Drexel University Students' Work on Display at Longwood Gardens Holiday Setup
For several Drexel University students, the holidays came early in 2022.
Quite early, actually. Through Drexel Solutions Institute (DSI)'s partnership with Longwood Gardens, 13 students from Drexel’s graphic design, fashion design, product design, and design and merchandising majors were recruited to create holiday-inspired dresses out of botanicals. Their work began in July, before Drexel’s school year even started. Project lead and Department Head of Art and Art History Sarah Steinwachs recruited four other faculty members, and together they recruited students for the project.
“We created a class that didn't align with the regular calendar, so it started at the end of July and ran until November,” Steinwachs said. “Because of the timeline we gathered students together rather quickly, and moved forward somewhat blindly, as we had never taught this kind of project before. Of course, we all have experience designing under pressure with a deadline, but not for such a well-known institution, nor on such a highly visible project.”
Students began brainstorming designs for two botanical garments for Longwood Gardens’ annual holiday display, which draws about 500,000 visitors annually. Every year, the Gardens’ Music Room is transformed into a winter wonderland according to a theme, and highlighting an artist who creates some of the key pieces for the display. This year, the room is decorated like an upscale flower shop, Steinwachs said, and the theme is “Botanical Splendor.” Students were given specifications to create dresses that would appeal to a wide audience, which included wintry botanicals and a set color palette given by Longwood Gardens’ design team of Jim Sutton, Jessica Whitehead and Rachel Schnaitman.
Steinwachs was tapped to lead the project because of her experience with the annual Garbage Gala, in which first-year design students create wearable sculpture out of recycled materials to help raise money for the Salvation Army. Other faculty chosen for the Longwood project include Program Director of Visual Studies in the Art and Art History Department Josh Weiss, adjunct Professor of Visual Studies Rashidah Salam, Program Director of Graphic Design Bill Rees, fashion instructor DC Claassen, props consultant Amanda Hatch and Art and Art History Administrative Assistant and fashion alumna Kristy Biser.
They organized the project, got the specs from Longwood, brought in the students and got to work. Students were split into two groups — one for each garment. Some of the first concepts ended up being part of the final sketches, which is unusual, Steinwachs said. Longwood picked drawings by sophomore fashion major Ahna Romanski and junior fashion major Paige Mueller.
“From the very beginning I was impressed with the students’ ideas and design chops. It became clear, early on, to go in the direction of sculpture rather than a traditional garment so we could create something a bit more fantastical,” Steinwachs said.
Senior graphic design student Aviva Gordon and Mueller were leads on what was called the “Red Dress” because of its palette. Romanski and junior product design major Sam Martel led the “Green Dress,” named for its mossy surface.
All 13 students worked on the dresses by adhering flowers or working on structure. The accessories had leads, too. Graphic design seniors Bhavna Ganesan and Julia Kimball designed the “Green Dress’” shoes and headpiece and handbag, respectively. Graphic design junior Bridget McLaughlin designed the mistletoe staff, while product design junior Martin Queenan, graphic design senior Emily Gioacchini and Ganesan designed the “Red Dress’” headpiece and jewelry. Gioacchini and Kimball created all the promotional material, including Longwood Gardens' blog. Other students included design and merchandising senior Riss Brophy, product design junior Andreia Escobar, fashion senior Marina Khazana and fashion graduate student Sara Begly.
No one had made a flower dress before, or worked with preserved botanicals. They spent a couple weeks — less time than would’ve been ideal — playing around with the preserved materials Longwood sent them to figure out what worked best, “Red Dress” co-lead Mueller said. In September, the group received hundreds of botanicals for the project.
“It was a process of sifting through what we were actually going to use and then trying to strip apart and re-create materials,” Gordon, the other “Red Dress” co-lead and a graphic design student, said. “A lot of these flowers were more delicate than we initially thought, and we had to figure out how to adhere them and work with them. We were sent a bunch of dried flowers, but some of them we would pick up and it would just crumble. It was difficult especially because these things had to move (to Longwood Gardens).”
The structure of the sculptures was wire mesh and papier mâché. They used utilitarian materials, Steinwachs said, but after multiple attempts, students succeeded in creating elegant shapes that had movement and energy, which was difficult considering the stiffness of the materials. The “Red Dress” used about 1,000 florals and the “Green Dress” had a complicated surface of mostly hand-made “roots.”
“The students have a good sense of aesthetics and they’re able to put things together in ways that are surprising,” Steinwachs said.
The experience of making the dresses was essentially one long experiment for everyone involved, including Steinwachs. Both Gordon and Mueller said the biggest lesson they learned was how to collaborate with other people, especially across different areas of expertise. Once people fell into their roles, things got easier as people figured out the part they had to play, Gordon said.
Having students from different majors and levels work so closely with each other was an unusual dynamic, Steinwachs said, but they were able to come together through many teaching and learning moments.
“There were some parts where there was a halt in production because we just did not know what to do, and too many people had ideas and we didn't know how to narrow them down into the actual garment,” Mueller said. “But it worked out in the end. We were able to delegate tasks to people and use their strengths in order to complete the garment."
Though it’s the first time Drexel students are featured as artists at Longwood Gardens, the holiday dress project isn’t the first time Drexel students have worked with Longwood Gardens. Earlier in 2022, DSI facilitated a culinary class designed around creating menu items for Longwood Gardens based on what’s grown there, and Senior Vice Provost for Academic Industry Partnerships Rajneesh Suri, PhD, said there are other projects in the works. This one, however, grew out of a connection between Westphal professor Joe Hancock and Longwood President Paul Redman, who came up with the idea of highlighting Drexel design students during the annual holiday exhibit.
“The objective of the Solutions Institute is to build comprehensive partnerships,” Suri said. “We aim to broaden the ways we collaborate with external partners and establish partnerships that evolve over time. That means we can provide organizations with not just one view on certain things, but a comprehensive approach. We need to approach education in an interdisciplinary way, too, so students can see and learn how things are done in different fields. Students learning to work across disciplines mirrors how effective organizations operate.”
DSI Vice President Anna Koulas sees the botanical garment project as a natural progression of the partnership with Longwood Gardens, which brings Drexel creativity into the Longwood experience.
“When we began talking to Longwood pre-pandemic, we were interested in working together around the garden experience and environment and sustainability,” Koulas said. “The pandemic pushed our organizations to imagine new ways we could collaborate. As Longwood brings the gardens into the next century, they’re thinking about how their customer experience is changing; the displays they’re bringing in, in terms of light, sound and music, are changing very quickly. It’s fascinating from an educational perspective for our students and faculty to join forces.”
As for the educational value from the project, Gordon and Mueller can attest to that. Both students have learned more about their industries as well as what else they might be interested in — Gordon, for example, learned of her love for fashion.
“I’m just happy Drexel was able to have this opportunity with Longwood and that we were able to partake. I feel like it would’ve turned out much differently if it was just for fashion design students, and it was great to have broad expertise for this,” Mueller said.