Blending Art With Engineering

Adding aesthetics to functionality

I’ve always resonated with engineers and the logical way in which we approach situations and solve problems. But over the years, I acquired a real appreciation for art and find that the things that are most interesting to me, the things that really stand out, combine both.

Debra Hockemeyer

Debra Hockemeyer (BSIE ‘86) pursued engineering as a major and developed an interest in art along the way. She owns Western Ridge Consulting in Los Angeles, which manages large, complex technology projects for Fortune 100 companies. Previous positions include IT director for DreamWorks and Universal Music Group, as well as various sales and marketing positions with IBM.

At the core level, blending art with engineering takes something highly functional and adds an aesthetic component to it, making it pleasurable to the senses. When you look closer, you find that the most intriguing examples of art and engineering engage both sides of your brain. The combination invites you to blend curves with angles, mix materials and juxtapose textures, often expanding accepted norms and boundaries, and creating an inspiring result that enlightens and entertains.

Some of the oldest examples of the frisson and grandeur that can happen when combining art and engineering are found in architecture, such as the Pyramids of Egypt, the Roman aqueducts, and the Great Wall of China. Newer structures include the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sydney Opera House and the Beijing Bird’s Nest stadium. Three modern architects dominate this category: Frank Gehry (Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain), Santiago Calatrava (City of Arts and Sciences and Opera House in Valencia, Spain; Milwaukee Art Museum), and Zaha Hadid (Hungerburgbahn hybrid funicular railway in Innsbruck, Austria; Bridge Pavilion in Zaragoza, Spain). Their stunning buildings, bridges and transportation possess that Wow! factor, repeatedly.

Sculpture, while generally weighted more on form than function, yields examples where engineering was essential to realize the artistic design. Like architecture, large-scale sculptures, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, have come to define an entire city. Medium-scale sculptures, such as those by Archie Held or Alexander Calder, may adorn corporate headquarters, marquis hotels, public sculpture gardens or private homes. The mixture of materials and textures, and integration of water and movement, set these examples off in a category all their own.

Notable illustrations of the impact of art and architecture are also present in consumer products, where great ergonomic design is combined with superior (mechanical) performance. Alessi is the quintessential kitchen gadgets and home accessories example. Cars dominate this category, from the affordable Porsche, BMW, and Lexus, to the extravagant Aston Martin, Lotus, Lamborghini and Bugatti. It’s the combination of visual beauty with high quality and performance that invites us to play and entices us (to spend large sums of money)!

Our generation has added its own twist to the intersection of art and engineering with contributions in the digital realm of software engineering design and graphical user interfaces (GUI). Animation has undergone a complete transformation from handdrawn cells (art only) to CGI (art and engineering). “Avatar” has taken it to a whole new level, not only in the end product but also with the development of new tools (3D camera) needed to advance it. Apple produced the Macintosh, which many of us may remember was the first GUI. I would propose that the Mac changed the way that right brain people interact with computers. But the iPod, iPhone, and now iPad have changed the way everyone interacts with information. I believe the iPad will profoundly change the field of education (especially of your youngest generation) and may therefore alter our future.

Blending art with engineering — solving problems with innovation and style — gives us a new way of seeing, perceiving and interacting with our world, and has an indelible effect on our senses.