SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

136 W 21st St, 2nd Floor

New York, NY 10011





(212) 592-2228

Permeable Barriers – SVA MA Design Research

Sarah Chieko Bonnickson

Permeable Barriers

This essay is a part of unMUTE, a collection of pieces written by participants in the 2020 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive Online.

Only a few months ago, when my movement was not constricted by quarantine, my days were punctuated by passage through many doors: openings that marked entry into work, school, the homes of my family and friends, restaurants, and businesses. Despite, or perhaps because of, their ubiquity, I can only recall them in sweeping categories and generalities—heavy doors, glass doors, windowed doors. Their specificity was lost in the brevity of moving through them.

But, regardless of how many other doors I would encounter, it was guaranteed that every day would start and end with passing through the front door of my apartment: that wooden membrane separating my home from the rest of the world. Without being fully conscious of it, I have developed an intuitive responsiveness to this one particular door from using it daily over the course of almost a decade. I know by heart the feel of it swinging on its smooth hinges, the minimal force required to turn its knob, and the imposing size that belies its surprisingly feather-light feel.

These days, however, it is no longer given that I will leave my apartment. Most of my daily activities now take place within the confines of my home. I work from home, socialize from home, and exercise from home, and my front door passively watches over me through it all, not so much keeping the world out as keeping me locked in. On those occasions where I go out to shop for food or just to take a walk, there is a creeping sense of novelty in the use of my own front door. I wonder if the top lock has always felt so loose, or how I never noticed the splintering along the bottom edge before.

All the front doors in my apartment building are nearly identical, save for a brass plaque on each that indicates the unit number. Last year, the unit next to mine was broken into with a crowbar, and the scars are still visible along the doorframe. I remember there was an elevated tension in the building as my neighbors and I grappled with the fact that threats from the outside world could so easily enter our private sanctuaries. Over a few weeks, however, comfort crept back in, the fragile illusion of impenetrable personal space was reclaimed, and the integrity of our front doors was reestablished.

Nonetheless, the outside world seems to permeate my home more than ever lately: back-to-back Zoom calls, nagging emails that I feel compelled to answer at midnight, or the constant notifications on my phone from extroverted friends craving contact. Though I am spending more time at home than I ever have before, it has never felt less like my own private, quiet space.

Not taking my front door for granted has made me aware of how fragile personal space can be. Whether the intruding threat is the violence of a crowbar or the sickly glow of a computer screen, I know that my front door is only a façade: a practical barrier that provides passage between my home and the world outside, but one that can never truly keep the outside out. It has become a personal metaphor for enforcing the time and the space that I need to feel at home in my own apartment.

So, whenever an email from my boss comes in past working hours, I will look up from my laptop over to my stalwart, red-hued front door and tell myself, “not right now.”

unMUTE Group Statement

Take a moment to think about how strange a video chat is. You can see and hear someone, but all the nuance of body language is lost—flattened into two dimensions and reduced in resolution. Conversation starts and stops, unaided by technology cuts and lags. How do you even know when someone is about to speak?

Now take that single moment of video chat and multiply it by sixteen, each tiny square on the screen filled by a student hoping to mentally escape the 2020 pandemic.. Norms need to be created so that everyone feels comfortable contributing, and group dynamics have to be explicitly established so no ideas or experiences—indicated sometimes by only the slightest wave—go unshared.

On the surface, a large group video conversation seems unwieldy. It morphs into something entirely new when the meeting happens every weekday for two weeks, pressurized by rapid-fire lectures, readings, and assignments. It’s hard to imagine, but what if—in the midst of a global health crisis and nationwide protests over racial inequality—those sixteen people created bonds so deep and discovered things about themselves so profound that they left the meeting changed? What if they wrote prose so revealing you stole a glimpse into who they are?

If you’re curious, please unMUTE.