How I learnt to embrace my unusual professional journey by weaving a basket in Connemara.

5 mins
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This year I had the privilege of attending Design West. I’ve always known that this international summer school is something special, as also experienced first-hand by other lucky members of the Red Dog Team that have attended in the past, what I didn't expect was to come back with a completely fresh perspective on who I am as a person.

Hosted by ATU Connemara in Letterfrack, nestled between Diamond Hill and the Atlantic Ocean, Design West follows the Black Mountain College paradigm, by bringing creatives to a remote location to play and learn and laugh and walk and swim and create, but mostly, to put them well outside their comfort zone. Most of the attendees are student, recent graduates and young designers, while the mentoring team is made up by world-class design professionals.

When Mary approached us, suggesting Susan and I’d play tag team at Design West, spending a week each in Letterfrack, I got very excited. For many reasons, but also for a very personal one.

My path into design hasn’t been a straight one. After high school I studied science, Chemistry. I was a scientist for many years, PhD, postdoctoral fellowships, peer-reviewed articles, conferences, the works. I always had a passion for art and photography, but it was science that brought me to design. I first enrolled in a short term evening course in graphic design because I wanted to improve the look of my lectures and presentations. But then I got hooked. Through the course I was able to put together a portfolio that enabled me to gain an advanced entry into college. Very advanced. I was put straight into final year. Many people see this as a huge win. For a good while I saw it as a disadvantage. I didn’t really get much time to “play”, final year is the squeeze. It’s the year where all the learnings from playing and experimenting are funnelled into projects. So I worked really hard, and I graduated (first class honours, student of the year, the works – I never do things halfway, for better or worse).

I always had a passion for art and photography, but it was science that brought me to design.

Most likely, this insecurity had much more to do with the fact that I was just about to start a new career in my late thirties. Starting again is exciting, but at the same time incredibly unsettling on a deeper, personal level. After being a scientist for over 10 years, I was confident in my knowledge, I owned my process and I was proud of my achievements. Of course I never realised that, until I pulled the rug under my own feet. So here I was, working as a junior designer, confident I knew nothing, doubting my achievements and relying on a process that I was borrowing from my science days.

Many times I found myself thinking, what if…I studied design after high school, what if…I didn’t take the advance entry and took the full 3-4 years long course (yikes). I got really jealous of the straight paths. The confident and inflexible straight lines. As opposed to my topsy turvy life, having not only switched careers, but also lived in 11 different cities, 15 apartments, 3 countries.

The definition of parallax, according to Oxford Languages (i.e. Google) is “the effect whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions”. Going to Design West did exactly this, it gave me the chance to look at my life from a (very) different viewing point.

I arrived in Letterfrack for week 2 of Design West with a car packed full of art supplies. I was ready, determined, this was finally my time to play. Subconsciously I must have been thinking that if I was able to play like “them” (the straight path young designers), then I was ok. I didn’t have to think ever again about my what ifs. I had finally conquered my straight line, all was good. Turns out I didn’t, and it was the best possible outcome.

Week 2 of Design West is all about the making. In theory, during the first week students are exposed to a range of informal outdoor activities, walks, talks and workshops to connect with the landscape and provide inspiration for week 2. Of course, I had to take a different approach. I researched the briefs from my living room in Temple Bar. I was particularly drawn to two briefs: one about personal journeys and the other about the interconnection between objects and landscapes. As I couldn’t draw inspiration from the landscape, I decided to look inwards. I started exploring the relationship between nature and nurture in the most personal way, the relationship between who we are based on our genetic predispositions and who we become, based on the external events of our life; and how all these elements combined shape our essence, our journey. Simply put, I became the object and the events of my life became my landscape.

My research brought me to learn about basket-weaving as a vernacular craft common to most civilizations. The shape of the baskets is often dictated by their use and the materials they are made with, which in turn is connected to the particular geography and culture of the people making and using the baskets.

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My Design West experience actually started the week before I set foot in Letterfrack, as I decided that for my project to be successful I had to learn how to weave baskets. And so I did. I attended a one day basket-weaving course in Spiddal run by Ciaran Hogan (as I said, I don’t do things halfway). So, armed with my freshly woven willow basket, I spent most of my days and some nights in Letterfrack weaving my life story on a backbone structure made by assembling different branches collected around Connemara (some in the forest, some by the beach).

This organic skeleton represents the traits I inherited from my family, woven through them are strings representing the years of my life. Infographics exploring different aspects of my life are sewn through the years with colour-coded threads.

This organic skeleton represents the traits I inherited from my family, woven through them are strings representing the years of my life.

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The “basket” (can we even call it a basket anymore?) has a very irregular shape (just like my irregular life path) due to its very asymmetric and organic skeleton but also because certain events of my life have had long lasting impact on my journey, , pulling and altering the physical shape of the object, creating the person I am today.

Spending a week in Connemara, working on such a personal brief, gave me the time and space to look not only inwards but also gave me a different perspective.

The project is called “Woven” and was exhibited in ATU Connemara on the last day of Design West. The physical piece was accompanied by a tabloid-style publication and a giant fold-out riso printed infographic.

Spending a week in Connemara, working on such a personal brief, gave me the time and space to look not only inwards but also gave me a different perspective. It’s not every day that your life looks back at you in the form of a poetic yet ominous alien-like creature hanging from a wooden frame in a giant furniture workshop in a remote village on the West coast of Ireland…

It took me going to Connemara and weave a “basket” to finally embrace my story. I finally realised that I am not a topsy turvy line, I am woven. I am the sum of all the experiences of my life, and I am much richer for it. I not only made peace with my own narrative, but most importantly I’ve realised that what adds more value to our voice is not what we have in common but what else we can add to the conversation.

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Alessandra Ravidà

Design Director

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