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OCAD U Industrial Design students awarded top DesignTO prize

Artwork featuring fabric of yellow circles at the bottom with blue and other colours featured at the top

An innovative Industrial Design project in which OCAD University students literally stitched together the fabric of their lives under the challenging circumstances of 2020 has won the grand prize of this year’s DesignTO Festival.

What began as a class assignment for students in the second-year course, Identity Materialized, to creatively reflect their pandemic experiences using fabric evolved into a collection of compelling artworks that scored the festival’s prestigious 2021 Best in Festival Award.

“I’m so proud of the students’ work, their creativity, and their resilience during this difficult time,” says Ranee Lee, associate professor in the Faculty of Design.

The course focused on design for social change, and typically, the experiential learning component involved students collaborating with a women’s sewing collective in Toronto’s Regent Park to develop prototypes for soft goods that its members can fabricate and sell to the public.

With the pandemic having scuttled this in-person option and the course happening entirely online, Lee began considering other socially meaningful options for the Materials as Means of Communication assignment. Her goal was to have students design a 16-in. by 16-in. design using various fabrics to reflect their personal thoughts and feelings on how COVID-19 impacted their lives.

The three-week project challenged students to experiment with fabric manipulation techniques learned in class, such as sewing, stitching, layering, embroidering, braiding and dying, to get their idea across.

Lee provided prompts to stir their imagination such as “mending as material invention” and “deconstruction as a way to understand construction.” They also needed to include a 250-word description of their creation and intention behind it, which Lee supported with a class session by a professional writer.

A selection of 19 resulting works from students in Lee’s two offerings of the class are now featured in an online exhibit, as well as on Instagram at They are poignant visual and written meditations not only the uncertainty, fear and isolation triggered by the pandemic, but also social justice protests, mental health, marginalization and more.

Student Marc Ortali captures the universality of the importance of breathing in the midst of widespread respiratory illness with The Calm and the Storm. His accompanying written piece describes his panic at a busy supermarket filled with shoppers stocking up for the long haul: “Panic turns to calm, my attention turns to my breath. Air in, air out, air in, air out. Each exhale more relaxing then the last.”

In a Split Second captures Parna Rashidkhani’s confusion and anxiety over the instant and dramatic pause to our everyday routines—when the mesh flap is lowered, planet earth suddenly becomes engulfed in spiky coronavirus proteins.

For Hyunjae Noh, who had to immediately return home to South Korea and isolate himself for two weeks, Reminding Love in Chaos alludes to the love of his family mitigating the loneliness of his quarantine. Other creations address topics such as financial hardship, anti-black racism, boredom, nostalgia and rediscovering nature.

The Materials as Communication exhibit will pursue its social mission with an eventual exhibit in the Queen Street West-facing windows of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). The students have also decided to later auction their works as a way to raise money for CAMH.

Image Above: Homesick by Jennifer An