When environmental and interior design professor Zeke Leonard was invited to create the furniture for a Syracuse coffee shop on Westcott Street two years ago, he embraced the opportunity to integrate three things he holds dear: teaching, making stuff, and building community. He designed the pieces to accommodate the curricular needs of students in his fabrication class, who then built the furniture that would become a tangible part of their University neighborhood. “There were certain things they needed to learn to do in the class, so I made sure those operations had to be done in making this furniture,” says Leonard, who also coordinates the first-year experience for School of Design students in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA). “Then the students had the experience of building a bench that got installed. And it’s still there. So when they go have a cup of coffee with a friend, they’re sitting on something they made.”
Creating learning opportunities and connections among people by teaching them how to make things is more than a profession for Leonard—it’s a way of life. A former New York City theatrical set designer, he began to rethink that career when he realized how much of his work would one day end up in the landfill. He decided to pursue an M.F.A. degree at the Rhode Island School of Design and then embarked on a studio practice in Fall River, Massachusetts, where he created high-end handmade bespoke furniture. But he longed for work that better honored his personal commitment to sustainable and responsible design and also reached beyond the small number of people who could afford expensive commissioned pieces. “My former career as a theatrical set designer was a continuous cycle of making beautiful things and then putting them in the trash,” says Leonard, who joined the VPA faculty in 2009. “Now I am trying to reverse that process, and one form that takes is using locally found, cast-off objects and materials to create one-of-a-kind pieces that will live on for generations.”
Leonard has also combined his uncommon appreciation for “trash” with his lifelong love for music by finding ways to create simple stringed instruments from stuff that would otherwise get tossed—from cigar boxes to damaged pianos. His low-tech, low-cost musical creations have branched into a local artists’ collaboration, a series of instrument-making and music-playing workshops, and a lively community group that gathers twice monthly to play ukuleles.
All of which provide Leonard with new opportunities to “educate people about their ability to make”—a characteristic he sees as essential to an individual’s sense of personal agency and capacity to take up one’s place in the world. He hopes to inspire a similar perspective in the young designers in training he teaches at SU. “If I can talk to our students and get them excited about the fact that stuff can be made by a person, it gets them thinking about the world that they move through in a different way,” he says. “If we understand that we can physically affect the world around us, we understand the ways we can create change in that physicality. And if we understand that, we understand that we can create change in a variety of other venues: political, social, economic, and educational. For me, that’s not just a lofty, romantic idea. It’s a driving force.”
--Amy Speach for SU Magazine