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High-concept design in a shelter

On a damp December day, graduate students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) wrestled their semester's work into final form. Wearing stylish glasses; snug, cropped pants; and boots that hit at mid-calf, they gathered around their projects: a serving cart with cheerful blue wheels, a luminous cluster of mailboxes, an entertainment center, outdoor benches, and two telephone cubbies.

They looked the part of prestigious design students anxiously awaiting their final critique. Yet this year, the introductory course required for a master's in interior architecture was no ordinary RISD fare.

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Rather than creating a coffee table for a hypothetical deconstructionist poet - as had a previous year's class - these students were charged with designing furniture for a group of very real people.

Working in pairs, the students custom built six pieces for men and women living in affordable housing managed by Pine Street Inn, a Boston organization that runs area homeless shelters. Until recently, each of the residents had been homeless.

For graduate students who spend hours each year laboring over obscure and theoretical projects that often never make it off the drawing board, it was a lesson in the concrete and quotidian - not to mention a crash course in handling power tools.

The six resulting pieces illustrate how even the fundamental concerns of daily ritual, privacy, and independence - so central to people emerging from homelessness - can be addressed artfully and with flair.

"Design can be seen as something that is elite," says course instructor, Liliane Wong. "I wanted to inspire students to see that design has a wide spectrum and can be used as a tool for anything, not just for someone who can afford to pay for it."

Little more than a month after the critique, on a much chillier day, the students and four pieces made the trip from the RISD gallery to two Pine Street Inn housing sites. The serving cart settled into its new home in the communal dining room in a row house in Boston's Dorchester section. And the mailboxes were mounted in the foyer of a brownstone in Boston's South End.

Initially, Ralph Hughes, director of Pine Street Inn's permanent housing program, was skeptical. "Would [the students] come in with some kind of fixed notion of avant-garde furniture?" he wondered.

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Early on, some of their concepts did clash with Pine Street Inn's more utilitarian expectations.

For starters, there was the shocking lime green that Rachel Briggs and Dima Abulhusn proposed to paint the drawers of the serving cart.

Ms. Briggs explains that the color was meant to help inspire "a talking piece." But to Roger Squires, a program administrator at the Dorchester house, the "acid" shade had to be toned down. The compromise: a canary yellow.

The rolling cart fills a real need at the house, explains the house manager. Because the counter between the kitchen and the dining room is so small, by the time everyone is served the first people often have already finished eating.

But now Briggs and Ms. Abulhusn hope the cart will enable residents to pass food around the table, bringing them closer to the daily ritual of eating with family.

Through trial and error and conversation with Pine Street Inn administrators, the pieces slowly took shape.

The greatest design challenge, says Professor Wong, was converting the lone group mailbox outside the South End brownstone into individual boxes for the 16 residents. "For that project, we were really banking on some RISD grease."

June Liu and Yoonsun Park envisioned the front door as a towering amalgam of smaller boxes, accessible from two sides.

When Eleanor Batuyios, who oversees the South End house, saw the design for the mailbox door, she thought, "I'm too old-fashioned to appreciate that." Apparently, the Boston building inspectors agreed - the design didn't meet code.

So, Ms. Liu and Ms. Park instead constructed a striking mosaic of horizontal and vertical plexiglass boxes in subtle hues of purple, blue, and lavender for an inside wall. Each mailbox is marked with the letter of a room - A-O - and the first initial and last name of the person who lives in that room.

One reason for the mailboxes, says Wong, was to create a sense of individuality for people used to the anonymity of a shelter - and to keep private who receives mounds of mail and who gets only the occasional slim letter.

Manuel Reyes Cruz, Room E, suggests that he may actually be sent more mail now that he has his own box. And Albert Merrill, Room D, says there's no longer an excuse for his mail to get confused with that of Allen from downstairs.

A $3,600 grant - and a bit of scrounging and material swapping by the students - covered the costs of the class.

Of the RISD student's ingenuity, Wong marvels, "Right when you think the wheel has been invented, they invent a wheel."