Internship Experiences Help Recent Grad Realize Her Dream of Designing in Europe
Heather Seto (’16, BFA Furniture Design) thrives on being uncomfortable; it’s how she knows she’s on the right track.
The recent Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) graduate is preparing to make her first trip to Europe for a dream internship: six months working alongside Danish furniture designer Jakob Wagner in his Copenhagen studio. She’s harboring some nervous excitement, but she knows that butterflies and transformative opportunities go hand-in-hand.
“I’d rather be uncomfortable and growing than comfortable and standing still,” says Seto. “When an opportunity like this comes along, you have to take it.”
Heather Seto at Snarkitecture offices in NYC (credit - Can Imarnoglu)
Seto began surveying the professional landscape of the furniture design industry as early as her sophomore year at KCAD, embarking on a series of internship opportunities that exposed her to a wealth of new ideas, tools, and processes.
Her first stop was a four-month stint with Grand Rapids-based Sustainable Research Group (SRG) in 2013. SRG helps companies working in a number of different industries understand the value of incorporating sustainable practices into their business model, including a number of prominent area furniture design manufacturers such as Steelcase, Haworth, and Seating, Inc. Seto was tasked with identifying and documenting innovative sustainable materials and processes within the furniture design industry, and also worked to help SRG implement new Social Responsibility Report templates for its clients.
“I learned a lot about the sustainability side of design,” says Seto. “It helped me to approach my own design work with an empathetic perspective.”
In the summer leading up to her junior year, Seto changed gears, joining Haworth as an industrial design intern for four months. There, she worked on everything from generating and analyzing design concepts for production to researching and reporting on industry trends. As her experience and network expanded, so did her understanding of the commercial furniture design process, which she says she found to be frustrating at times.
“In class we would finalize designs rather quickly, but in the commercial furniture industry the timeline from conception to completion is much longer; that wasn’t something I was used to. That’s when I decided I wanted to do work where the pace of the process was somewhere in the middle.”
Embracing her internship experiences as vehicles for growth and self-discovery helped Seto develop a focused drive. While at KCAD she was, among a number of other honors, nominated for a Pinnacle Award in the Student category by the American Society of Furniture Designers in 2015, awarded the prestigious Celia Moh Scholarship three years in a row, and named the winner of the national Bienenstock Furniture Library student design competition in 2016 after earning a finalist nod the year prior. Seto would go on to be named the Furniture Design program’s Excellence Award winner, the pinnacle of KCAD student achievement, when she graduated in 2016.
(above and below): Student work by Heather Seto - the Nocturne Lounge Chair design (above) that earned her top honors in the student category the 2016 Bienenstock Furniture Design Competition, and the Nova Credenza design (below) that was part of her senior thesis collection. (images courtesy of Heather Seto)
“My internship experiences have all been so different, and each had its ups and downs, but they all have helped shaped the way I view design,” Seto says. “I’m a firm believer in learning from failure to figure out what exactly what it is you want to do.”
Instead of committing to a permanent position after graduation, Seto kept exploring. In August of 2016, she headed out to New York City for a four-month internship with Snarkitecture, a highly collaborative and experimental design firm that blurs the lines between architecture, art, and design.
There, she contributed to projects like a pop-up shop Snarkitecture designed for Manhattan-based fashion retailer Kith, including interior and exterior spaces, furniture designs, and visual identity and branding. She also worked on a similar project in which the firm created a space in NYC for Canadian outerwear brand Arc’teryx that fused elements of installation art and architectural forms into the retail experience.
A huge crowd gathered for the grand opening of the Manhattan pop-up shop Seto help Snarkitecture design for fashion retailer Kith. (image courtesy of Kith)
“Snarkitecture really took me out of my own range and into some very unexpected and unfamiliar places,” Seto says. “They’re looking at different ways they can approach everything about the design process and blend disciplines together. In design, everything is interconnected, and I really embrace IDEO’s idea about successful designers needing to be a ‘T’ shape, where you have a narrow specialty at the bottom but broaden out toward the top.”
Design award Seto helped Snarkitecture create for lifestyle news website Highsnobiety (image courtesy of Highsnobiety)
Before her time at Snarkitecture was up, Seto was already planning her next move. She began cold contacting a host of European furniture design studios in the hopes that one would take her on for an extended internship. As it turns out, the first designer to reply was the one at the top of her list: Jakob Wagner.
Seto says she’s long been impressed with Wagner’s work for high-end European furniture brands such as Cappellini and B&B Italia, companies she hopes to one day design for herself. “Jakob is working for my dream clients, these big luxury European companies and brands that are very well known in the industry. Reaching out to him was a long shot, but I figured the worst he could do was ignore me.”
On the contrary, Wagner was as impressed with Seto’s work as she is with his. Seto says Wagner seemed very interested in her development as a designer, especially her experience at KCAD.
“I was telling him about what I learned at KCAD and he remarked on the intensity of the Furniture Design program. I’m a firm believer in the program’s approach. It made my understanding of proportions very strong, as well as my understanding of the history of furniture design. You have to understand the past to understand the future, how everything influences everything else. Jakob was very impressed with that.”
(above and below): Student work by Heather Seto – the Legato outdoor public seating unit (above) and “Gradation,” an installation piece made from paint swatches (below) (above image courtesy of Heather Seto
The internship Wagner offered Seto wasn’t a chance to work for him, but rather with him. The small size of Wagner’s firm means that Seto will have plenty of direct interaction over the course of the six months she’ll be in Copenhagen.
For her, it’s a defining moment in a career that’s only just beginning. And she plans to make the most of it.
“It’s amazing to be in a position where Jakob is going to help me refine my skills as a designer, but it’s not all on him,” she says. “I know I need to stay focused on growing and improving each day I’m there.”
See more of Heather Seto’s work at heatherseto.com.
Learn more about KCAD’s Furniture Design program at kcad.edu/furnituredesign.