Designer Melissa Rivera is the sort of woman you meet and immediately want to know more about. Her passion is palpable, her fierceness formidable, her energy undeniable. I had seen her at several hifi events, then heard her PechaKucha presentation at the hifi Pop-Up in Ala Moana Center. I was intrigued.
So I took some time to sit down with her over tea at Zippy’s Vineyard last week. All I asked for was the story of her life. I got it. And a fascinating, creatively inspiring life it is.
Born in Cocoyoc, Mexico, Melissa’s father is Mexican and her mother is a blond, blue-eyed haole from Kauai. Both equestrians, they met at age 14 during a riding competition. They currently live in Cocoyoc.
Growing up, Melissa spent a lot of time in Hawaii, visiting her grandparents on Oahu. Christmas was often spent here with her “American family,” as she refers to them. (Her father’s side she calls her “Mexican family.”)
Melissa majored in Industrial Design at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), one of the world’s best design schools. There she discovered 3D functional art, and found her milieu.
“Industrial deisgn is an extension of art but it’s more to solve issues or problems. It’s like putting together the pieces of a puzzle.”
– Melissa Rivera
For her senior project at RISD, Melissa created a skateboard that functions on ice. Picture that! It’s a project that appeals to her inner fierceness. An outdoor girl, Melissa loves skateboarding, BMX riding and exploring.
RISD’s prominence and respect in the arts and industrial communities offers the students a great number of opportunities to intern with East Coast companies. NASA, Hasbro and Samsonite are just a few of the big guys who work with students on projects. The college has special studios for metal, wood, furniture, jewelry, ceramics, etc. Melissa was drawn to the concept of 3D art, translating drawings and graphic concepts into usable, functional items. She experimented with bamboo, wood and metal, making models and testing all sorts of items.
Thinking toy design might be her future, Melissa could easily have taken that path when Hasbro, the toy company, offered her a job. “But I didn’t want to make plastic toys,” she said with a shrug. Sustainability and eco-consciousness are among her ongoing concerns.
Instead, Melissa returned to Mexico in 2001 and went to work for the National Children’s Museum of Mexico; her job was to design exhibit areas. The ambitious three-year project immersed her in spatial design and functionality. “I learned how you could actually use furniture to teach kids,” she explained.
After completing the museum project, Melissa became intrigued with the idea of teaching art and design. She returned to RISD to get an MA in Art and Design Education, she said.
With her MA in hand, Melissa was offered both a job in New York and an opportunity to move to Hawaii. “It was, okay, what shall I do, go to work or go on an adventure and live life a little,” she said, throwing her arms in the air. She chose Hawaii.
Her first Honolulu job was with the Academy Art Center at Linekona in the Art to Go program. That was followed with teaching at Transpacific College (a Japanese college, now departed) and The Contemporary Museum. She is currently teaching at Hawaii Pacific University.
“I love teaching but I missed my own design,” Melissa said. That’s when she created Unleash, her own design studio. Find it at unleashstudio.com. Unleash offers clients a wide range of creative products and projects, from T-shirts to interiors, chairs to robots. After designing her own studio space for Unleash, she met Richie Miao, designer of Lovelessizm and Lava Roses, who asked her to design his new retail shop, I Am, co-owned by Kara Matsunaga. Given a budget of $5,000 and one month, she pulled out all the stops and created a show-stopping space.
“Richie’s clothes have a lot of unexpected elements so I did that with his interior,” Melissa explained. With a nautical theme, I AM. features boat bumpers as chairs, ladders as clothing racks, huge nautical ropes to anchor elements down. There’s even a faux shower (complete with shower head and spigots) in the dressing room. Shopping at fishing stores and marinas, she found everything she needed to create a creative, dynamic space that suits the clothing and made Richie very happy.
Photographer James Anschutz was so impressed with Melissa’s design aesthetic that he has hired her to create the interior for his studio.
Unleash Studio is using Melissa’s graphic talents to create a line of T-shirts with an animal theme. In keeping with her philosophy, the shirts are printed on American Apparel products which are 100 percent sweatshop free.
Among Melissa’s other projects are deskbots (see one in fishcake’s current show), a robot plant holder that waters its own hair, and a series of chairs based on the aesthetics of glaciers’ sun cups, fissures and valleys of snow. The chairs are simply beautiful but the price to manufacture them locally would be astronomical – not to mention impossible to complete here in Hawaii. So it’s possible that Melissa Rivera will not be in the Islands much longer. If you have a project that’s crying for an incredibly creative, imaginative industrial designer, you’d better move on it before she’s gone.
– Paula Rath