alyson Beaton, assistant professor in the Art & Design Department, has a growing repertoire of eco-conscious talents. In addition to being an illustrator, letterpress printer and production designer for her own letterpress business, Grow Studio, Beaton will pioneer a new course in fall 2013.

The class, Integrated Studio,  is geared toward art & design juniors and seniors and will combine media such as interior architecture, graphic design and object design through 2-D and 3-D techniques. Her undergraduate degree in environmental design led to a master’s in visual communication from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, both of which she said play into her artistic technique and philosophy.

Since launching Grow Books in 2011, Beaton has independently published “Blow, Wind, Blow,”   by Bruce Ray, which she illustrated herself, and “Pushie, Jr.,”  by Maud Lavin and illustrated by Rachel Coulter. She has created three activity sets for kids as well as  a documentary series allowing parents to follow the growth of their children. Beaton also has a series of customizable dollhouses, called Lille Huset, which she said embody her ecological mission and innovative sustainable design practices. Beaton is planning Design Kids Collective classes to unify these principles by allowing kids to play creatively through their

own designs.

The Chronicle talked with Beaton about her business, the commitment it has required and the importance of  creative play.

The Chronicle: How did begin to build your business?

Alyson Beaton: Over the past three years, I started to develop my own line of books and playthings that engage kids creatively to start thinking about design. That’s when I started with Grow Books Press, my initial business beyond my freelance practice. That grew into the Kickstarter for [Lille Huset] about kids learning about architecture, cities, building and what home is. There aren’t many creative art and craft kits for kids focused on things I think are important about design, which [is] looking around your environment or your city.

Was there a project that led you to begin Grow  Studio?

First Words was a letterpress project that I did through my design studio. I developed this simple set of cards that are a running narrative of when your baby starts to talk. It was the first project I did post-grad school because I had kids. It was really for parents and the development of their children in a less consumer-driven way. I did it for myself, and people liked it, so I made more. We always [see] baby books on milestones, this competitive nature about what your child does and when. I found that to be really frustrating as a parent because not all kids are the same. They’re individual and they develop differently. That has put a standard on how our culture [measures] intelligence instead of creativity.

Did anything beyond motherhood encourage your exploration of creative play?

My grad school thesis explored architecture and its relationship to consumerism. Out of looking at consumerism and teaching a course on consumerism for many years at SAIC, I was able to study how kids are being marketed to. That became a point of interest for me, especially their grasp of consumerism and branding and how that really affects their understanding of the world around them.

Where did you get the name “Lille Huset”?

It’s a Norwegian term. It’s the story of a little house in a little neighborhood in a big city. My family goes back a couple generations in Chicago. When I moved back here, we got this little house in Logan Square and felt like, “This is interesting.” We found out that my great grandparents were married in a house right around the corner from where we lived. I had no idea. They were Norwegian, and I used that as the inspiration to create [Lille Huset]. I wanted [the dollhouses] to look like city houses, not mansions or Victorian houses. I live with my kids in a two-flat and didn’t think it was fair that every kid had a dollhouse that was sprawling. I think that doesn’t give them a good perspective on who they are if they have to pretend they live in a mansion. How does that make them feel when they grow up, and they don’t get that mansion? It all comes back to that consumerism aspect of why I started the business.

What are some of the unique elements Lille Huset adds to the dollhouse concept?

The fronts are made out of wood, but the rest are made out of paper so kids can actually draw on it. They can recycle it, and then if they want to pass it on to another child, [they can] replace the paper pieces and keep it going endlessly. So ecology is also a big component, [knowing] what I put into the world, where its life cycle [will take it] and taking responsibility for that.

How does the environment play into design?

Especially with architecture, it’s important where you are in understanding context. It’s also important in [helping] designers figure out who they are and the world around them. Design should be an improvement upon or taking something that exists and making it even better in relationship to community, self and self-awareness. I did this book, “Imagine Your World,” to teach kids to be more self-aware. If they understand that we connect to a power grid, they start to get that we’re all a part of a bigger community. The architecture in the dollhouses is really just a 3-D version of   that idea.

How did you connect with the authors of Grow Books’ “Blow, Wind, Blow” and “Pushie, Jr.”?

When I started a publishing company, I asked everybody [I knew], “Do you have a book up your sleeve?” Ray is somebody who’s been an active member of my life for a while. He’s a community activist and a pastor of a church in the Logan Square neighborhood. He’s been the pastor of an inner-city church for a long time and is so smart. He read and sent me the manuscript of this book, and it was awesome. I just loved it. I ended up illustrating it myself. [Lavin is] a School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor and has been a mentor all through my graduate studies. She wanted to create a book about girls sticking up for themselves. I think boys and girls can see themselves in “Pushie” because it’s about learning to use your words and not your fists.

What have you learned from running a business?

It’s hard, especially for a creative. There are days when you’re just not feeling creative, and you’re just running a business: doing photoshoots and a catalog, getting to trade shows, communicating with [your retailers]. It’s rewarding, but you have to remind yourself of that a lot because it’s easy to get bogged down in negative feedback. I think the No. 1 struggle is sticking with something and not abandoning it before it gets a toehold.

What are you planning for the Design Kids Collective?

[I plan] to get kids to come into a design studio and start thinking about designing and [creating] without a lot of instruction. By nature, that’s something we [don’t] nurture in our current education setting. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of room for kids to just be kids and imagine and play [and consider] what they want their world to be like. They should be encouraged not just to understand the system but also to have a vision. It helps them break down this structured life that we have.