Updated: Mar 2, 2021
By Lilly Cao
Architecture studio is infamous for its late nights and time-consuming, detail-oriented work. The Barnard introductory studio I took with Karina Encarnación, CC ’21, in the spring of 2019 was no different. I remember long, grueling nights in Diana’s Digital Architecture Lab (DAL), everyone hunched over their keyboards til the wee hours struggling to troubleshoot their relentlessly faulty Boolean Union commands. In that class, Encarnación was a force to be reckoned with, designing beautiful projects for every assignment with stunning consistency. As a young, impressionable first-year struggling with time management, I was utterly awed—as if her architectural prowess wasn’t staggering enough—when I discovered that Encarnación was also a professional dancer. Involved with the dance company SHINSA since her sophomore spring, she would spend all day in the studio, dance in the evenings (sometimes until midnight), and then return to the DAL to finish her work. I remember witnessing firsthand the chorus of “Bye, Karina!” as she left the studio, and her spirited reply:
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back!”
When I brought up dance in our meeting this February, Encarnación grew slightly emotional. It has been hard to keep up with dance during the pandemic, and, to this day, she hasn’t seen her friends from SHINSA in over a year. As she recalled the long nights bouncing between studio and rehearsal, she reminisced, “It really did not do anything good for my sleep schedule, but I miss the energy and invigoration of coming to the studio so late at night hyped up from dance rehearsal. Now I feel like I’m just always in my room and everything is monotonous, but I guess that’s what everyone’s going through right now.”
It makes sense that Encarnación misses dance—she’s been doing it for twenty years, since she was only two years old. Starting with ballet and picking up jazz, modern, tap, West African, and hip hop over the years, she began taking classes with SHINSA director and choreographer Bo Park when she started college and joined the group officially in her sophomore year. She won her first competition in Boston with the group in 2019, and afterward was involved in a range of projects, from concept videos to showcases.
This past long year, Encarnación’s dance career has been halted, though she still very much identifies as a dancer. But during the pandemic, she tried to find happiness in new ways—especially through design. In the beginning of the Spring 2020 semester, Encarnación studied abroad in Copenhagen as part of the DIS (Danish Institute for Study Abroad) program. When I asked her about it, she laughed: “I don’t want to be the person that’s like, ‘study abroad changed me.’ I hate that. But also … I feel like that’s me.”
Denmark is famous for design, from furniture to fashion to typography, and after studying there, Encarnación became fascinated by object design rather than strictly formal architecture—a passion that hasn’t since faded. Many of her design inspirations occupy the nexus between art and architecture: Isamu Noguchi, Richard Serra, Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell. Her work mirrors these inspirations: Despite majoring in Architecture, her portfolio covers a variety of aesthetic disciplines, including graphic design, furniture design, illustration, ceramics, and, of course, architecture. Much of her work reflects clean, modernist aesthetic forms—from geometric illustrations to voluminous architectural models to simplified, streamlined furniture designs.
In Copenhagen, as part of her furniture design class, Encarnación was tasked with designing and manufacturing a chair inspired by work she had seen on field trips to furniture workshops around Denmark. For her project, she drew inspiration from a Hans Wegner design called Peter’s Chair, made entirely out of flat pieces of wood that fit together like a puzzle. She decided to model her own chair following a similar concept and settled on a design that was at once executable, functional, and aesthetic, which she called, “The 4-Panel Chair.” Though Encarnación had to return home to St. Louis in the middle of the program for all-too-familiar reasons , she refused to leave the project unfinished. Instead, she found a woodshop with CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machinery that would cut her pieces for her, sanded them herself, and finally assembled them into a full-sized working chair. “It was a good summer project,” she said, “and I got a tan because I was outside all the time.”
Still enamored of the world of design, Encarnación refused to stop there. She and her friend Krista Lebovitz, whom she met in Denmark, entered Design Milk’s annual LAMP competition with a design called PARAPLY, which means “umbrella” in Danish. The idea was to reinvent the traditional desk lamp while maintaining marketability and accessibility, whereas many of the other entries were comparatively sculptural or avant-garde. The final design was colorful and interactive, small and approachable, appropriate for a desk or a bookshelf. Its main feature, the lampshade, could be opened and closed like an umbrella by rotating the dome at the bottom, allowing the user to either focus or diffuse the light upward or downward.
Prior to the competition, neither Encarnación nor Lebovitz had worked in industrial or lighting design—Lebovitz studies studio art—yet they found that their interests and backgrounds complemented each other perfectly. Encarnación brought the technical and software skills and Krista, the familiarity with objects and sculpture. Despite their lack of experience, the project turned out beautifully. Deservedly, PARAPLY won the student People’s Choice Online Vote in December and is now featured on the Design Milk and LAMP competition website. One day, Encarnación confessed, she wants it to get manufactured: “I need to figure out how to go about that, but that’s the goal.” I would certainly buy it if she did.
Now Encarnación and Lebovitz are embarking on something new—an experimental project with a furniture studio that she can’t yet elaborate on. Like many other seniors, she’s also currently on the job hunt, looking for work before she returns to graduate school in a few years. “Architecture grad school?” I asked, wondering if she’ll stray, instead, into sculpture or product design. “Yeah, I think I would definitely do architecture,” she replied. “I feel like, lately, I’ve been talking about furniture and objects so much and people are like, wait, do you still like architecture? Of course, I still do.” She might end up in Boston, New York, or even Denmark again, so long as it meets one requirement: “It needs to be a large enough city that I can dance,” she told me, smiling.