Spotlight on SVA Arts Abroad: Food Design in France with Emilie Baltz

August 19, 2013

In the MFA Products of Design Department, students learn how to re-imagine the elements of design in ways that allow them to respond better to the challenges of production and consumption by consumers. This is particularly striking when one thinks about food and the growing food culture in the U.S. (e.g. slow cooking, an emphasis on local food and the artisan, etc.). SVA Close Up recently caught up with artist, designer and MFA Products of Design faculty member Emilie Baltz, who lead the 2013 Arts Abroad program Food Design in France this summer, to talk about the trip and to learn more about the relationship between food and design.

How did the idea for the Summer Arts Abroad program in Food Design come about? How did you decide upon the Champagne region in France?
For the past five years, I have worked as a food designer in America. This involves designing restaurants, events, dinners, tabletop products, cookbooks, photographs and edibles, as well as curation and performances. Two years ago, I was asked to teach a workshop at l’Ecole Superieure d’Arts et Design (l’ESAD ) in Reims, France—home to the first food design program in the world. Nestled in Reims, the capital of the Champagne region, the program brings together designers of all genres (including graphic, product and packaging) to explore the way we interact with our most fundamental material: food. I was impressed with the curriculum. The French have a long history of gastronomy and treat the art form with reverence, demanding the same attention to color, line, form and philosophy as the other fine arts.

America is a more experimental consumer landscape; it is a melting pot of flavors and forms, the result of which creates a diversity of foodways from all parts of the world. Yet, alongside this rich biodiversity, exists a monolithic industrial food system: the packaged and prepared foods that are distributed and consumed by millions across this country and beyond.

When I experienced the food design program at l’ESAD, I saw an opportunity to bring students over and experience the rich, carefully designed food system in France. It was an opportunity to not only spend time flexing creative muscles in a new medium, but also reveal the inner workings of how food is designed, produced and distributed at scale. The workshop was thus conceived of as a balance between making and experiencing, offering students time to create a unique food design, as well as tour the local region and understand first hand how the food system functions and feels.

How has your own work in food design influenced how you approached teaching the course?
I grew up between France and America and have always been interested in the relationship between behavior, culture and identity. When I was growing up, going back and forth between countries always put my personal and cultural identity in question. As I asked myself who I was, I naturally questioned what culture was, and how it was built, shared and sustained. The biggest difference I found was in eating habits. Be it prepared in a home kitchen or a purchased packaged product, in front of a TV or around a table, disposable cutlery or cast silver, food behaviors seemed to lay the foundation for all other consumption behaviors: how people ate was how they acted.

With this lens, my own practice in Food Design is often very personal. It is an investigation that facilitates an understanding and creation of identity. Given this interest, I designed the program with a focus towards developing the individual “tastes” of each participant within the assignment of designing “Travel Cakes.” We were lucky to have an international group, which facilitated a palette of diverse and personal products.

What were some of the concepts and designs students created that really stood out to you this session?
Each student created a truly unique cake that investigated their idea of travel. We had ideas such as Erica Kellogg’s “hot&cold” cake concept that addressed functional needs and constraints in air travel; Jung In Yun who explored the relationship of smell and memory as travel; and Yasemin Uyar, who developed a portable, foldable Turkish breakfast.

If someone is interested in food design, what would you suggest to him/her to learn more about the field and develop the craft?
Food Design is an extremely complex system. On top of all the traditional design considerations of form, color, line and ergonomics, the material of food is unique in that it goes inside of us, thereby implicating a very intimate experience. This act of eating affects all of our senses, holding the power to create incredibly robust emotional experiences.

For students interested in practicing in this field I would suggest, as in all disciplines, to educate themselves first in techniques and production processes of the genre. This means learning about culinary techniques, flavor profiles and food production. Working in restaurants or collaborating with chefs is another priceless addition to a food design education, as is learning more about food policy and justice issues in order to ground innovation and creativity in sustainability.

Another layer to food design is empathy—an understanding of other. Food is meant to be shared, to nourish and entertain both individuals and communities. Designers have a responsibility to think emotionally in this field, to question not only how food design works, but also how it feels. In sharing these feelings from one body to the next through food, I think Food Design has the power to transform not only the consumer, but also the creator.

All images courtesy Emilie Baltz.

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