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Summer camp at U of M draws young designers
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Camp instructor Sonya Berlovitz helps student Barbara Searles of Minnetonka construct a skirt she made with Starburst candy wrappers. (MPR Photo/Marisa Helms)
It's summer camp season in Minnesota. But for about 175 teenagers from around the state, it's not about canoeing and campfires. They're attending an unusual summer camp at the University of Minnesota's Design Institute in Minneapolis.

Minneapolis, Minn. — So often teenagers are thought of as consumers --people who can make or break a fad or a trend. But this week at the University of Minnesota, it's their vision that counts. For Elena Garner, 14, design means fashion with a twist.

"It's a tube dress, and it's going to be crooked with beads on the bottom," Garner explains of the clothing she's desiginig. "And I'm going to use pulls or wire to hold it out and it's going to have wheels at the bottom, so as I walk it'll get wheeled along."

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Image Camp director

Garner's focus this week is on clothing. At the design camp, there are a number of groups -- each has a different design task based on a theme.

"We try to give them a flavorsome title with an "ing" word, so it's active and has some relevance to their own lives," says Jan Abrams, the camp's director. Abrams is with the U's Design Institute.

She says a group might focus on listening, feasting...

"...telling, dressing, recycling, the urbing group, and the walking group," says Abrams.

Campers in the walking group might design a new shoe. In recycling, it's not about separating glass from your garbage, it's about giving a bicycle new meaning. In the telling group, students become somebody else. One student says he'll be a spy, another a "cooler" Martha Stewart.

And some groups decide to collaborate.

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Image Gabby St. Pierre

This year, students in the feasting and listening design groups are getting together for a picnic. Campers will design everything about it -- from the food they'll eat to what they'll sit on.

They're even going to design sound for the event, says London-based designer Ab Rogers.

"What we've been talking a lot about this morning is the creation of an environment -- these surreal, fantastical eating areas that the feasting students have been working on," says Rogers. "And sound is a really important part of an environment. A soundscape brings it all together."

At the beginning of the week-long camp, some students were skeptical. But Ellie Barczak, 16, caught on. By the end of the week, she was talking like a design pro.

"Like watermelon as a punch bowl, I think is like a really new way to thinking. You create new things instead of redesigning existing elements of dining. Like instead of a table, you might have eating out of a tree, where you can grab the fruit and it's hanging. It's things like that, that it's a different way of looking at how we eat and where we eat," says Barczak.

Though the actual menu for the picnic is still in the works, the group is looking at sculptural pizzas, lollipops and kabobs.

And while they eat, they listen to a unique soundtrack designed for the picnic event by the listening group. The soundtrack includes the sounds of people chewing.

Gabby St. Pierre, 17, of Burnsville, says it's all about creating the right environment.

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Image Fashion collages

"We had like three different people take a piece of celery, or a carrot or some chips or something, and chew -- and we recorded that," says St. Pierre. "And then we put it all on the computer, and we distorted them or fastened them up."

For this picnic, the environment includes several art pieces -- a huge lobster you can walk through, a big fish and a makeshift fountain.

The chewing, along with other sounds, will come out of those sculptures.

Like most of the campers, St. Pierre appreciates the free-flowing pace of the camp and the encouragement to express herself.

"You get to make your own decisions on what you do, and you're not having people saying you gotta do this and this. You get your own freedom here," says St. Pierre. "It's hard work, it's not easy. You've got to be dedicated to it and I love that. So, it's a lot of fun."

Many of the students say they're still unsure about design as a profession. Design camp organizers say while they hope to groom a new generation of designers, their main ambition is to show teenagers they can have a say in how their material world is created.

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