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03.02.21 | By Bruno Correa
Lisa Krohn was her own first client. Tired of sharing a room with her older sister in her family’s 1928 New York apartment, Krohn convinced her mother to give her the creative freedom to renovate and design a small storage room beside the kitchen into her own study at the age of 10.
“It was my first taste of collaboration, space planning, and balancing the functional, aesthetic, and financial limitations of a real project,” says Krohn.
Through trial and error and a little help from her mom, a tenacious Krohn transformed the unused storage space into a fully functioning room, with its own loft-bed, bright orange aesthetics, a purple shag carpet, and the world’s “loudest wallpaper.” While the room took on a life of its own, for Krohn, the experience would also end up being the catalyst for a lifetime of creative endeavors in art and product design.
“This tiny afterthought of a space became my ‘mod pod,’” says Krohn. “I was hooked for life on problem-solving and, above all, the thrill of transformation.”
Now, decades later, Krohn has worked on design builds big and small, lending her skills to clients like Herman Miller, Walt Disney Imagineering, and Alessi, and is an assistant professor of practice and product design at the USC Iovine and Young Academy. As a professor, Krohn shares her experiences, from launching an award-winning agency to learning the ins and outs of the design industry, with her students in both the undergraduate and graduate programs at the Academy. Krohn stopped by to chat with us about her story and the work she's doing now...
Tell us a little bit about your journey to becoming an award-winning designer and creative strategist?
Always a maker, I learned the importance of casting a wide net as an undergraduate at Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and as a graduate student at Cranbrook Academy of Art, where I got to cast bronze, sculpt in porcelain, learn to spin aluminum, and experiment in architectural space and light. Working with Mario Bellini on a Fulbright fellowship was a crash course in developing furniture and tableware. I am incredibly grateful for all that I have learned from all my teachers and collaborators through my journey- but I would have to say that my best talent has been staying curious and being a lifelong learner.
What are some of the projects you’ve worked on that you’re most proud of and why?
My first love in design was interpreting new technology – imagining how we could use personal information products in the most prosthetic, intuitive ways possible. I designed several speculative products as a student which were considered radical in their time. I recently collaborated on the design and development of a suite of products to harness neuro and biofeedback from the head, torso and wrist to optimize athletic performance. This apparatus integrates the fit, comfort and stylistic needs of a range of test subjects. All sensors make good contact with the skin without adhesive or gel, cables are hidden and managed, and sensitive electronic components are held in place even during vigorous motion. It’s been a really fun challenge.
Currently, you are teaching in the Master of Science, Product Innovation program. Are there any parallels between being a designer and an educator?
Being an educator is similar to being a designer in that a course is just like a designed object or system. Each student presents an educator with the opportunity to see the same subject matter in a different light. Last semester I taught PRIN 502: History and Theory of Product Innovation which examined milestones in product design from Paleolithic times to the present. It was inspiring to me as a designer to see history come alive through the students’ eyes as we moved from the Stone Age through the Fourth Industrial Revolution and teased out the true meaning of disruptive innovation over the eons. This semester we are diving into Aesthetic Theory and 3-dimensional form development where we will be analyzing their 3D sketches through video clips in Miro. I am also excited to be co-teaching two six-day design sprints in the MSIDBT program and co-teaching Product Design 1 with a mix of Academy students and minors.
The Academy emphasizes the importance of failure and resilience. What are your thoughts on this, and could you share an example of a “failed” project from which you learned?
In the years following my schooling, I focused on my own practice and the development of my burgeoning studio. I turned down offers to work at Studio Bellini, Philips, and partnership offers from Pentagram and Razorfish, in favor of maintaining my design independence and voice. As these opportunities came in, it was the projects I had earned on which I remained focused, finding more inspiration working independently on shoestring budgets. While I have always had interesting work, I now see these missed opportunities to join larger global organizations as an abdication of chances to learn, grow and influence the design world. Being a scrappy and resourceful creative was a dream I pursued at the expense of some awesome roads not taken. Not schooled in the entrepreneurial skills Academy students learn, I had a hard time seeing past the projects on my desk. I now see that joining these organizations would each have offered me an incredible opportunity to grow and to lend my influence to global design products. In retrospect, one must always reflect on and seize opportunities as they come. I am excited that my students are part of a comprehensive program that encourages them to keep their eyes wide open!
How has your experience with Academy students been so far? If there was one enduring lesson or insight you could impart to our students, what would it be?
The Academy offers its awesome students a rare opportunity to straddle diverse realms of creative endeavor. If there is one lesson I could impart to my students, it would be to use your time in school to spread your wings, be bold, take risks, be visionary and ambitious with the scope of your projects, stretch the boundaries you are given and make your answers to the prompts the biggest you can make them.
Every project involves an enormous amount of work – why not also have the work you are doing be as conceptually and programmatically bold and as creative as you can make it? Few people get as much creative freedom in their professional lives as they have in school, so exploit that freedom to the fullest extent possible!