Not hitting snooze on her alarm at 5:00 a.m. on February 28th is the best thing DISD student Eva Gao did this year. Despite her own desire to stay in bed, she made the trek up to the LPA office in Irvine instead to participate in the IIDA SoCal Student Charrette Design Competition. Getting up early to attend her first ever charrette set off a whirlwind of exciting adventures in the months that followed for this budding interior designer.
Eva admits that she had no idea what to expect that morning in February. “They just sent an email out that said to bring things that would help me through the process,” she explained. “I didn’t know exactly what was needed, so I brought scales, pens, prisma color. Fortunately, my group was really prepared.”Eva and her teammates discuss their concept
What Eva thought would be more like an industry mixer turned out to be her very first student charrette competition. The participating students, all IIDA student members from design schools in Southern California, were split into groups of five. For the next five hours, Eva and her team had to take an existing historical abandoned building in downtown Los Angeles and redesign it as a grocery store that would double as a special event venue for up to 500 guests. The catch was that everything within the retail space needed to be easily movable to accommodate the large parties.
As soon as Eva heard the very specific program requirements, a light bulb went off in her head: Shaker-style furniture. Her teammates were impressed with her idea (many of them hadn’t heard of that particular style before). They sprang into action, delegating tasks based on each team member’s personal strengths. “I’m good at rendering, quick sketch and space planning,” Eva shared, so she took care of those aspects and helped teammates along the way. “It was my idea so they needed to know what I was thinking,” she explained.Eva and her teammates win 1st place and are awarded $10,000
In the end, Eva’s quick thinking helped secure the first place spot for her team. With that honor came a cash prize, which Eva also admits being surprised about. “I didn’t even know they handed out cash prizes until they actually gave it to me!” she giggled, looking back. “I missed it on the email. I just won money!” Awarded $10,000, her team qualified to move on to the IIDA Western regional student design charrette competition, held at the Phoenix Gensler office in April. At the regional competition, Eva and her local team were split into groups with other interior design students from colleges throughout the Western region.Eva arrives at the Gensler Phoenix, AZ office for the IIDA Western Regional student competition
Early on, Eva realized that the group dynamics this time around were very different from the first charrette. “This time, everyone had a theme,” she stated. “I wanted to do an open office plan that was inspired by the Barcelona Expo by Mies van der Rohe.” With many strong opinions in her group, she found that she and her teammates had to compromise more than her first group did at the local level. They came to an agreement on a concept that incorporated elements inspired by the current location, including cacti and canyons, but Eva admits she had her reservations.Eva and her team presenting their board to the jury
Her group did well during the presentation portion. Everyone on the team had the opportunity to speak, and this time Eva was looking forward to it. In contrast to her first competition, in which Eva was too nervous to present, she said, “I actually wanted to talk this time because I felt like I wanted to unify the idea a little bit because it was a little scattered to me.” She turned out to be correct. The feedback the judges provided to her team was that the theme was not strong enough and while they liked the overall idea, there were too many things going on. “I was a little upset,” Eva admits. “I would say I’m a very competitive person. For the first [competition], I was not competitive because I had no idea what to expect with the whole process, but now that I knew, I wanted to win.”
Eva’s disappointment didn’t last long. On that same day, she received an email from Program Director Natalia Trepchina-Worden about being nominated to represent Design Institute of San Diego at NeoCon, one of the most recognized and attended annual trade shows in the commercial design industry. “I thought only the first place team got to go to [NeoCon] but it turns out each [design] school can nominate a person to attend, so I had another chance,” Eva beamed. “I had another shot.”Eva and her teammates from IIDA SoCal at the IIDA Calibre Awards ceremony
With renewed energy, Eva set her designer eyes on Chicago in June, the site of this year’s NeoCon convention. But before she hopped on a plane again, Eva was invited to attend the IIDA So Cal Calibre Awards held at the Hilton in Beverly Hills on May 19th. This annual ceremony recognizes the teams behind excellent design projects, as well as honor the winning teams of the IIDA So Cal student charrette competition. Eva was in awe at the gala, especially when her team took to the stage to accept their award. “The Calibre Awards were so fun,” she says in the end. “It definitely opened my eyes. The interior design industry is huge, it’s a huge community out there.”Eva spends the first day at NeoCon checking out all the furniture and trends at The Mart
Before she knew it, it was time for NeoCon. “The first morning, I went straight to NeoCon to see what was happening in the Merchandise Mart. It was a huge Art Deco building right by the river.” DISD IIDA Advisor Jeff Hines coordinated a showroom tour for Eva on her first day. A couple of representatives from Hayworth in San Diego showed Eva around and she got a very detailed tour of all the collections and new furniture trends of the industry.Eva and the other student competitors tour the space they will redesign for the charrette
The student design charrette competition took place the next morning promptly at 8:30 a.m. Design students, now from around the country, were split into twelve groups of five. This time, the competition took place within the actual building that the teams were redesigning. Herman Miller sponsored this particular competition and came up with the design problem for the teams to solve: create innovative and efficient solutions for a workplace based on how each department communicates with each other. “As soon as I heard that, I had something right away,” Eva said. It was another one of her “light bulb” moments. “I thought about a fashion studio.” Having interned for Heidi Merrick fashion design studio a few years ago, Eva thought about the specific way they communicated with each other. Unlike a typical office, the fashion studio consisted of the tailor, the designer and the marketing team, all within this small space. “The tailor and the designer always communicated back and forth to make adjustments to the clothes they are making.”
Eva shared her idea of a fashion design studio and her team was receptive. Adding a layer of storytelling to her concept, Eva pitched the idea of creating the fashion studio for the designer who created all the costumes for the 2012 remake of the movie Great Gatsby. The team took to Google to do some research and discovered the designer was Catherine Martin. “We wanted to do something Art Deco to fit Chicago,” Eva said. “And it was perfect because Art Deco is her favorite style.”Eva poses proudly next to her NeoCon winning team board
Eva then dug deeper into her internet research to find information on the challenges fashion design studios face the most and found that storage was a huge hurdle. “They have tons and tons of fabric rolls, collections, shoes, bags and very irregular-shaped stuff which is really hard to store.” Eva communicated this to her teammate who was making the floorplan. They dedicated 1/5 of the space to storage. The constant communication between the designer and tailor meant that these two areas needed to be adjacent within the space. A final feature that guided the space planning was Eva’s idea to include a runway to allow the designer to showcase her collections.
When it came to the presentation, Eva wasn’t sure how the judges felt about the concept. While her team presented well, the judges had no questions for them afterward. And unlike the first two competitions, they didn’t announce the winners until the Winners Reception the following evening.Eva and her NeoCon team members are presented with 2nd place awards
The following evening during the reception, they announced Eva’s group as the second place winning team. “My teammate grabbed me and said, ‘We just won second place!’ I totally was not expecting to win this one because I felt like we were so different. Everyone else decided to do AirBnB, tech companies, data companies. More like a traditional office,” she reflects. “We kind of got scared of how different we were, but that’s what made us win, it turns out, so I’m really glad we stuck to the idea.”
Placing first and second in two of three student charrette competitions in a span of a few months is an impressive feat, and Eva earned the bragging rights. The experiences gave her confidence she never had. “Trust yourself,” she said. “I learned that after the second competition. If you’re confident with your idea, talk to your teammates and try to persuade them.” But she also gained confidence outside of the competition aspect. Originally from China, Eva admits to being self-conscious about her English speaking abilities over the six years since she moved to the U.S. This self-consciousness kept her from networking at the events she attended up until the Winners Reception in Chicago, where she drummed up the courage to introduce herself to the likes of Joseph White, one of the jurors and Director of Workplace Strategy, Design, & Management at Herman Miller. “I was so afraid to go out and meet people until the last opportunity. It’s not about just putting it on my résumé, but this whole year of experience, I got to learn so much. Go to these events! Go and talk to people because you’re going to have so many opportunities.”
When asked if she was glad she did all this, Eva laughed. “I’m so glad! I’m so glad I woke up at 5:00 a.m. that morning. Otherwise, none of this would have happened.”