Made by Alexia Cohen: Design as a Conduit for Lived Experience
Born and raised in Venezuela to Belgian parents, Designer Alexia Cohen grew up speaking two languages and threading the line between two cultures. She carried this pluralist approach into her fine arts degree, studying jewelry and metalsmithing, and exploring every material she could find: fiber, glass, ceramics, and wood, as well as metal.
Over time, Alexia’s interests shifted toward design, and she joined argodesign in 2019, where she applies her maker skills and multi-faceted thinking to exciting design challenges.
What prompted your shift from fine arts into design?
I absolutely loved making things with my hands, and it was rewarding to have my work shown in galleries and purchased by important collectors. But working long hours in my studio felt quite isolating, and I knew my practical thinking and problem solving skills could be used to serve a greater purpose than my own self expression. I understood that the discipline of design would allow me to broaden my impact.
I was inspired to join SVA’s Products of Design after hearing the perspective of Allan Chochinov, program chair:
“As designers, we are no longer in the artifacts business. We are in the consequences business.”
I was in.
How has your design practice continued to evolve?
My first semester in graduate school, my design research class followed the human-centered design methodology to shape proposals to serve our users, women veterans. This practice demonstrated what I intuitively knew design could do. It truly revolutionized my creative process. I went from a somewhat self-absorbed art practice to becoming more of a conduit to express my user’s lived experience into a solution with real impact in their lives.
My own pivotal moment of growth as a creative person is something the design world has been grappling with for some time. Design thought leaders like Ezio Manzini talk about the power of co-designing, where we recognize those closest to the problem have expertise, insights, and motivations that are critical to getting the right solution built. In Arturo Escobar’s latest book, Designs for the Pluriverse, he argues a related point — that designers are no longer just concerned with the design of everyday things, but instead have embraced a new role of facilitator, activist, strategist, or cultural promoter. It is incredibly exciting for me to be in this position as a designer, and to do this great work every day alongside my teammates at argo and beyond.
How has your maker experience informed your approach to design?
To be quite honest, I don’t think I would have become an argonaut if I hadn’t heard about the collective ‘Think by Making’ philosophy at argo. A hands-on approach to the creative process is in my nature, and I think the beauty of making lies in the process itself, through which we uncover hidden gems we would have otherwise missed.
With my expertise as a jeweler, I grew to anticipate the process of building complex objects, which helped me uncover my abilities as a practical problem solver. Outside my own studio practice, I taught these skills at Pratt Institute, which cemented my own self-awareness and self-efficacy. This exposure, along with my desire to collaborate for greater impact in the world, made me want to pursue design more seriously — to be a designer by day, working creatively with a team, and keep my practice as a maker on the side. And that is exactly what I practice now, a truly pluralist approach to my life as a creative.
What are you currently working on at argo?
I am super excited to be part of the team working with Mimsi, a mobile pregnancy clinic in Haiti providing access to maternal health services for women in rural areas. Contributing to this project is an incredible honor because of its social impact. We’re helping Mimsi scale their program, which is an amazing opportunity for me as a designer from Venezuela, a country facing similar societal and structural challenges. We are gearing up for in-country research in Haiti to spend time at the clinic and facilitate interviews and workshops with the clinicians, patients, and community members. This will be an opportunity for us as designers to step back and listen to the experts on the ground, so we can design the best product based on their lived experience.
You always have a lot of irons in the fire (pun intended!). What else are you working on?
My side projects speak to my personal interests and a desire to empower others with my work.
Cara, a period product and waste carrier for women doing multi-day trips outdoors, is the outcome of my thesis work. While women have hacked their way into dealing with their menstruation outdoors, I am honoring their experience by designing a product that responds directly to their overlooked need. Both IDA and Core77 awarded the product last year. After the current validation, I will re-prototype Cara and test it in the field. Any people interested in helping me with the next round of validation, please contact me.
SheServed is a campaign and storytelling platform aimed at changing the way people see women veterans in American society. A playable board game, “The Game of Military Life” is designed to train the people who actively serve this growing veteran population, by cultivating empathy for the female veteran’s experience, and helping participants explore insights viscerally. After we test it and receive feedback, the goal is to refine the game, make a small production run and unlock its potential to impact the quality of service for women veterans.
Stabile Lame is a baker’s hand tool which I developed after discovering an interest in sourdough bread some time ago. I am now in the process of making — by hand, in my home studio — a limited edition batch of these bespoke tools, for sale on my website soon.
With a passion for research and the human-centered design methodology, Alexia thrives in multi-disciplinary teams that question, reframe, and solve a diverse set of challenges collaboratively. See more of her work at www.alexiacohen.com and on Instagram at @alexitato.