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Passions unleashed: Studio aims to open eyes to the power of design

Nadine Kam
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Melissa Rivera-Torres designed a line of T-shirts showing animals and their imagined inner workings.
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Melissa Rivera-Torres' dog lamps allow storage space. The white lamp, for example, stores a roll of paper and can also be used as a light box for drawing.

Industrial design conjures imagery of monolithic structures, heavy machinery and automation, all that is antithetical to what is organic or human.

But Melissa Rivera-Torres of Unleash Studios is out to challenge that chilly, sinister perception with creations that are a combination of quirky, cute, playful, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll and a whole lot of creative – words that also describe the artist herself, if you throw in a dollop of mad scientist.

Far from being a soulless endeavor, industrial design, according to Wikipedia, "is a combination of applied art and applied science, whereby the aesthetics, ergonomics and usability of mass-produced products may be improved for marketability and production."

In plain talk, it’s taking a basic product and tweaking it in ways that turn it into a must-have. A company like Apple excels in industrial design, though to make the concept easier to understand, Rivera-Torres said, "It shouldn’t be called industrial design. It should just be called product design, which is all around us. People forget that even a piece of children’s cereal is designed."

The aim of industrial design in that case would be to attract attention and amuse with shapes and colors, before moving on to other sensory sensations of mouthfeel and flavor factors that contribute to one’s enjoyment and delight.

Rivera-Torres’ joie de vivre is infectious, and after talking to her for a while, it’s clear she truly believes she can improve lives, or at least make people happier, through design, though she laments, "So many things around us are poorly designed and we accept it without thinking about it."

Industrial design is not exactly a top-of-mind subject in Hawaii, for obvious reasons. Far from any major land mass, it just costs too much to ship materials in and out for any type of large-scale manufacturing. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and Rivera-Torres is trying to find a way to populate the islands with her whimsical creations. Those would include anything from floor or tabletop lamps and light tables in the shape of dogs, to robot-shaped desk caddies and T-shirts bearing animal and circuit-board designs that communicate her love of both the organic and technological.

It’s a lot to take in, but one need only see her animated creations firsthand to understand where she’s coming from.

Right now, her dog lamp and light table, available at Fishcake, exist as limited-edition art objects, selling for roughly $800 to $1,000. Ideally, they would be mass-made and sold for much less to spread the joy of living with such whimsical objects, a task on which she’s working.

Similarly, it’s costly to make her Deskbot caddies, which call for custom metal parts and construction of custom Plexiglas boxes. Although there are art enthusiasts who would be willing to pay the $150-plus for limited-edition Deskbots, she has mass ambitions.

"In contrast with one-of-a-kind artists, I’m thinking, ‘How can I get this item produced? How many pieces can I fit on one sheet of Plexi? If I make it smaller, maybe I can fit one more.’

"We learn to be problem solvers. It’s not enough to think of an idea," Rivera-Torres said. "You have to do research into who is going to use your product, what do they need, how are they going to use it, what would make it easier for them to use. "Industrial design is very practical. It’s not just pretty. Everything has to have a reason to be."

In addition to her small furnishings, Rivera-Torres recently launched a T-shirt menagerie, printed with animal imagery, to remind people of their debt to the environment and creatures in need of help.

"I don’t want to be known as a T-shirt person. For me, it’s more about my products, but the shirts show what I do and what I stand for," she said.

The shirts for men and women sell for about $32 , and she plans to donate a portion of the proceeds to animal welfare charities.

RIVERA-TORRES has been teaching art since arriving in Hawaii about four years ago. She intended to just take a look at the place where her mother grew up on Kauai, but she found much to like about Hawaii’s weather, which reminded her of her home, south of Mexico City. That’s where she grew up tinkering with found objects.

"I always liked making random inventions," she said. At one point, she received a pulley from a mechanic friend of the family and constructed a zipline between trees without knowing at the time what a zipline was. Unfortunately, her mom deemed the invention dangerous and confiscated the pulley.

"When I was trying to figure out what to do in high school, I thought, ‘I like drawing and I like graphic design,’ but it wasn’t enough. I missed the 3-D aspect of making things."

Luckily, when she was 15, her father took her on an East Coast road trip to examine high schools where she could finish her education, and they made a side trip to visit a friend who was working for Group 4, specialists in product design, packaging and merchandising. There, she saw employees at work doing all the things she loved doing as play.

By chance, she spoke to one of the designers, who told her he had gone to school at the nearby Rhode Island School of Design, which led to another side trip. "It was a miracle that I talked to one person whose school was right there," Rivera-Torres said. "At the time, I didn’t know if it was a good school and it was closed for the summer, but something in me told me I would love to go to school here."

With a firm goal in mind, she spent the rest of her high school years in Arizona building up her portfolio, required for admission to the prestigious fine arts college.

After graduating from RISD, she returned home to Mexico to work at the National Children’s Museum, helping to design exhibits and activities that could withstand child’s play, before coming here to teach art and graphic design to elementary to college-level students.

"I love teaching children about design, like, I had them designing their own candies. It’s something they never think about, but afterward they start thinking, ‘I can be a designer.’"

Learn more at www.unleashstudio.com. Look for Unleash T-shirts at The Contemporary Museum gift shop and Fishcake, 307 Kamani st.


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