One of the most interesting exhibits at New York’s recent International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) was, in fact, not furniture at all, but the results of Metaproject 03, an education and industry partnership that each year gives industrial design seniors from Rochester Institute of Technology a real-world commercial project.

This year, 22 students were handed a brief from New York City-based, avant-garde accessories producer Areaware to develop a wooden universal toy that fit into its established product line – which includes the best-selling Cubebot: an articulated wooden robot inspired by Japanese Shinto Kumi-ki puzzles and folds neatly down to a perfect cube when not in use.

With Areaware creative director Laura Young drafted in as guest lecturer, students were required to explore the properties of wood and its use as a primary material in object construction. They then responded with creative proposals that explored the function of toys in contemporary culture. The designs also had to cater to more prosaic requirements, such as consumer product safety and ease of mass production.

The results ranged from puzzles to interactive games to pose-able dinosaurs. Areaware selected for three projects for commercialisation, and several more were earmarked as potential future projects for the company.

The winners each created three very different products. Fish Flip, by Katherine Beyerle, is similar to the Milton Bradley game Pass the Pigs, in the sense that it’s based on dice-game probabilities: players toss two wooden fish into a graphic of a frying pan printed on a cloth, and score depending on the configuration in which they land.

James M Paulius’ Blockitecture is a geometry-class retake on building blocks that would be at home on an architect’s desk as much as in a child’s toy box. The hexagonal blocks nest together in various formations, allowing them to counterbalance each other, and create the kind of cantilevers found in modern and contemporary architecture, with visually striking, sculptural results.

Jay Liu’s Shapuzi was a personal favourite. The young designer wanted to make a product that would allow people to get creative with mark making and stamping, and designed each of the three figurines as combination stamp and photo-holder. While the figurines are minimal and featureless, a differently shaped and coloured head gives each a distinct personality.

In addition, Professor Susan Lakin brought several pages of the Metaproject 03 catalogue to life by designing an “augmented reality aura”, which links the printed page to digital films created by students from the School of Film and Animation and the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences.

Visitors to the ICFF simply download a mobile app to their smartphone, open it and point the phone at an active page. The augmented reality platform Aurasma then seamlessly overlays the digital content to the physical page using image tracking.

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