Emily Pilloton is an architect by training—most known for her redesign of the Hippo Roller, a 22-gallon water collection device for communities in sub-saharan Africa. Two years ago, she radically shifted her focus from global to local, moving her studio to rural Bertie Country, North Carolina, where she runs a design/build curriculum through the local high school called, Studio H. There’s a lot of press out there about Emily’s work, but we thought it would be more fun to talk in person. We also wanted to be sure she was the real deal (confirmed!). Studio H doesn’t disappoint. We spoke with Emily about her commitment to community-based practice and just what it means to create a livelihood working for social change.
ESW: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. We’re in the last throes of our thesis investigation. We’ve done a lot of work here at risd that’s really unconventional and we’ve been bringing some of your work into that. We’re really excited to talk with you about what it means to be a designer today. Just to give you a little background. We started this investigation individually, but through conversation, we realized we could really create something new in relation to design for social change. There was a shortage of opportunity here at risd, especially in a thesis investigation, so we advocated to teach our own course. We call it Design Agency—we’re using that term, agency, as both a verb and a noun. We’re talking about what it means to be a designer at this moment and what it means to practice in a facilitation capacity, rather than an authoritative one. So just to get the ball rolling, we’re curious about how you define community? EP: Wow. That’s one of those terms that I love and hate. I have such a specific definition of it but I know it’s like the word sustainability, it’s so loaded at this point. But yeah, I think it’s whatever it means to you; how you approach it and how that interpretation defines your work. For us—I’m quoting Thoreau here, it’s “where we live and what we live for.” It’s the place we call home and the things within that place that motivate us to work really hard. I think it’s really easy to hear the word community and immediately think, oh well, it’s all about collective values and working selflessly for the benefit of the greater community. But there
definitely is a selfish component. I think that’s OK. It’s healthy. We should define ourselves as part of our community. For example, with our Studio H kids, we’re designing and building a farmer’s market, and yeah, that’s for the community but it’s for me too because I want fresh tomatoes! I think that’s an easy thing to gloss over because it’s sexier to talk about humanitarian design in selfless terms, but there has to be that personal drive. That’s what produces really great design. So community is definitely an outward thing for me but it’s also very inward. I identify myself as being connected and motivated to do the work that I think I’m good at and that I enjoy. ESW: How would you characterize the work you’re doing in Bertie? EP: It’s complex. You know it’s funny, I don’t really define myself as a designer anymore— obviously, I am trained as a designer and more specifically, an architect—but on a daily basis I’m rambling teenagers to sit in their desks or to put away the table saw blade. I guess at this point, I would define myself maybe even more as an educator than a designer. And also right up there as a builder. I come home covered in all sorts of crap everyday because that’s what I do with my students. The design is almost on the back burner—it’s all the stuff that’s been driven into my brain over the course of six years of my education and a couple years of working. It’s almost second nature now. I’m not working in a design capacity but I’m absolutely a designer. But the nature of the work itself is really hard. It’s a tough place and the kids are incredibly difficult and wonderful at the same time. They are the victims of so many different systemic problems in this place. Racism is alive and well, generational poverty, two of our students have kids—they’re 17 years old and they’re teen parents. Two of them have
been in the juvenile system. It’s just the worst of the worst, but also the biggest chance for opportunity. So what we’re trying to do— well we don’t even call it design really—is a different kind of pedagogy, teaching high school kids to be aware and to be citizens and to actually contribute to their hometown. That makes our role very, very complex. I mean, what do I know about how to advise a teen mom trying to balance taking care of a two-year old and doing her math homework? I think, whoa, I’m way in over my head, but that’s the nature of the work. I think anytime you find a creative professional trying to do socially-relevant work, you run into that kind of messiness, but that’s what makes it really valuable in my mind. It’s what makes it really hard, but also fun, and worth doing at the same time. ESW: We’re told so often here at risd that designers aren’t facilitators, that we’re a singular voice —an author—but we’re starting to think about ourselves more like you describe, more like community organizers. EP: I like to think of us as general-purpose rabble-rousers. At first we were sort of like, well we need to blend-in or befriend the mayor—which we have, the mayor is fantastic. This was two years ago now. We were thinking, let’s keep it low-profile, make sure we don’t piss anyone off. But we realized the minute we said, oh we’re a design group, that was enough crazy right there for people to think of us as ‘these crazy design people from California’. At a certain point we just sort of embraced it and said, fine!, let’s be those crazy design people from California and use that to stir up a different kind of energy. It took us a long time for us to realize that it was actually an asset. It’s funny, the communities that we as designers want to