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Monica Correia
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MONICA CORREIA Using today’s tools, a faculty member and her students design a greener tomorrow.

When Monica Correia decided her art students needed to learn computer-aided design, she didn’t let lack of a computer lab or formal class time stop her.

Correia, assistant professor in the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History, and coordinator and sole faculty member of the department’s 3D design program, looked around campus, found that the theatre department had computers equipped with the program she needed—students used them for set design—and got permission to use the theatre lab after-hours.

The software, AutoCAD, saved her students time by allowing them to quickly and accurately design and modify functional objects like chairs, tables, and magazine racks, as well as interior design for buildings and installation art.

“With this software, you can visualize an object or space even before a prototype is made,” Correia says. “It allows you to create an enormous amount of possibilities for your design.”

The following semester, she worked with Information Technology Services to put together her own computer lab with machines recycled from another department.

“From there,” she says, “I started writing grants, and slowly I got support. Each year, I got a little bit, a little bit, a little bit.”

Now, six years later, the 3D design program not only has a state-of-the-art computer lab, but virtual reality technology and a rapid prototyping printer that create three-dimensional models in color.

“I belong to the generation where we had to use traditional tools,” Correia says, “but more and more, we are dealing with technology, and more and more we have to learn software and keep our mind, our heart, completely open to whatever new tool is coming.”

Before coming to Iowa, Correia lived and worked in Brazil, where she designed interiors for stores and shopping malls, and taught at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro School of Architecture.

She first moved to Iowa City in 1997 when her husband, a physician, got involved with cardiovascular research at the University. Correia earned a Master of Fine Art degree from the School of Art and Art History, then returned to Brazil for two years before joining the Iowa faculty.

Introducing technology to the 3D design program was Correia’s first priority. As she built a technical foundation for the department, she developed classes that incorporated these new tools, and trained graduate students to teach the software to undergraduates so that she could add even more classes to the curriculum.

Once that was under way, she began adding an environmental component to her classes, advocating the use of sustainable materials and local resources whenever possible. She’s been experimenting with a biofoam that’s usually used to make surfboards, for example, and rubber made from recycled tires.

Sustainable materials are often more expensive than traditional materials, and they can be difficult to find, but Correia believes the extra effort is worthwhile.

“Most people in the art school are making something that’s one-of-a-kind, but here we make things that will be eventually reproduced a million times, so if you have the wrong material, you’re really polluting the environment,” she says. “It’s important to teach students how to design using materials that are sustainable or can be recycled. We have to be an example.”

The issue is close to her heart.

“Coming from Brazil, I see so many bad things being done to the forest that it is unbelievable,” she says. “Soon—not in my generation, maybe, but in my daughter’s children’s generation—they’re going to be facing some really big issues.”

Correia’s own designs are organic, colorful, and happy. She strives to create objects that balance form and function, and enjoys collaborating with her students.

“I invite them to design with me, and I participate in whatever they are doing,” she says. “Everybody shares their information and knowledge. It is like my energy sort of charges my students’ batteries, and their energy charges me.”

She has arranged exhibitions of their work both locally and internationally, most recently at the Polytechnic Institute of Leiria in Portugal.

And she says she’s not done building the program yet.

“I want to expand our sustainability offerings,” she says. “I’d like to have my students collaborate with manufacturers that are producing furniture and designing functional objects, and with different departments in the university, especially business, because the business component of the design industry is huge. And I will continue improving with technology. Whatever is out there that I need to teach here, I will fight for funding so we can get it.”

Story by Anne Kapler; photo by Kirk Murray

November 30, 2009