There are many routes to becoming a designer, but the earlier in life one gets encouragement, obviously, the better. One goal of the education department at New York's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution is to provide that encouragement to high school-age students, through studio after-school programs like last winter's The Movie Architecture Project. Conducted by production designer Roger Fortune, this six-week course gave 27 teenagers the opportunity to see a design through from conception to sketches, models, and final presentation. A jury drawn from academia, the professional design community and publishing (i.e., yours truly) was invited to critique the students' finished product.

A confession: Despite my esteemed position at Entertainment Design magazine, my training in the field is limited to a stagecraft class in college and pounding nails for a couple of school productions. I'm a writer, not a designer. When Fortune and the museum's high school programs coordinator Nell Daniel asked me to serve on the final jury, I was honored, but after reflection I asked, in an atypically small voice, "What do I have to do as a jury member?" The idea of critiquing the hard work of these young people, in the flesh, made me slightly uncomfortable. Who was I to judge? I could never even stay inside the lines when coloring.

So I decided to scope out the class in the first session, held Wednesday, February 3, 1999, from 3 to 6pm, in a basement room of the museum. Since most of the students were late--they had to find their way after school to the Upper East Side of Manhattan from across the five boroughs--Fortune had some time to discuss how the class would be conducted. "I'm going to go back and forth between the highly conceptual and hands-on technical," he said. Although the course is titled The Movie Architecture Project, he added, "I can't really teach them to be film designers, I have to teach them to be designers first."

Fortune, whose credits include the TV series South Central, Moesha, and The Cosby Mysteries, and the feature films love jones and A Brother's Kiss, wanted to give the students as broad an introduction to production design as possible within the six-week, three-hours-a-session time frame. And he didn't want his words of wisdom to be the only one participants heard. Over the six sessions, professionals such as art director Audrey Soodoo Raphael, production designers Rick Butler and Wing Lee, and set decorator Alan Hicks were going to drop in to share their knowledge and make suggestions on the progress of the students' designs.

When the kids began to arrive, the overall mood in the room was subdued; the evident shyness seemed miles away from the clamoring boisterousness of teenagers one encounters on the subways weekday afternoons. The thing is, most of them didn't know each other, since they were drawn from 22 different schools citywide. The museum's outreach is partly to educators, who then help enlist students for participation; all courses are free, though enrollment is limited. The class members for The Movie Architecture Project were about evenly split between boys and girls, and their ages ranged from 14 to 18.

Each student was handed a sketchbook at the beginning of class. "You can put notes in it, or drawings, or keep a diary," Fortune told them. "It's yours to keep." He then launched into a discussion of what a designer's job is, employing a friendly, welcoming tone. Throwing out words like concept, theme, and vision, and asking for definitions, Fortune made it clear that "there are no wrong answers here," and the students were palpably put at ease.

They were called on to explain what had brought them to the course. The reasons ranged from the vague--"I want to learn about the movie business"--to the specific--"I want to be able to visually present my ideas." Some students were enrolled at specialized institutions like the High School for Art & Design and the High School for Fashion Industries, and several expressed career goals in architecture and fashion as well as theatre and film. Only one girl claimed to be present because "I was forced to by my teacher."

Then came the students' presentation of their projects. Each had been asked to bring in a poem or story of their own, or one that they particularly liked. As Fortune told them, "I want you to start with something you feel passionate about, that you feel a connection to."

Their choices were interesting. Kelvin Negron of Park East High School had selected the Charles Bukowski poem "Two Flies," while Jennifer Wilkins, a Liberty Partnerships student, got a rousing response with her reading of Maya Angelou's "I Rise." More common were narratives of the participants' own devising, and these testified to the vitality of their imaginations. Tales of redemption, revenge, and blood-letting were particularly popular. Rahim Brown, of Art & Design, offered up a story of child molestation (prompting another student to ask, "Why would you write about something so horrendous?"). Jose Maldonado, a self-avowed Roger Corman fan from Jane Adams Vocational High School, spun a delightfully lurid tale of a woman whose neck scarf is the only thing that keeps her head attached. Art & Design's Jasmine Marte recited her own poem, a kind of ode to her bed, that made surprisingly powerful use of imagery.

In ensuing weeks, Fortune took the students through the phases of realizing these narratives in a single set. "Vision," he explained, "is imagination made real, and design is the process of translating one thing into something else." Week Two of class concentrated on the sketch, "Getting from Idea to Object," while Week Three's emphasis was on moving onto the three-dimensional level with models.

"Last time, it was hard to get them to stop," said Fortune when I next looked in on the class during the Week Four session. "When we got to the models, they really got into it--they said they felt like kids again. I just put the materials out and let them choose how to do it." A survey of the room revealed some students still struggling with drawings, and others who had advanced to the end stages of their models.

Resourcefulness was indeed on display. Nicholas Affrel of Washington Irving High School was working toward a papier-mache model of Atlas holding up the world, using pipe cleaners as a frame. For her bedroom set, Jasmine Marte had progressed only as far as colorful abstract shapes glued on board. Zunnanaia Anderson of LaGuardia High School was hard at work on a complicated model of a peanut factory town from Alice McGill's story "Miss Venora"; her quandary was how to represent both day and night looks on a single set. This hyper-realistic model stood in contrast to Tanzila Nikiema's impressionistic representation of her native Zanzibar in the form of a sun-soaked ocean beach. She had chosen a semi-circular shape that was hard to get a bead on in early form.

But that had changed by the final class on March 17, when the juries convened to critique the students' work. Surrounded by such jurors as Ada Tolla and Guiseppe Lignano of LOT/EK Architecture, Susan Fisher of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, and observers from Pratt Institute and Fashion Institute of Technology, I continued to entertain trepidations. But the supportive tone set by Fortune extended to the jury process. And to these eyes, the work was of a gratifyingly high level.

Tanzila's Zanzibar beach had come to vivid life, with sandpaper sand and the sun and steep waves depicted in brilliant colors on the half-moon backing. "It came out better than I thought," she admitted. Jasmine's bedroom set had evolved into a suitable manifestation of her poem, with a bed afloat over the colorful floor, which she said represented "peaceful dreams."

There were fantastic models, like Catarina Buica's wheel of fortune that called on Bosch's "Seven Deadly Sins," and Mario Alvarez's Kubrickian-scaled silver gas chamber surrounded by panels depicting scenes from the victim's life. And there were deceptively mundane settings, such as a dining room designed by Beverly Garrido for her story about a woman's revenge on a rejecting suitor; the model's dark blue walls and cool wood surfaces conveyed both seductiveness and repressed rage. At first glance, Reasey Ngon's model of a bedroom scene for her poem about a mother and child seemed soothing, until one noticed that the bright yellow room had no windows, and that the child's bed was backed into a corner behind prison-bar-like popsicle sticks. Clearly, these students had a grasp of metaphor and subtext.

Responding to this work as a jury member was actually fun; there was nothing high-pressure or confrontational about anyone's comments. I don't know the relation this bears to what designers face in higher-level academic or professional critiques, but it certainly felt appropriate for the situation. And the students were largely poised and confident in their presentations. In the first class, Fortune had emphasized the importance of communication--with the client, with the director, with the art department, with each other. In addition to creative and technical skills, the students had learned to communicate their ideas.

After participation in one of its initial Design Directions programs, the National Design Museum offers students studio and college visits, application and portfolio workshops, and opportunities at internships. But whether The Movie Architecture Project class members pursue design careers or not, the museum's stated educational purpose, "To engage young minds in creative thinking and problem solving relevant to the issues and experiences of their daily lives," was met. As Fortune states it, "Process is the goal."

For information on Design Directions programs, contact coordinator Nell Daniel, at (212) 849-8390.