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Alumni Scholarship Award Winner Combats Pollution With Seaweed-Based Packaging

"Both literally and metaphorically, I am choosing to never turn my back on the power of mother nature."

Over the next few weeks, SVA will be highlighting some of the many outstanding projects by its 2019 Alumni Scholarship Award winners. Today's featured works are by MFA Design student Julia Marsh, whose natural packaging material, Sway, helps combat pollution.

Tell us about your project.
My thesis work, Sway, replaces single-use plastics with sustainable seaweed-based packaging. The project is designed to achieve two goals simultaneously: First, we’re reducing waste by replacing harmful plastic pollutants with a naturally degradable, marine-safe material. Second, we’re promoting ocean health through the expansion of seaweed farms, which purify the water, sequester vast amounts of carbon and increase biodiversity.

What inspired the idea?
Sway was primarily inspired by my upbringing. I was raised in a tiny coastal California town, where my sister and I spent a lot of time playing by the shore, swimming in the cool water and exploring rocky tide pools. Our father would always warn us, "Never turn your back on the ocean." At the time he meant it quite literally, not wanting us to be swept up by the waves. Looking back, I realize his warning became a metaphor for my relationship with the planet and a driving force behind my design work. Both literally and metaphorically, I am choosing to never turn my back on the power of mother nature.

Early in my career as a designer, I was confronted with the disparity between the work I was creating and my interest in planetary well-being. Often I’d be designing or promoting products packaged in plastic. The amount of waste I willingly took part in producing felt at odds with my upbringing. It was around this time I heard the report that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.

My search for alternatives to plastics and sustainable systems began when I arrived at MFA Design. When I discovered it was possible to create bioplastic from the polysaccharides found in marine algae, that was it! Sway was born.

What most surprised you once you started working on the project?
As a graphic designer within an MFA Design program, I didn’t expect to befriend seaweed enthusiasts all over the planet as part of my thesis work. From Indonesia to California, I’ve found that seaweed experts and aquaculturists are some of the most incredible, generous, lovely people you’ll ever meet!

I’ve also been surprised by how very real my thesis work became. As soon as I started talking with material innovation labs, Sway’s potential to be genuinely impactful was made clear. I plan on continuing the work post-graduation.

What was a highlight of living and studying in New York City?
It’s hard to name one specific highlight of living and studying in NYC. Living with three beautiful, intelligent women has certainly been a highlight. We’ve made a routine of always hosting Monday night dinners regardless of how busy we are, which has helped foster a sense of both community and balance in my life.

Working with the faculty and alumni from SVA has been truly phenomenal. Befriending the co-chairs of my program, Lita Talarico and Steven Heller, has been quite special. And of course, I love living in New York for all the traditional reasons—the liveliness of the people, the beauty of the parks, the shows and museums, the diversity of thought.

What is something you learned at SVA that you’ll always take with you?
As a graduate student, you can introduce yourself to anyone you admire, and there’s a very good chance they’ll be willing to talk with you. I’ve sent so many emails to my design idols and experts in the field asking to meet and grab coffee. They almost always say yes!

While being a grad student certainly helped me gain access, what I learned is that people who love their craft want to talk about it! Especially with those who genuinely appreciate what they have to say. After SVA, I plan on continuing to reach out to the people I’m inspired by.

Was there a teacher or class that was essential for you?
Allan Chochinov’s product design class was essential in helping me to understand the expansiveness of the design field. He was one of the core mentors who guided me towards creating work of consequence.

Brian Collins has also been a particularly influential instructor. He’s a brilliant person at the height of his career, but he also truly cares about his students. His teaching style is incredibly compelling, entertaining, and full of depth.

What was your favorite piece of advice a teacher or student shared with you?
My thesis advisor, Leland Maschmeyer, says that great designers don’t invent the future. They see where the world is going, what it needs, and install that future for the rest of us. I love the idea that designers have the ability to influence the future by helping people visualize what it will look like.

What advice do you have for next year’s students going through your program?
I would give this advice to students going through any MFA program: Putting in the work pays off! I spent a lot of late nights at the studio, showed up to every class, met with professors after hours and asked a lot of questions. I think a lot of grad school is about being curious and attentive. You decide how much you’ll get out of the program. Being a graduate student is like having a golden all-access pass. Take full advantage while you have it!

This interview has been condensed and edited.

For this year's SVA Alumni Scholarship Awards, a record 68 students were chosen from a pool of over 270 applicants and were granted scholarships worth more than $60,000 for projects as varied as design products, animation, painting and photography. For more information about the Alumni Scholarship Awards and to see a complete list of this year's recipients, click here
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For more information about SVA's MFA Design program, click here.

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