March 06, 2017
Cuffaro follows his love of invention into design, teaching
By James F. Sweeney
When Daniel Cuffaro was in fourth grade, he built himself a mechanical hand powered by springs and electric motors. There was nothing wrong with his own hands, but that didn’t stop him from strapping the prosthesis to his arm to test it.
Then there was the underwater ant colony with air pumped in to the pioneering insects below. (“A lot of ants died for that,” Cuffaro said.)
His was a childhood in which no household device was safe from disassembling and no piece of wire or bit of circuitry was left unused. His father, an Italian immigrant, was the Mr. Fix-it in his Seven Hills neighborhood, and young Dan learned a lot at his elbow. When he saw something mechanical, he wanted to know how it worked, whether it could be made to work better and if he could build his own version.
“I remember being in second grade and looking at a picture of an airline cockpit and thinking this is so complicated, I don’t know how they manage it. I remember tracing it and trying to make it more simple,” he said.
Now, as an associate professor and chairman of the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Industrial Design department, he still imagines things better than they are and teaches students how to create them.
It’s ironic that someone seemingly cut out for industrial design since childhood didn’t know the field existed until he was a senior in high school. “I was thinking of studying engineering, and I was looking through a college catalog,” Cuffaro said. “I opened up to the section on industrial design, the skies parted and the angels came down. And I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
He graduated from CIA in 1991, then spent three years as a junior designer for a Cleveland firm and taught a semester at CIA. He then left for Boston, where he worked for Arthur D. Little and Altitude, two product development firms. However, the semester he’d spent teaching had planted a seed. In 2003, he accepted the school’s invitation to lead the Industrial Design department.
“The primary drivers of my decision were that CIA would be a more likely platform, and Cleveland a more likely city, to show how design could be transformative. I always struggled to find good talent, so I thought I would stop complaining and create some, and being closer to family would make life easier and help me/us reconnect with family,” he said.
He has not forsaken the private sector, however.
The Lakewood father of four is founder of Abeo Design, which sells the Hive Workstation System, which can be found in the design studios at CIA. Made from reclaimed wood, the mobile workstations can be configured a number of ways to fit different needs and spaces.
He turned to Kickstarter to fund another design: a lightweight, collapsible, wood-fueled camp stove that eliminates the need for canned fuel. It began as a school project, but Cuffaro, an avid hiker and occasional camper, saw its commercial potential.
”I feel like Alexander Graham Bell when I’m lighting it and there’s boiling water and I’m like, ‘Look at this, guys!' " he said.
The Kickstarter campaign fell short of its fundraising goal, but Cuffaro was not deterred. He and a partner have formed a new company, nCamp, to produce the stove and other lightweight, sustainable camping products.
The stove was an ideal way to teach students the painstaking process of industrial design, Cuffaro said, a method that very seldom involves a light bulb appearing over anyone’s head.
“Things don’t come out of mid-air,” he said. “Eureka moments exist, but they don’t happen the way people think they do. They exist because the conditions exist to learn about a situation and because people have the experience to evaluate something.”
Industrial design teaches people to assess a situation, evaluate it critically, research it and test solutions until the right one is found, a capability which can be applied in many fields.
For example, though he is not an architect, Cuffaro helped design the part of the new CIA building that houses his department. The halls and common spaces are filled with displays of students’ work, including futuristic car concepts, a combination walker and cleaning cart for the elderly, and undulating furniture, other samples of which are in the lobby at the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art.
Though the Industrial Design department is small, Cuffaro said it outperforms much larger institutions when it comes to placing graduates. Representatives from some of the top firms in the country, including Nike, Kohler, Google and Microsoft, come to Cleveland to interview seniors. General Motors and Fisher-Price employ more CIA industrial design grads than any other companies, he said.
Job placement is helped by the opportunities students have to work on commercial projects brought to CIA by outside firms and organizations. In the Design Center classroom, for example, water burbles over a simulated riverbed in a plastic tank as students design a buoy that can better withstand the force of the bow thrusters on the freighters that wend their way down the Cuyahoga River.
Cuffaro said he sees his job as preparing students to not only work for the top design firms and departments, but to acquire the skills and discipline to someday start their own companies, as he has done.
“It’s a very adaptive lifelong skill and process we teach,” he said.
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