In a Folding Pattern

A young designer develops a mutually beneficial work program for ambitious apprentices.

When London designer Eva Menz, 29, posted a wanted ad for unpaid design assistants, she was shocked by the overwhelming response. Within one week some 140 applicants were clamoring for the opportunity. “It goes to show how many creative people in the UK are looking for anything—even unpaid work—to survive,” says Menz, a product design graduate of Central Saint Martins in London. “It shows the state of desperation.”

Working in a designer’s studio can prepare graduates to enter the job market where they’re expected by employers to hit the ground running. As London schools continue to graduate an ever-larger number of design students, companies in the UK are seeking candidates who have some work experience, which few graduates have had the opportunity to attain. So what happens when the job market doesn’t meet the needs or skills of the talent pool?

One solution proposed by Menz—who creates large-scale chandeliers and installations made from materials like Preciosa crystals, origami, and ice—was to accept qualified applicants and initiate a training program in her Fulham studio. Here trainee designers learn the ins and outs of design projects, from creating concepts to managing budgets to interacting with clients such as Bombay Sapphire and New York fashion designer Shelly Steffee. Menz benefits too. She grows her business with little expense. “A lot of the work I do is very labor-intensive, so it’s a nice symbiosis. I give them a learning environment, and I’m able to do a project that I wouldn’t be able to do on my own,” she says when asked to elaborate on what the fledgling designers contribute to her business.

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The project that precipitated Menz’s need for help was the Flight to Galway, a spectacular flock of treated felt origami birds that floats above the spa at the g hotel in Galway, Ireland. Of the 140 applicants, 15 trainees worked on rotation, reporting to the studio three times a week which left them time to work on income-producing jobs. Each trainee was assigned tasks that suited his or her interest and skills, but everyone pitched in to fold the felt birds.

Menz believes her program can remedy the gap between design education and the profession and she hopes other designers will follow her example. “The industry needs to take responsibility for itself and support and educate the youngsters,” she says.

For Menz, getting to know the trainees is an important part of the program. During social activities like the picnic-style lunch she provides every day, she learns about their goals while building camaraderie among the group. Once the program has passed the experimental phase, Menz plans to publish the results as a manual for other companies to use as a model. One trainee has advanced so far that she’s recently become Menz’s first full-time paid employee. The program is paying off; after all, the new hire was made possible by several new commissions and those projects will certainly require the help of new trainees.

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