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Rural communities in decline, overlooked by the rest of the world, are caught in a catch-22: the more they decline, the more brain drain they suffer. But Emily Pilloton is young, enthusiastic, and trained in architecture and product design, and is determined to find a way for communities like these to reverse their fortunes. “The work that it’s possible for a designer to do in a rural community is completely different than what’s possible in any city or design firm,” she says.

Pilloton and partner Matthew Miller, also an architect, form Project H. They moved to Bertie County in North Carolina, to develop a protocol for developing creative capital away from urban centres. Bertie County is the poorest and most rural county in the state; it has a small population at low density, which leads to high poverty and low rates of post-secondary education.

The process Pilloton developed rolled out in three stages: first, a redesign of the learning environment, providing better materials and spaces like a new computer lab and outdoor learning environment. Second, launching better education systems, which started with a public relations campaign to improve the conditions for change and develop local incentive. As this progressed, education was taken outside the school walls and into the field. Finally, a group of high school students was trained in the design process, learning both critical and crafting techniques, enabling them to identify local problems they can solve through design, brainstorm solutions, then implement them.

The result: students trained with skills they can take into their future careers, but more importantly for Pilloton, creative capital that can be invested in local humanitarianism – aid that comes not from outside, but from within. The pair have moved to Bertie permanently, essentially becoming design missionaries. Pilloton describes her mission as “teaching design thinking and hands-on vocational shop skills that we apply to improving the local community.”

Called Studio H, the third and final stage – the education of the highschool juniors – began over a year ago. The process has been captured in a new exhibit, which just opened on Thursday at the Museum for Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon, a continent away from Bertie County. In addition to the models, sketches, and working prototypes produced by the students, the exhibit will feature documentation of the process – text and video to provide a context for the students’ work. Visitors will have a chance to explore the origins of Pilloton’s experiment, view the day-to-day progress and impact on the students’ lives, and hopefully gain an understanding of the positive change great design can bring – not just to wealthy urban centres, but to depopulated rural regions as well.

Studio H: Design, Build, Transform is at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, 724 Northwest Davis St., until February 25th.

AZURE is an independent magazine working to bring you the best in design, architecture and interiors. We rely on advertising revenue to support the creative content on our site. Please consider whitelisting our site in your settings, or pausing your adblocker while stopping by.