Object Lessons

Kevin O’Callaghan teaches big so that his students can dream big.

Kevin O’Callaghan never set out to become a teacher. Though he’s a graphic and environmental design legend, completing large installations on outrageous deadlines, his induction this month into the Art Directors Club’s Hall of Fame also recognizes his 28 years as head of the 3-D design program at New York’s School of Visual Arts (SVA).

In the early 1980s, in the midst of a successful career designing sets and props for films, O’Callaghan was invited by Richard Wilde, now SVA’s chair of advertising and graphic design, to give a classroom talk. As the three-hour session ran into its fifth hour, the idea of teaching clicked. “The B-plan became the A-plan,” he says, “and I’ll never regret it, ever.” O’Callaghan’s first course at SVA was an elective to get graphic design students to physically build things, but 3-D design has since evolved into an invaluable part of the curriculum.

Each semester, O’Callaghan provides a set of objects as a starting point—phone booths, typewriters, M16 rifles—and an intentionally open-ended project brief. Special Delivery, the most recent show to come out of the class, used Huffy bicycles. In a nod to the cyclists who zip around New York’s streets at all hours, O’Callaghan asked students to design bikes that could each deliver a specific message. Sherry Leung’s bicycle, for example, alludes to the challenge of using water sustainably; Steve Pellegrino’s bike is particularly apropos for this election year. Transforming literal vehicles into figurative ones teaches a lesson about the communicative functions of design. The messages of graphic design and advertising have exceptional power when rendered in the round.

O’Callaghan’s students take away skills in heavy-duty fabrication methods, an intimate knowledge of materials, and incredibly diverse portfolios of work. Young designers need to be jacks-of-all-trades in today’s market, he says, and he’s committed to giving them the tools to excel at anything—including not giving up when confronted with seemingly impossible challenges.

O’Callaghan and his assistant, Adria Ingegneri, put as much effort into the course as their students do. “Students like to know you’re willing to be in the trenches with them,” he says. The ultimate value of the 3-D design course, then, might be in the culture it fosters: a spirit of playfulness without frivolity, a serious, hardworking sort of fun that’s crucial to the design process.

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