Article By: Piper Hale
Published: Nov 10, 2011
Elizabeth Rendon-Betancur, from Medellin, Colombia, is working toward an M.F.A. in furniture design from SCAD Savannah.
Elizabeth Rendon-Betancur, or Ely, first became curious about hands-on building when she was a little girl in Colombia watching her carpenter grandfather at work. Because her visits to see him were few and far between, she spent every moment she could hanging around his shop while he created his pieces. Watching furniture and woodwork take shape under his skilled hands seemed magical to her, and the woodshop became a place of endless fascination. "When the shop was empty, I would sneak in," she says, "and walk around looking at everything without making noise, because I wasn't allowed to be there alone. I was just so excited by all the equipment and how things were made."
This fascination persisted, and Ely went on to study industrial design in college. After graduation she and her husband, a sequential artist, began to look into universities where they could both work for their master's degrees. At the recommendation of a friend, they researched SCAD. "When we were checking online and saw how many international students SCAD has, it sounded perfect for us," says Ely.
Once she and her husband arrived at SCAD, Ely found the transition to living in the U.S. much easier than she expected. "It's scary for international students when they're going to start studying abroad," she says. "But SCAD almost feels like it was built just for international students, because the school is constantly making sure you are fine. It offers excellent help in making the international students feel very comfortable with the lessons and the classes here."
Ely and her husband weren't able to visit the campus before they moved, but when Ely first walked into the furniture design
facilities where she would spend most of her time over the next two years, she says, "It just blew my mind! It was just amazing. I love the workshops and I love working in them. You can build anything."
However, while the workshops are a tremendous help, she says that the program emphasizes the importance of concept over technical skills. She believes that prioritizing design in this way is essential, especially to students confronted with limitless technology. "The high-tech equipment around now allows people to quickly build things without putting too much thought into it," she says. "I see a lot of students at other schools doing that, and I think that's what's different at SCAD: People are thinking before making. So you see a lot of amazing, creative stuff made by the students at SCAD, because the professors push them to develop their own concepts. With work I've seen from students at other schools, many of the designs seem to be from the same designer."
For her own work, Ely is most drawn to designing lighting. In a recent plastics class, she prototyped a customizable lamp, an acrylic sphere dotted with small windows holding pictures backlit by the light of the lamp. Ely likes the cross between a common household item like a lamp and a personal artifact like a photo album. "It's something that would always be close you," she says. "So you have your lamp, your light, and the pictures of the people that you love."
Ely describes her style as dynamic; she enjoys natural silhouettes and dislikes rigid forms. She often incorporates vivid colors into her work. "I need to see that the piece is alive somehow," she says, "That it is flexible, unique and expresses happiness."
For inspiration, Ely seeks out new experiences whenever she can. Last year, she was chosen to join other top-performing SCAD students for the furniture design department's trip to Italy for the Milan Furniture Fair. "It was just an amazing, amazing experience," says Ely. "The whole city is just full of design, all around, every street." While the students were there, they did critique sessions with well-known designers and visited top design studios in Milan. "We visited one of the most important furniture companies in the world," she says, "one that never opens its doors to anyone and the chair of our department got us in. And we could see the whole process of manufacturing."
Ely recently completed an internship at VOOS, a New York-based furniture design firm. After she graduates next year, she hopes to return to VOOS, which has invited her to apply for a position after graduation. She plans to return to Colombia after working in the U.S. for a year or two to open her own furniture business; her goal is to make affordable furniture that anyone can enjoy. "Coming from Colombia, I know a lot of people in my country have nothing," she says. "I'd rather build things for people who need them instead of just making luxury furniture for only one percent of people in the world. I want to do something bigger than that."