Art Works Blog

Spotlight on Studio H


The new farmers market in Windsor, North Carolina, built by the students of Studio H. Photo courtesy of Project H Design

Five years ago, Emily Pilloton was living the typical cubicle lifestyle in San Francisco, where she earned a steady income, had a desk, and designed furniture and architecture fixtures for paying clients. These days, she’s living in rural Bertie County, North Carolina, the poorest county in the state and home to only 27 residents per square mile. One in three children live in poverty, and in 2007, only 27 percent of third- through eighth-graders passed state standards for math and English. Despite these oddsand more so because of themBertie County was where Pilloton gave up her cube for a classroom and launched Studio H, the latest program of her not-for-profit design agency Project H Design, founded in January 2008.

Run with her partner Matthew Miller, Studio Hwhich was recently awarded an NEA grantis a hands-on design curriculum offered to juniors at the Bertie Early College High School. Part shop class, part architecture school, and part design boot camp, Studio H takes up half of every school day, and teaches students design, technical skills, and critical thinking as they create projects that will benefit the community.

Pilloton and Miller first came to the area through one of Project H Design's other initiatives: the Learning Landscape educational playground. (Project H Design, the umbrella not-for-profit, began as a network of volunteer designers, since evolving into a more focused practice combining design, building, and public education). Dr. Chip Zullinger, then superintendent of Bertie County Public Schools, reached out to Project H in an attempt to boost his failing school district. He commissioned the organization to build Learning Landscape playgrounds, three new computer labs, a weight room for the football team, and a county-wide graphic campaign. But Pilloton and Miller, both of whom had been commuting between North Carolina and San Francisco, wanted to do more. Sensing that Project H was “too much, too thin,” they decided to narrow their focus to “one region and one group of people and really try to make deep, long-term impact.” After two years of working with Dr. Zullinger, they approached the superintendent about stepping into the classroom as design teachers, and Studio H was born.

Emily Pilloton (front row, second from left) and Matthew Miller (back row, second from left) in the farmers market with Studio H students. Photo courtesy of Project H Design


The organization is part of a field that is increasingly called “humanitarian design,” which Pilloton describes as using social and environmental responsibility as success metrics rather than profit. Beyond the product produced, the traditional client-designer relationship is also reinvented. “It’s a humanitarian process where you’re dealing with different groups of people and making sure they have a stake,” she said. “[You’re] not just dragging and dropping something.”

When Pilloton first moved to Bertie County, she was especially wary of the “drag and drop” perception. Not only was she new to the area, but she was new to teaching high school; both she and Miller had previously only taught at the graduate level. “[It’s] been a really interesting lesson for me [about] design imperialism, and never wanting to be that person that’s forcing things on people,” she said. “I’m here to help things happen; I’m not here to necessarily make things happen single-handedly.”

The program officially launched during the 2010-2011 school year with 13 participating juniors. Students designed and built chicken coops for local farmers, as well as a 2,000-square-foot farmers market in Windsor, the county seat. This year, the program has been scaled back from two semesters to one, but will still offer students college credit, as well as stipends for weekend and summer work.

Pilloton says the incoming group of 17 or so students, who will begin in January, will likely build two to four farm stands for various towns in the county in an effort to “create more of a network for local produce.” These “architectural jewel boxes,” as Pilloton envisions them, will also double as bus stops and community boards where flyers, advertisements, job announcements, etc. can be posted. “[Posting boards] seems like a really simple thing,” Pilloton said, “but you go into these towns, and that place just doesn’t exist.”

A look inside a chicken coop built by Studio H. Photo courtesy of Project H Design

Although the emphasis of Studio H is on design, Pilloton doesn’t necessarily expect her students to enter the field professionally. Instead, she sees design as the vehicle for teaching life skills that will come in handy whether or not her students attend college. For those who do continue their education, Pilloton hopes that Studio H’s “creative, critical, and experimental way” of learning will give students the type of analytic, innovative mindset that will help them succeed. For other students who might pursue a trade, Pilloton notes that her program also teaches specific skills, such as welding, masonry, and carpentry.

But the biggest takeaway, Pilloton says, is self-confidence. Adolescence isn’t often characterized by a healthy sense of self-worth, however it can be especially tough for those in disadvantaged areas where resources are scarce and the future might seem limited. But Pilloton hopes that the Studio H projects will show students how much they can accomplish. “What 16-year-old can say they built a 2,000-square-foot farmers market?” she asked. “If they can walk away knowing that anything is possible, and they as individuals can make those things possible, then that’s the biggest lesson for any of them.”

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