Toy Design’s Susan Adamo Baumbach on Whimsy, Twists and Tech

Professor Susan Adamo Baumbach, longtime faculty member, is now acting chair of FIT’s high-profile Toy Design department. Thriving in the fast-moving world of design, refinement, production and sales of toys and games, is a challenge she meets. While she’s a die-hard enthusiast for some games of the past— must-have toys like the Frisbee and a deck of cards–she’s constantly working on the next thing.

Acting Chair of Toy Design Susan Adamo Baumbach. Photo: Sophie Lancione

We asked the acting chair about her life in toys and her vision for the department:

Could you describe a few highlights of your week as acting chair?

SAB: I’ve been teaching Game Design during the spring semester for many years. The biggest highlight for me is when I see students’ work evolve, see that there’s been exploration and not just holding to the original concepts. I love playing games with them. Tonight I brought in Pie Face!, Boom Boom Balloon, Tapple and Chardoodles.

Photo: Sophie Lancione

One of your early jobs was as an editor of a video game publication. How did it lead to toy design?

SAB: I got a cold call while I was at Video Games Magazine about an opening at CBS, which was starting a video games division. I didn’t design video games, I reviewed them. But I got the job, then went to their toys department. From there I went to Pressman Toys where I worked for a long time. (Games are the core of Pressman’s product line – classics and ones based on TV game shows.)

How much does being in NYC give the department an edge?

SAB: We can walk down any street and have an idea. One toy inventor told me that he is always asking himself, “Is there a toy here? Is there a game here?” He would go to Canal Street and buy random parts to see if he had something when he got home.

One of my favorite stories has to do with Chicago inventor Burt Meyer who was in NY for the Toy Fair. He and his boss, Marvin Glass, were looking at the lighted boards around Times Square and Glass said that if you could make that into a toy, then we’d really have something. Once back in Chicago, Burt started work on what would become Lite Brite, one of the top toys of all time.

Photo: Sophie Lancione

What things are most important to you in a Toy Design applicant?

SAB: Good question: Fresh thinking that takes everything about the end-user into consideration, some art skills with a good sense of proportion, maybe whimsy, an unusual twist on something we think we already know.

Our department recruits students heading into junior year. Many students hear about it at FIT. They meet someone in the program, they find it in the course book. We do a “cookies and milk” event to publicize the department.

Photo: Christian Steininger

Where did you grow up and what toys did you play with?

SAB: I grew up in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. A neighbor who was a year younger than me had a great stash of toys and games. When my older sister Jane caught on that I was a sucker for games, she started charging me a quarter to play with her.

Photo: Christian Steininger

How did your taste in toys and games evolve?

SAB: A game called Think-a-Dot made me aware that math had toy applications. That was definitely a leap. Etch-a-Sketch was quite a ‘wow.’ Mr. Potato Head (rebranded to Potato Head) —using real produce. I had a plastic train set I loved; Barbie, Ken, Midge and Alan, a 10-speed bike. My tastes grew with every new box I opened.

So many kids now spend so much time on social media. Do they have time for toys?

SAB: Well, many of their adults limit social media time. And sometimes kids feel spent themselves and want a new ‘flavor.’ Spring is here—Frisbees, bike riding, kite flying, drone flying—These provide their own experience as well.

Photo: Christian Steininger

I used to have a doll and it just sat there. At best, my dolls had eyes that blinked. Now they can practically do your homework. Is there less of a nurturing element with owning a doll?

SAB: Typical baby dolls have given way to plush, which may now, overall, give kids that toy-nurturing play. Plush feels so good, can have amazing colors and features and, if licensed plush, is like having your favorite characters at home.

Major news outlets are reporting a big increase in interest in toys and games for adults. A third of all toys and games are used by adults. Are you adapting your curriculum to this expanding market?

Toy Design Acting Chair Susan Adamo Baumbach. Photo: Sophie Lancione

SAB: I don’t know that any one of us can keep track of all of it, so we have to keep asking each other, “What’s up? What’s going on?” I’m frequently using Google News to search “toys”, “games” and company names.

The biggest change is students designing toys in Solid Works, which are then printed in our Print FX 3D lab. Advanced hard-toy design and engineering, drafting and technical drawing—the department keeps up with the expanding market and a big part of that is our relationship with the faculty who, at their own full time jobs, are always ahead of the game.

With so much evolution in the toy industry, how do you recruit faculty members who are on top of their craft and are also good teachers?

SAB: Right now we are on the hunt for a couple of people who are good industrial designers. So saying that here is one way to attract them! We also get recommendations from our faculty.

Photo: Sophie Lancione

Toys today cover a staggering gamut of playing experiences. Is there still a toy that everyone of a certain age “must” have?

SAB: I would say—Frisbee, deck of cards, couple of pairs of dice, chalk, ball.

What type of inter-disciplinary activities might you have in mind?

SAB: Right now we are involved with the Cooke School and Institute in South Harlem. Juniors and seniors also work with the Hudson Guild here in Chelsea. It’s an agency focused on those in economic need.

What toys do you buy for your own family?

SAB: Husband David and daughter Aurora are both players of SET, an amazing card game. They also like SpotIt! and Aurora is especially too good at it,

Toy Design Acting Chair Susan Adamo Baumbach. Photo: Sophie Lancione

To learn more about the Toy Design major in the School of Art and Design visit: Toy Design at FIT.

All photos by Photography majors Sophie Lancione and Christian Steininger. To see more of their work go to: and on IG: @sophie.lancione. Follow Christian Steininger on IG: @ccsteininger.

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The Radical Act of Repair: Artful, Visible Mending

It may be a radical idea, but you don’t always need to hide your mending. Your stitching can be admired. Students and faculty members recently participated in “Radical Acts of Repair,” a workshop featuring noted textile artist Celia Pym remotely from London. It explored darning and the art of textile repair.

Photo: Smiljana Peros

Round patched darning techniques with pieced knitwear. Moths take notice!

The workshop, supported by the college’s Sustainability Grant, was led by Fashion Design professors Tom Scott and Amy Sperber. Pym gave detailed demonstrations and also discussed several projects she’s created in her London studio.

“Celia spoke inspiringly about the individuals and stories behind the garments that she’s mended,” said Prof. Scott. “Her work focuses on bringing a new chapter into a garment’s life by repairing it with visible mending techniques that are celebrated, rather than hidden.”

Photo: Smiljana Peros

Detail of a student’s woven darn technique as the weft is being completed. 

Each participant brought an accessory or item of clothing to work on. They received guidance from Pym on repairing their well-loved, well-worn items. No previous darning experience was necessary.

Photo: Smiljana Peros
Photo: Smiljana Peros

Fourth-year Knitwear student Jennifer Ho practicing the darning techniques on a sweater she brought to the workshop.

Photo: Smiljana Peros

Photo: Smiljana Peros

Student practicing the woven darn technique with waste yarns collected from the Knitting Machine Lab.

Photo: Smiljana Peros

 Fourth-year Sportswear student Amari Harper, starting the weft threads on her woven darn mending. 

Photo: Smiljana Peros

Student notes from artist talk and darning demonstration given by Pym, and student example of woven darn technique using yarns collected by Prof. Scott.

Photo: Smiljana Peros

Fourth-year Knitwear student Anna Lindsey darning the back of a sweater.  

Photo: Smiljana Peros

Group shot of Radical Repair participants with Pym in her London studio.

To learn more about the School of Art and Design’s Fashion Design major, visit Fashion Design at FIT.

To learn more about FIT’s Sustainability Grants go to: FIT Sustainability projects.

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From Graffiti to Cornfields, Sarah Merenda Has Customers’ Walls Covered

Sarah Merenda’s Fine Arts teacher, Prof. Marcy Rosenblat, told Merenda that she really needed to “work big.” Prof. Rosenblat was right, but she had no idea how big.

Merenda entered FIT as a graffiti artist and skilled wallpaper hanger. Indeed she had been working large. But the encouragement to continue with large canvases confirmed her direction and would help set the course of her career.

"Suncatcher" wallpaper designed by Sarah Merenda
“Suncatcher” wallpaper designed by Sarah Merenda was created from a watercolor rainbow painting.

After first graduating with an AAS degree in Textile/Surface Design, Merenda established Merenda Wallpaper, a company that sells wall coverings featuring everything from repeating patterns to mural-size prints. Three patterns she designed for Textile/Surface professor Dennis Lee’s class are still among her bestsellers, almost 10 years later.

“The impact of Sarah’s design work lies in her ability to balance larger-than-life scale with an intimate and intricate drawing style,” says Nomi Kleinman, Chair of the Textile/Surface Design and Fabric Styling departments. “Her compositions are powerful, while her motifs and mark-making are delicate. This dichotomy evokes a sense of wonder.”-

“Snake Party” wallpaper pattern features images of snakes, chipmunks, the extinct passenger pigeon, the tobacco bug, bees, flies, flowers and corn

Merenda first got her informal education from her mother growing up in Maryland. Then she trained with members of her Atlanta-area extended family, which specialized in hanging wallpaper and other wall coverings. Then she expanded her horizons at FIT.

“Snake Party” wallpaper in the color farrow, in farmhouse bathroom.

A Creative Lifetime Begins

Merenda grew up with five siblings in an old farmhouse outside Chestertown, Maryland. Her mother, who sold perennials and herbs, had wallpapered each room with different patterns.

“I always made art and helped my mother run her business. I used to go with her to crafts shows. I got my work ethic and learned to do everything myself,” says Merenda.

“By high school, I was painting, drawing and spray-painting graffiti.” She also began assisting with hanging wallpaper.

“Graffiti fit together with wallpaper. It’s another large format,” she says. “It’s informative. It’s quick. You put the sheet up and you can make a bold statement quickly.” With graffiti “You have to work quick; you have to get in and get out.”

“Mais” wallpaper, designed by Sarah Merenda

Her aunt and uncle owned a wallpaper hanging business in Atlanta. “I assisted my uncle for about six months,” says Merenda. “I picked it up right away and fell in love with the patterns of the papers, then started hanging. I worked with four of my uncles who hung wallpaper, as well as another female installer.”

Merenda moved to Rego Park, Queens, in 1999 and craved to do more with her talents. “I wasn’t designing or making wallpaper. FIT changed everything for me,” she says.

Sarah Merenda hanging the “Corn Rows” wallpaper she designed.

While at FIT, she also began working for a contractor who taught her to paint and plaster. “I designed my first wallpaper while I was in school.”

She received her FIT Associates degree at age 26, established Merenda Wallpaper, worked for a decade, and finally took time off to return to FIT for her bachelor’s, also spending a semester at the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London.

“Sarah worked with a drive not often seen in students. With unwavering focus and determination, she absorbed every aspect of the material and pushed herself beyond the expectations” says Prof. Kleinman.

“FIT was amazing,” says Merenda. “For me it was a vacation from my working life. It allowed me to be playful and to give myself permission to be creative. Sometimes work gets in the way of creativity. Working is always great. You learn to incorporate your skills into the real world. Both are just as important in my opinion.”

Using a litho-crayon over newspaper, Merenda hand-rubbed street covers she saw while strolling through the city.
“NYC Manhole” wallpaper designed by Sarah Merenda, her ode to our underfoot urban history.

Many of her designs are inspired by the smallest details, like city storm drain typography, nostalgic scenes from timeless Americana farmhouses, weathered graffiti, and alluring shapes from the wild.

Her oyster and cornhusk designs comes from imagery of places she’s lived.  But she also works with customers who have something else in mind, perhaps a unique tale to tell.

“Oysters” wallpaper designed by Sarah Merenda while studying abroad in London. New York City was a major market for oysters. They had been an important food source for the Lenape Native Americans.

Merenda continued hanging wallpaper, and in 2015, she bought an HP Latex 360 wide-format printer to produce her own designs. she set up shop in Astoria. Her home and business is now in the greater Philadelphia area.


“I moved in late 2020 with my family for more space, and to continue expanding my business in surface design”

The industry is booming. “There are a lot of people interested in it, people are putting effort into making new products, so it is becoming more competitive.”

Merenda started mainly doing homes and apartments. But she also handles restaurants and office spaces and hallways in residential buildings. “I don’t generally install a lot of commercial jobs. I’ve found it more rewarding installing art galleries or residential.”

“Boom Box” wallpaper designed by Sarah Merenda, is inspired by the cultural touchstone of the ‘80s.

It’s not all paper, either. “I install traditional screen-printed wallpaper, clay coated, mylar, non-woven, silk, grasscloths, vinyl, hand-painted murals, digitally printed goods, gold leaf and wood veneer papers. Over the years, I’ve used a lot of different materials including covering a few galleries in tin foil, magazine paper, and newspapers.”

Merenda starts each design with a drawing, illustration, painting, rubbing or photograph and manipulates the images with Photoshop rather than custom wall design software before digitally printing them on eco-friendly paper for private clients, architects and interior designers.

Detail of “Dragon Flowers” wallpaper, designed by Sarah Merenda

Merenda’s patterns tend to be contemporary and range from mural styles to repeats. “I can make art and have it be a wallpaper, too,” she says.

“Dragon Flowers” wallpaper, designed by Sarah Merenda. The pattern is inspired by tattoo art and 1970s textiles.

The designs reflect her interests “in near and far-away lands, graffiti, tattoo art, abandoned buildings, underground history and the impermanence of all things,” says Merenda.

“Sarah’s wallpapers simultaneously create a sense of spaciousness and warmth, transforming the environments her wallpaper is applied to,” says Prof. Kleinman.

Travel in Japan, Cuba, Colombia, Berlin, Sicily, London, and Thailand have all contributed to her work, she says, “but India most of all.”

Naga Lotus wallpaper design by Sarah Merenda is hand-drawn from Tibetan Buddhist symbols. The serpent-human-like deities are lake and stream dwelling creatures that guard treasures.

To see more of Sarah Merenda’s work, visit his website at: and on IG @merendawallpaper.

To learn more about the Textile/Surface Design AAS and BFA programs go to: Textile/Surface Design at FIT.

All images used with permission.
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Deconstructing Knitwear into New Designs

What’s old can be cut up, re-stitched, and combined with other garments to create complex, fascinating designs – in other words, made new again. Students in Fashion Design Professor Tom Scott’s Intro to Knitwear class (FD357) were assigned to upcycle sweaters donated by C2/Contempo Group, a global sourcing and product development agency.

“Every year, we ask the students to create original designs in knitwear using garments that they typically find in thrift or vintage stores, or recycle from friends and family,” said Prof. Scott. “They cut and disassemble the found pieces to design new garments, playing with shape, stitch, and construction in creative and thoughtful ways.”

Fiona Geraghty’s Cable Crewneck, a “vertiginous mash-up”

Students unravel and re-use the yarn and patch different elements together throughout the semester. “It’s exciting to see their work and the complexity of each garment develop as they create them,” Prof. Scott said.

“Last summer, we received a large sweater donation from C2. There were so many sweaters. I let each student select a few pieces to incorporate into their designs.”

Scott described what happens as students deconstruct garments and reconfigure them:

Fiona Geraghty’s piece is “a fabulous and almost vertiginous mash-up of fabric, colors, and hand embroidery techniques,” said Prof. Scott. “She experimented and pushed the boundaries with very complex and clever construction.”

Fiona Geraghty’s crewneck sweater

Gabriela Woellner experimented by draping sweaters to create an organic 3D effect, even unravelling sweater fiber back into the yarn to create a fringe detail, said Prof. Scott. “It is ingenious and playful.”

Gabriela Woellner’s Crewneck with fringe detail
Gabriela Woellner’s crewneck sweater

Karen Lam has a unique, almost “scientific” precision in her approach, said Prof. Scott. “She very thoughtfully developed the cool shape shown, in patchworked cabled sweaters…wearable and very modern.”

Karen Lam’s patchworked cable crewneck sweater.
Karen Lam’s cable crewneck sweater

Rose Lakhi created a clean and modern patchwork silhouette, “really thinking about finishing in a fresh and cool combination of fabrics,” Prof. Scott said.

Rose Lakhi’s “modern patchwork silhouette”
Rose Lakhi’s patchwork sweater

Prof. Scott says he still has many, some in finer gauges, left over from the donated sweaters, and will  offer them to students who are continuing in the Knitwear concentration.”

To learn more about the Knitwear concentration in the School of Art and Design, visit Fashion Design at FIT.

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The spider, the pig, and the child in all of us: How FIT students spun a web for Charlotte

For the past month, people walking by FIT on 7th Avenue between 27th and 28th Streets have been caught in Charlotte’s Web. Students in Prof. Glenn Sokoli’s Advanced Store Window Design class transformed the Colin Burch Window in the Pomerantz Art and Design Center into pages of the children’s classic by E.B. White, complete with Charlotte the spider, her friend Wilbur the pig, and of course the web itself.

Display window tribute to the 70th anniversary of E.B. White’s children’s book “Charlotte’s Web”

Said Anne Kong, Program Director of the Spatial Experience Design program, “people have been standing in front of it and taking selfies… It’s been pretty exciting!”

The display, which ends December 13,  was created by students Anum Khawaja, Ana Belardi, Lauren Axford, Alyssa Monez, and Gabriel Hottinger. In these advanced classes, students experiment with more sophisticated approaches to display.

Charlotte’s Web display closeup

“Spatial Design” is a new term, which influenced the name of FIT’s program.  It’s trending, Prof. Kong says. “The term “spatial” refers to bringing some of what has been considered ‘window dressing’ beyond just product display to take advantage of a store’s façade and have fun drawing people in.”

It started a decade ago with Cartier adding a multistory big red bow around its store façade in New York City. The store itself became a giant gift box. Dior, Chanel and others have followed, adding fantasy themes inside and out.

The Spatial Experience Design program integrates an array of creative technologies says Prof. Kong.

“Quite a bit of technology went into that window. The students 3D printed Wilbur and also Charlotte’s legs. There is a lot of prop and set design expertise going into that design,” says Prof. Kong.

Wiber, a character from “Charlotte’s Web”

Why Charlotte’s Web? “It’s the 70th anniversary of the book’s original publication and there’s a new book release so we figured we wanted to build a window that’s looking right into the story,” said student Anum Khawaja.

“We grew up with the book. Prof. Sokoli also grew up with the movie. We bonded,” said Khawaja.

For homework the students watched the movie. They all chose a scene or section to recreate. They decided to use the scene where Wilbur first meets Charlotte.

Charlotte’s legs are painted before gluing the flocking powder on to ensure a solid coat of black underneath
Charlotte’s body with floral wire with wrapped string around the wire to give the illusion that she is suspended by a strand of silk

“We wanted to recreate that scene but also give it a sense of scale and a sense of strength, because Charlotte is a spider; she’s small but we wanted to make her feel large and as important as she is in the book, by scaling her up and making her the scene focus.”

Lauren Axford lining up the vinyl for the title of the window and considering its position

To learn more about the Spatial Experience Design program (formally  Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design) go to: Spatial Experience Design at FIT.

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Two Jewelry Design students win Cultured Pearl Association awards

Two FIT second-year students, Victor Rouesné and Luna Gwak, have won the Cultured Pearl Association of America’s design competition, student division. This was the first year that student work was judged separately.

Victor Rouesné’s CPAA winning Voguedelier earrings

Students had to sketch (by hand or with CAD) their designs, which could feature any color, shape, or variety of fine cultured pearls available on the market. The judges were looking for designs that are “fresh, modern, wearable, and defy outdated thoughts about wearing pearls.” But fresh interpretations of old ideas were welcome.

The two Jewelry Design AAS students tied and were both awarded first prizes. Victor Rouesné won for his “Voguedelier” earrings. Luna Gwak won for her Ribbon statement necklace in 18k rose gold with akoya pearls, white diamonds, pink morganite, and light green beryl.

The earrings were inspired by Art Deco as well as Vogue covers from the mid-1920s. “We often think of pearls as white and round,” said Rouesné, “but they can come in a variety of colors and shapes, like baroque, blue, black, green, and pink.”

Pearl necklace design by Victor Rouesne for JD 238 Jewelry Design Ideations II. An amulet pendant represents a piece of fabric revealing a white pearl.

Rouesné said that if his design happens to be made someday, it will use yellow gold with white freshwater pearls ranging in size from 3 mm to 7.5 mm.

He designed the earrings for his jewelry design and ideations class. The assignment was to design pendant earrings that were inspired by Art Deco, but not something that looks like it stepped out of the 1930s.

Rouesné said he got positive feedback from Prof. Karen Bachmann, his jewelry design and ideations professor last semester. “It was my first project for her class and got such feedback on it so I had set high expectations for the rest of the semester. I also got good feedback from Prof. Michael Coan who teaches gemology.”

Before coming to FIT, Rouesné majored in fashion design in France, but did not have experience in silversmithing, working with any metals, or any knowledge in gemology.

He hopes to work as a jewelry designer for either a jewelry company or a fashion company if they have a jewelry line, to gain professional experience before creating his own jewelry company. “I hope to create a gender-neutral jewelry brand. The jewelry market is saturated with women’s jewelry brands while offering few fresh and contemporary men’s and gender-fluid jewelry.”

Luna Gwak’s CPAA winning ribbon statement necklace

Luna Gwak says “I was so happy when I found out that I had won the award! It gave me more confidence in designing a statement necklace. It was a great experience because even though the pearl is one of my favorite gems, it was my first time considering designs that feature pearls as the main gems.”

Gwak’s statement necklace was inspired by ribbon often used, she says, for gift boxes and as an adornment for people or objects. “The addition of ribbon adds excitement to the giver and receiver. I designed this necklace with a hope that people feel excitement and happiness. I  named it ‘Present for You’ necklace,” said Gwak.

“I used gouache for the painting. My gouache rendering skills, design ideation, and understanding of jewelry mechanism come from my FIT Jewelry Design studies. They were all helpful in designing and rendering this piece.

Statement ring design by Luna Gwak inspired by a bouquet for JD240 Jewelry Design Development assignment

“I cannot really tell when I started to love jewelry; it’s been a long time. After I studied Fashion Business Management in FIT Korea for a year, I wanted to study something that draw on my creativity, and that was jewelry design. When I graduate, I hope to work for a company to get more experience and knowledge about jewelry production.”

FIT also played a role in Ashleigh Branstetter’s win, the Spotlight Award—Baroque-Shape Pearls for 2022. This category focused on designs where 75 percent of the piece features one type of pearl—the baroque-shape pearl this year. “I’ve only taken  online courses at FIT,” she said. A seasoned professional, she enrolled in the FIT Rhino courses with Prof. Dana Buscaglia.

Ashleigh Branstetter winning Baroque-Shape Pearls

“She is the author of ‘Rhino 5.0 for Jewelry.’ I had purchased a CAD program called Matrix and had been learning independently.  It is a Rhino-based program, and when I noticed the Rhino online course, I decided to take it.  I can now design the CAD file on my own, or if I pay for a CAD file and need to make adjustments, I can do so.”

This year’s judges included Jean Francois Bibet, workshop and production director at Cartier, Patricia Faber, co-owner of Aaron Faber Gallery in Manhattan, Lenore Fedow, associate editor, National Jeweler; Maria Tsangaropoulos, supervisor of instruction at GIA’s NYC campus; FIT Jewelry Design professor Michael Coan (he recused himself from the student judging), Kathy Zaltas of Zaltas Gallery, in Mamaroneck, NY, and Peggy Grosz, senior vice president, Assael Pearls.

Follow Victor Rouesné on IG @VictorRouesne and Luna Gwak @dayeon_g.99. Visit Ashleigh Branstetter’s website at:

To learn more about the School of Art and Design’s Jewelry Design program go to:  Jewelry Design at FIT.

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FIT Adjunct Cal Freundlich Makes Good Music!

Music has always played an important role in film, starting with silent movies accompanied by pianos played in theaters. Interesting plot twist: FIT has been making a bit of noise lately when it comes to this.

Cal Freundlich, who teaches CG-452 (Music Production for Interactive and Animation Thesis), scored “Found,” a documentary directed by Shuhao Tse. “Found” won the gold medal in the documentary category at the Student Academy Awards. A few months earlier it also won the Student BAFTA Best Documentary and Grand Jury Prize.

Cal Freundlich having been awarded the gold student academy award, 2022

The film is about a child stolen at age three. A dozen years later, police find him, but that joy was trapped by a new reality – the child’s existing family relations.

Catch excerpts from Freundlich’s soundtrack for “Found” here on SoundCloud.

“Shuhao, (a fellow NYU alum) did a beautiful job of telling an unbelievably delicate and emotional story, and I feel lucky to have been a part of it,” said Freundlich.

Freundlich’s two-semester course is centered around a collaboration with NYU students from the Steinhardt Screen Scoring Program (of which Freundlich is an alumnus).

“We are focusing on how to dissect, analyze, and most importantly communicate about music as creators, not as musicians,” says Freudlich. The idea is to give FIT thesis students the tools for a successful and nuanced collaboration with their composers in the second half of the year.

Freundlich says the aim of his score was “to reflect the fragility of such a high-stakes family story, as well as allow the audience to delve deeper into the emotion of both the parents and the child. Because the story is so emotionally charged, we really wanted the score to give the film’s heaviest moments just the lightest push, while also allowing audiences to decide how they feel for themselves.”

Cal Freundlich at the student academy awards

At FIT, “a fair amount of class time is dedicated to dissecting music and how it interacts with pictures. We’ve spoken in class about how to choose what moments need music, as well as how to map out a scene musically based on the emotional beats within it,” said Freundlich.

For one assignment, FIT students worked in groups to “temp” (add pre-existing music to a scene without music) several different scenes. “Each scene had at least two groups assigned to it, but each group was assigned a different musical genre,” said Freundlich.

The purpose was to demonstrate the power of music in film, animation and other media, and how drastically the music choices can impact the interpretation of a scene.

Freundlich completed the winning documentary’s score when he was a student last April, during the final year of completing his master’s program at NYU.

To see more of Cal Freundlich’s work, visit his website: CalFreudlichMusic and on IG: @cal_freundlich.

To learn more about animation at FIT go to: Animation, Interactive Media, & Game Design.

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Fine Arts Professor Nick Lamia’s wilderness experiences captured in two artistic mediums

Fine Arts professor Nick Lamia began photographing and painting abstract landscapes during an artists’ residency at the prestigious MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire over a decade ago. He would ride his bike along the countryside and come back and paint and draw the “lived experiences” he had captured in photographs. They would be captured again as works of art.  Lamia has since wandered over more territory and more terrain.

Photo: Nick Lamia, “Brewster, NY”

His abstract interpretations often exist alongside his photographs. These “observational recordings,” as he refers to them, help to inform the viewer of his artistic process and imagination.

Now some of his landscapes are being featured in a solo exhibition, “Tailwaters Project,” at the AVA Gallery in Lebanon, NH from October 14 through November 12. The audience can modify a live installation at his artist’s talk on October 28.

Nick Lamia, “Bridge at Brewster”

It’s all part of a logical trajectory. Before moving to New York in 2000, Lamia taught environmental science and was a wilderness guide in California’s Sierra Nevada. He also worked as a mate on ocean going sailboats and led sea kayaking expeditions.

He says his love of ecology and the outdoors didn’t disappear when he moved to New York. It continues to inspire his artwork. “It’s often the overlaps of the built environment and the natural world that are especially interesting,” he says.

Lamia began teaching at FIT in 2017 when he was invited to take on a figure drawing course for non-majors. Since that first semester, Lamia has gone on to teach drawing, printmaking, painting and an Art and Technology class.

Lamia led a series of faculty print workshops to generate team spirit within his department and has taken on the role of Diversity Ambassador, promoting diversity on campus and acting as a liaison between Fine Arts and the FIT Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Photo: Nick Lamia, “Stockbridge, Vermont”

In New York, he says, one sees unending examples of society and nature conforming to one another in a way that is as stimulating as spending time in wilderness.

Lamia and ten extended family members moved to his mother-in-law’s home in Westchester for the first seven months of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“For me, it provided more time to do things outdoors.” Without a studio, Lamia spent time tinkering in his late father-in-law’s basement workshop. “My paternal grandfather was a contractor and boat builder. I have a bunch of his old tools and I’ve always loved working with my hands.”

His father-in-law’s fly-fishing gear also rekindled an old interest; he began taking trips to local creeks and streams in search of trout.

Nick Lamia, “Stockbridge Swimming Hole”

Because the trout fishing options around him were all tailwaters (the watercourse below a reservoir) and trout fishing is generally carried out in an upstream direction, he’d eventually reach a dam.

Dense underbrush and tree cover along the streams blocked Lamia’s view of his surroundings. He remembers “while I was exploring these creeks and rivers, it was easy to believe that I was surrounded by wilderness the way Thomas Cole or Frederick Edwin Church would have been while they sought inspiring views of the Hudson.”

Photo: Nick Lamia, “Cathedral”

The illusion that he was far from any part of our built environment would sometimes become overwhelmingly powerful. When he glimpsed an enormous dam through the trees, it was as if he were seeing something alien. This was, he said, similar to what it must have been like for Native Americans to witness the arrival of European ships.

Lamia says his tailwater experiences mimic painting at its best:

“It’s an extended period of exploratory moves, experimentation and feeling lost followed by a brief moment of clarity when the inherent logic of the image becomes clear.” These moments inspire new art.

Photo: Nick Lamia. “Croton River, West Branch”

Regarding the practice of photographing promising locations and using his photos as references for paintings and drawings:

“Few people would guess these paintings come from real life…when one looks at the paintings together with the photographic references, the connections are unmistakable.” Then the goal is to create artworks that “evoke, rather than illustrate” his observations of the intertwining of society and nature.

Lamia says he feels fortunate to have been embraced by the Fine Arts department. “It’s a hidden gem in New York City and there is so much potential here.”

“West Branch”

Lamia is a founding member of the Faculty on Inclusive Learning group, for which he is helping to organize a second year-long series of online faculty discussions on topics ranging from cultural appropriation to socio-economic diversity in the classroom.

He enjoys teaching at FIT for its range of diverse students and the enthusiasm they bring to his classroom. He says he’s had a particularly good time taking on the challenges of guiding senior painters through their thesis projects during their final year on campus.

Nick Lamia

“I love it when students begin to connect their concepts with their craft. That’s what senior year is all about: bringing the technical skills they’ve honed as they progress through the visual arts program together with their personal interests and curiosity.”

When that happens,” he says, “it is beautiful and exhilarating to see. I am fortunate to be able to play a role in helping them to realize their ambitions.”

For his exhibit in Lebanon NH, Lamia is donating half of his portion of any sales to the Greater Upper Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited.

To see more of Professor Lamia’s work, visit his website at and on Instagram: @nick_lamia_studio.

To learn more about the Fine Arts AAS and BFA programs, visit School of Art and Design Fine Arts at FIT.

All images used with permission.

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Mia Murphy’s photography soars on Times Square

Photographic skill, an overwhelming attention to detail, and persistent desire combined to land a dream assignment for recent Photography grad Mia Murphy. Her art appeared on a digital billboard installation at Times Square during New York Fashion Week 2022.

Billboard ad for Stoned jewelry at Times Square, photographed by Mia Murphy

It is a peak moment in her young career and the realization of a tenacious vision. “When I moved from San Clemente, California in 2018 to attend FIT, I told myself that I wanted to photograph a billboard in Times Square. That would be the ‘New York thing’ to accomplish!” said Murphy.

“By the time graduation came in May, I thought maybe it would happen by the time I turned 25.” But her vision came to fruition three years early.

Model Hayden Webb for Stoned jewelry campaign. Photo: Mia Murphy

Chance favors the prepared mind, especially when it beholds a vision belonging to a talented and skilled creative.

In August, Eve Gay, founder and CEO of Stoned jewelry company, flew her to Jacksonville, Florida to shoot a campaign. “When I arrived she told me, ‘So these photos will be on a billboard in Times Square during New York Fashion Week.’ I was like ‘I can’t believe this is happening!’ It was surreal!”

Model Hayden Webb’s “Bond girl” look.

She and Gay had previously discussed doing a “Bond girl” style photoshoot for a partnership with Rolls-Royce, Bentley, and St. James House. But the decision was made to go with the theme for the Times Square billboard that would feature the company’s Jubilee Collection.

Model Hayden Webb was chosen for the shoot. Murphy, whose previous professional work was for Wilhelmina Models, said of Webb: “Her beauty and skill set matched the look we were going for: classic and fierce.”

Each photo had to be especially crisp and clear, says Murphy, particularly the jewels and Webb’s face. And the light had to perfectly illuminate them. “We were sitting on the beach at 5 o’clock in the morning, testing lighting over and over again until it was perfect,” she said.

Stoned Fine Jewelry campaign. Photo: Mia Murphy

Murphy decided on her resolution based on the scale of the project. “I made sure every single photo was perfect,” said Murphy.

“Mia was technically and creatively prepared for this,” says Photography professor Curtis Willocks. “She loves what she’s doing. She’s passionate. There’s an old saying ‘you’re only as good as your last photo.’ But for her, this is a kick start. She’ll keep going and challenging herself.” 

For Murphy, communication, composition, lighting, and technical  knowledge of her gear were critical to the success of the shoot. “Communication, because without the whole team working together and being clear about what needed to be done, it wouldn’t have happened.”

The large-scale project required more patience with taking the photos. She shot with a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with 24-105mm lens.

Mia Murphy, Photo: Seth Clash ’22

The skills she acquired at FIT, technical camera work, lighting, composition, and the science behind photography, allowed her to be more confident behind the camera, she says.

“What also helped were weekly critiques. I thrive off of constructive criticism. One of my favorite professors, Ron Amato, helped me improve my work. He was honest about what I could work on, all the while knowing what I could do best and that I would grow as a photographer if I put in the work.”

She also credits professors Curtis Willocks and Jessica Wynne. “They had so many insights and gave me confidence to try new artistic approaches.”

Murphy says she shared a similar aesthetic with her creative team, which included stylists, and art director and the model, who had recently appeared on the cover of Vogue Germany.

Mia Murphy (right) celebrates with team members Eve and Dina Gay.

“Obviously I have been in situations where I haven’t met eye-to-eye with others and I still make sure to compromise and execute the photos,” said Murphy. But working with like-minded people led to this being one of my favorite shoots to date.”

Murphy’s billboard credit is in keeping with her career direction. “I want to work for magazines, name fashion brands and advertising and campaign work.” She continues to collaborate with brands, stylists, and models, and says she would like to find representation.

“Mia’s not only talented, she’s a good person,” says Prof. Willocks.

When it came to colleges, says Murphy, she looked at art schools. FIT was the only one she applied to. “I was so excited to be furthering my interests in New York City,” she said.

To see more of Mia Murphy’s work, check out her website: MiaMurphyPhography and on Instagram @miiamurphy.

To learn more about the Photography AAS and BFA programs, go to: Photography and Related Media at FIT.

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Prof. Jake Friedman and the Mouse Animators Who Roared: The Great Disney Strike of 1941

There’s a technical and conceptual revolution – in fact, multiple revolutions – taking place in the animation industry today. In an age that has fostered unique national styles, content ranging from shorts and feature-length narratives to games, animation almost indistinguishable from reality and reality overlaid with computer-generated effects, the industry’s creative workers would do well to understand animation’s history.

“The Disney Revolt: The Great Labor War of Animation’s Golden Age,” by Jake S. Friedman (Chicago Review Press)

No, it didn’t quite begin with a mouse named Mickey. But Mickey and his friends powered animation’s early revolution. And Mickey’s “father,” Walter Elias Disney, born 1901, played an outsized role. So did a groundbreaking Disney animator, Art Babbitt, who took the, well, “art” form to new heights and helped assure that creative animators would receive credit and some of the money they helped create.

It took unionization and a 1941 strike at Disney’s studios to set the stage. Prof. Jake Friedman, who has taught animation history at FIT, has a new book, “The Disney Revolt: The Great Labor War of Animation’s Golden Age.” It, along with two earlier books, shines light on how the business side of the current industry began to evolve. He’s also provided archival research for a PBS documentary on Walt Disney.

Disney strikers 1941

“How do we stand on the shoulders of giants if we don’t know the giants?” says Friedman. “I try to bring the history part of it into the Now, so we can connect to the creative choices of the filmmakers and, I hope, be inspired.”

He also says he wants to present the time and culture in which the animations were made, not as a time capsule, but as a reminder that everything we do reflects our own time and culture.

Friedman’s course History of Animation CG 344 may be the only animation course where students are graded on their essays. “I ask the students first to write about a few of their favorite animations from the first three decades of animation history,” he says. “Gradually, we hit all the decades, from the 1900s through 2010s.”

History of Animation professor and author Jake S. Friedman

Friedman says he wants his students to decide for themselves what they personally find valuable. “Art is subjective,” he says. “What matters to me won’t necessarily matter to you, and vice versa.”

He says he was inspired to write the book by “the late, great John Culhane, who taught History of Animation here at FIT and passed the mantle on to me.”

Friedman says Prof. Culhane told him 14 years ago “that I would write this book…he knew I was on the task.”

Animation historian John Culhane serving as model reference for Mr. Snoops in Disney’s “The Rescuers” (1977)
“Having worked at several non-union studios in New York I had always heard about the legendary Disney labor struggles…and the long defunct NYC animation union.  As employees at Titmouse studio in NYC and Vancouver just organized the first Animation Guild local outside LA this year it’s especially important to understand the history of unions in the animation industry.” – Dan Shefelman, Chair, Illustration & Interactive Media

Among the book’s insights are descriptions of what life was like for a young artist at Disney in the Golden Age, and how the strike changed the industry but nearly broke the studio. Walt Disney’s most innovative artist, Babbitt, became his most bitter rival.

All of this is told with the culture of Hollywood, and of the Disney studio at the time, as a backdrop. There was even involvement of a Capone gangster. The book includes a personal peek at real conversations and concerns both sides had.

Walt Disney, 1935 (publicity)

Ironically, Walt Disney’s father was a socialist and supporter of Eugene V. Debs, who famously opposed American involvement in WW1. Walt’s father would collect his sons’ earnings (Walt’s brother Roy was the financial powerhouse behind Disney) when they were young.

Says Friedman: “I suspect Walt was raging against his dad when he refused to back down against the growing labor movement in Hollywood. And at the same time, he empathized with his dad and saw how his dad was taken advantage of by others due to his gullibility. This included a pyramid scheme cloaked as a farmer’s union.

Young Walt practiced his drawing skills by copying “The New Adventures of Henry Dubb,” a comic strip by Ryan Walker, who was a communist.

from “The New Adventures of Henry Dubb”

Friedman quotes Walt as saying “I got so I could draw…the big, fat capitalist with the money, maybe with his foot on the neck of the laboring man.”

“Thus it is ironic that Walt started drawing by copying a pro-union comic strip,” says Friedman, “and the character of Henry Dubb was a gullible loser who refused to join a union and trusted his employers to take care of him – always to his detriment.”

Friedman credits Walt as the power behind the studio’s raising animation as an art form, but that after Walt, “Babbitt did more to raise the standards of Disney animation, and thereby animation as an art form” in those times.

Art Babbitt animating at Disney, circa 1932

Babbitt was also a generous mentor. His advice: “Caricature must be the expression of an artist…” and ”try to make yourself feel the way that character would feel under the same circumstances…try to think as he would think,” still holds.

Says Friedman: “Babbitt was the first to get into the mind of an animated character. He wrote a character analysis on Goofy and that changed everything. He was a superb teacher of animation. He talked about studying life, and caricaturing the world by adding your own spice to it, and using all influences as inspiration, from fine art to music to world travel. I can’t think of better creative advice than that.”

Like many managers, Walt Disney regarded unions as communist fronts, converting capitalist profits into bigger paychecks. Yet unionization appears to be increasing now due to labor shortages and inflation.

Friedman warns that the industry’s greatest change has been in digital effects, “which somehow fall between animation and live action, and so have no union representation.”

Art Babbitt (left) surrounded by fellow Disney strikers, 1941

“The Disney Revolt” was written to describe not only how animation was made, but also how a successful union was made.

Strike poster

Friedman does admit, however, that Babbitt, the animator-turned-union leader, “made some poor choices about leading that we can look at now with criticism.”

The book describes the role of Willie Bioff. “He was a bona fide Chicago gangster, who ended up controlling the largest labor organization in Hollywood, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Fighting him was the Disney artists’ original reason to organize. But during the strike he aligned with Walt Disney.”

Organized crime figure William Morris Bioff

Friedman says the country’s shock at this helped get Washington’s attention and force the new National Labor Relations Board to step in to end the strike.

“The Disney Revolt” will be available in the Gladys Marcus Library or can be purchased through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Chicago Review Press.

To learn more about animation at FIT go to: Animation, Interactive Media, & Game Design.

Photos courtesy of Jake S. Friedman

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