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About the Project
'HSE University's Age-Mates'

2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of HSE University. Many of the university’s peers—those born in 1992—now work and study here. Thirty-year-old HSE graduates work in various fields, from business and fintech to IT and contemporary art. As part of the new ‘HSE University's Age-Mates’ project, some of them have shared their stories and talked about what they like about the university.

Maria Stepanova’s work at the HSE University Art and Design School allows her to be part of a creative community and help students find their way in the industrial and product design industry. In her interview with HSE University’s Age-Mates, Maria talks about the cult Japanese studio Nendo, original carpets in the shape of a twelve-legged leopard, and her dream of opening student workshops at the Art and Design School.

Where did you study?

My first education was in mechanical engineering at Bauman University. I worked in this field for several years before realising that there weren’t enough opportunities for creative fulfilment. I have always been interested in design and I wanted to apply my technical skills, so I chose industrial design for my second degree. My introduction to this new sphere was through continuing professional education (CPE) courses at the HSE School of Design. I was lucky—straight away, I ended up with the best mentor: Timur Burbaev, Art Director of the Lebedev Studio. The courses taught me how projects are built and which skills are required, and I won my first competition. As soon as the CPE courses were over, I started looking for work in this field and fulfilling my potential as an industrial designer. I did orders for my friends, took part in competitions, got a job at a tech start-up and progressed from the role of junior designer to the head of the design and development department. I wanted to gain knowledge in a structured way, so I decided to apply to the Master’s in Product and Industrial Design. While studying, I started assisting on continuing professional education courses, and after my graduation I was offered a position on the main teaching staff. Now, I am developing this field.

Why did you want to stay and work at HSE University instead of returning to business?

As an industrial designer, I could take part in 10–20 projects a year. Working at HSE University, I am involved in the creation of hundreds of objects. Here, I feel like I can do more for the industry by working with students. There is always a wide scope of projects and many opportunities for collaboration. Plus, teaching is invigorating.

Can you immediately tell whether a student is talented?

I think that talent is a category of the past. Prolific designers make mistakes more often. Successful entrepreneurs first launch 50 businesses that don’t take off. Design is not about talent, but rather about processes. If you have an established process and a developed sense of empathy, if you understand the basic rules of how the aesthetic of an object is formed and are not afraid to experiment and immerse yourself in your work, then the project will be successful.

Photo: Oleg Shishkov / HSE University

I mainly work with the Master’s programme and continuing educational courses. People from a very wide variety of backgrounds come to both. There are people from other fields, people with bachelor’s degrees in Design from other universities (sometimes with specialities in industrial design). But it is a completely different approach, and you see what can be done more effectively. It is interesting to see how people channel their experience and specialisation into the tools you provide.

Sometimes, people who join the programme with less preparation quickly get absorbed and end up in the industry afterwards. The learning process is easier because they do not need to try and redirect their way of thinking. It is very hard for those who already have an established process—and not the most effective one—to take on new approaches. In most cases, motivated students can expect to be successful. It is also important to develop a good eye, keep up with technological developments, visit exhibitions and professional events, and live in a designer’s environment. It is impossible to create relevant things if you are detached from reality.

How does product design differ from industrial design?

Product design often refers to furniture and interior objects. You can create a limited line of products and release a small run of them. Industrial design involves designing for the mass production of various objects. These range from pens and complex devices with a digital interface to cars and glasses.

Generally, product and industrial designers create the world of objects around us. They influence the creation of an object at every stage—from the idea of a product to the details of its appearance and the specifics of its interactions with the user. Designers work with the whole team, from engineers to marketing specialists.

There are several fields of work. Graduates can find work in design studios and develop designs for any objects the client requires. Sometimes, a studio will be developing a watch, secure entry systems, a bottle for water and a children’s chair all at the same time. There are also companies that specialise in something specific. For example, I worked at a startup that made telephone holders using patented technology, and a whole line of additional accessories grew out of it.

Which global brands do you most often tell students about?

There is a cult Japanese design studio called Nendo. We often use examples of their work. They preach minimalism, but influenced by their culture. You look at an object and know that it was made by a Japanese studio; there is such a delicate sense of proportion and no unnecessary additions. They make all kinds of objects, from a mobile children’s playground to packaging for airplane food. And throughout all of it is an amazing approach to design. They try to convey their ideas through very understandable stories in product presentations. It is an endless stream of inspiration.

Photo: Oleg Shishkov / HSE University

We also use the example of IKEA often. They have their own system for assessing objects with five criteria: external appearance, low cost, durability, quality, and functionality. They only launch a product onto the market if all of these criteria are completely fulfilled. IKEA does not compromise in this regard. It is very interesting to follow their designers on social media. They often publish moments from their work—for example, how they choose material for a new armchair. One convenient way to follow global design studios is through the Behance aggregator platform. Many studios have profiles where they announce their projects. Through observation, you can learn from the best and adopt their tools and approaches to design. And we strive to give our students the most up-to-date practices and tools on the market.

What is the current state of the Russian design studio market?

It is quite small compared to other spheres of design. There are major leaders, such as the Lebedev Studio and SmirnovDesign, there are studios with a specific focus (such as those concentrating on transport design, like 2050.lab), and there are smaller-scale but strong companies. Industrial designers who are starting out should work in different places and in different formats in order to understand what suits them. This could be freelancing, working in a small design studio, or an in-house design job at a corporation like Yandex or Sber.

Are there many high-quality local brands in Russia?

There are quite a few, and I think there will be more! I recommend that anyone interested in this topic listen to the product design podcast Вещь в себе (‘The thing in itself’). Its guests include Russian designers who create furniture, crockery, accessories and much more.

You often see Russian furniture, for example in a café, without even suspecting that it was made in Russia. For example, the St Petersburg-based brand Delo, which produces furniture, household items, and even entire houses, can be found in public spaces. Sportmaster employs designers in Russia who develop exercise machines, equipment, and footwear. All of these are sold in shops.

At the moment, one of our graduates from last year is on an internship as a shoe designer at Sportmaster. She came to us from a different environment—she worked in IT, but always wanted to design footwear. It is wonderful to see how her eyes light up. It is what she dreamed of doing, she developed her skills and worked on the creation of footwear projects during her studies.

What other success stories are there of people who studied industrial design at HSE University?

There are a lot of them! One that stands out the most is the story of my group-mate Andrey Budko. Now, he takes part in world design exhibitions—Salone, Vienna Design Week, and others. He has an amazing line of felt carpets, each of which has a rich history. In Soviet times, this cult object found a completely new use and became an integral part of our culture and everyday lives.

One of my favourites and one of the best known is a rug in the form of a fantastical twelve-legged leopard. Both its appearance and its technological execution get their claws into you. The rug is made of felt because Andrey wanted to dispel the stereotype of a dust-collecting rug, and felt has an irregular structure that does not collect dust. The graphics on the carpets were made using digital seamless embroidery, and each carpet requires no fewer than a million stitches. This is a very complex production task—this technology had not previously been used on large objects. It is most often used for embroidery on baseball caps and t-shirts.

Do your students have the opportunity to create an object of their own design?

At the moment, our subject does not have its own workshops in the Bauhaus spirit, but we work to implement students’ projects through collaborations. We collaborate with Shukhov Lab, where the students can learn prototyping with Anton Artemchuk, work with live material and create new objects each module. There, they can also work with Arduino, an electronic prototyping platform that brings objects to life: the devices they design react to certain sensors, flash, make sounds and fulfil a useful function. In general, we take their projects from the digital world into the physical one, teach them to check their hypotheses and test. We also actively develop cooperation with manufacturers and workshops. For example, at the weekends, we take the students to the Делай вещь (‘Make something’) carpentry workshop. It is very important that the students implement their projects, understand how materials behave, and are aware of technological limitations.

Photo: Oleg Shishkov / HSE University

This year, I encouraged the students to investigate the Russian product market themselves, select companies close to them, and try to create a product that could be part of their next launch. They analyse a company’s style and values and, if possible, talk to its representatives. That’s what our field studies are like. At the final observation, the brands give the students feedback on their work, and perhaps they form some kind of relationship. For example, one of our students chose Woodi Furniture, and they consulted her on the features of their brand. It is good to see so many companies being open to communication and cooperation.

Have many of your students graduated?

My first students graduated this year. I taught several CPE courses, and I see these students as graduates too. After all, after three months of study, you find common ground, stay in touch, and implement joint projects. The students share their successes. I love hearing about this, and I offer support and advise them on how to develop a project further, where to publish things, and which exhibitions to take part in. Our community is developing. Soon, it will number a hundred people with common interests who want to develop and who speak the same language. That is valuable.

What are your feelings about the HSE University community in general?

It is a very supportive environment with many opportunities. The students have an active student life and a curriculum that allows you to incorporate subjects from related fields. For example, if you’re studying to be a designer, you can learn about launching a digital product in English alongside economists—they are on the same course, but from a different faculty. This blending of specialisations, these horizontal links, are very important. When you walk around the city and see various HSE University buildings, you feel part of a big university and its community. We also try to actively collaborate with the HSE University campuses in St Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod. We feel like we have a place in different cities.