Designer Drag: Neal Ulrich’s Queer Tomorrows

Photo by Elias Koch

Photo by Elias Koch

“Once queer people are out of the closet, where do they go?”

Neal Ulrich questions, as he sits across me at a small round table in the corner of the bustling Starbucks. We’re munching on five dollar trail mix and talking about his honors thesis, “Designer Drag: Gender, Performance, and Identity Construction in Product Design” through Stanford Arts.

For his thesis, Neal redesigned and manufactured examples of household items. The work includes a chic wooden pill bottle, a drawer pull, a bottle opener, a chair, and some brass coasters, and a written thesis explaining the pieces. The project concluded after a working period of 18 months, and was exhibited at the Design Courtyard at the Product Realization Lab in May. Sheets upon sheets of early sketches, handwritten notes on homophilia in queer salons, images of drag queens in their glory, and calculations of circumferences and other dimensions hang from the walls and the ceiling of the small greenhouse, illuminated by a single lightbulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling. I duck to avoid knocking my head on the light bulb.

Photo by Grace Towers

Photo by Grace Towers

The finished physical pieces are displayed outside, on small white stands that display the object and its name, with a wittily crafted description printed beneath each. I asked Neal how long each piece took. Some go fast: the bottle opener, for example, went from first sketch to opening bottles in three weeks. Other pieces, if I may, dragged on forever. Neal would start, work on something else, then come back to revisit it. Condensed, each piece took about a month.

Back to Starbucks.

“The home is such a heterosexual space,” Neal continues.

He asks me to consider the layouts and traditional features of a home; an environment built for the husband, wife, and child. Today, however, crafting a home also means addressing and acknowledging the needs and wants of queer families. With new notions of family should come new notions of what a home means, what a family constitutes, and that reevaluation also raises questions to the products available in a home. “Just the idea of a queer home is a very radical notion, and I think an exciting place of possibility,” Neal tells me. His thesis introduces a reinvented home, a friendly space for diverse families, and questions, “who designs these products that we are quite literally taking home with us? What are the products that we’re creating, that end up creating and designing this ideal society?”

“There’s so much implicit knowledge in products.”

Neal taps on the table.

“Look, even these tables; they assume people want to sit by themselves, or with one other person. There’s no opportunity for large gatherings. Think about those implicit messages that products send.”

Take the pill bottle, for another example. The standard, plastic orange pill bottle. “It’s loud, it’s ugly. It’s just a hot mess. Of course it goes in everyone’s back drawer.”

Photo by Neal Ulrich

Photo by Neal Ulrich

“Prescribed pills are supposed to make us feel better and help us live longer healthy lives, and that’s an amazing thing. Why can’t I get my anti-anxiety meds in a pill bottle that looks as nice as a Grey Goose vodka bottle?”

“The orange pill bottle just plays into this idea that [getting help] is something we need to hide.”

But what’s drag got to do with it?

“Drag reveals a lot of cultural subtext and constructions that we take for granted,” Neal tells me. “In order to look like a woman, I’m going to put a wig on, lipstick on, high heels. Or I could also put a metal breast plate on and paint stripes on myself.” This arbitrary affectation and social construction is made very visible in drag, which calls out the absurdity and arbitrariness of many of these expectations.

Drag also provides its own expectation that you’re going to get something untraditional, over the top, and outrageous, and Neal thinks this allows him to be even more daring in his work. It also lets his audience keep an open mind with that expectation, and more easily and willingly engage with work that can uncomfortably challenge deep-set beliefs.

Neal tells me about the role of humor and lightheartedness in his work, after beginning his thesis and his exposure to drag: “I’ve realized that humor is an amazing way to get your ideas across. People don’t feel like they’re getting yelled at. You’re laughing at yourself, so it’s easier for them to laugh at you as well. But once you’re both laughing together, you can be like, oh by the way, you’re contributing to the hegemonic patriarchy. Or whatever you want to say.”

Photo by Elias Koch

Photo by Elias Koch

He opens up the conversation to the visibility of the designer, inspires thought about the implicit suggestions household items bring to how we live, and the exciting potential of using product design to radically change and redesign the home as well as our environment, and how the design of our daily supplies, our drawer pulls, our pill bottles and coasters can shape how we think.

“It’s really important that the people who craft those products need to come from diverse backgrounds.”

So maybe we can manufacture something other than a straight, white way of living.

Photo by Neal Ulrich

Photo by Neal Ulrich

Not that there’s anything wrong with a straight, white way of living; it’s just problematic when we’re manufacturing that way of living for those of us who don’t belong to that identity, but are expected to go along with it anyway.

Through his thesis work, Neal opens up a door to what design could be, to the positive change design could contribute in celebrating difference and diversity, bringing that to people around them, and making this world more welcoming and more friendly for everyone, for people of all gender identities, sexual orientations, races, classes, and experiences.

And for me, it illuminates the roles that product designers can take on in this process, it brings a hope that diverse designers and engineers can bring this diversity of experience, this diversity of needs, this diversity of the possible ways of living besides the “default” into their products, onto the shelves of supermarkets and furniture stores, and into our homes. That there is a possibility where diverse ways of living can coexist, starting from the products that facilitate those lifestyles and ways of thinking.

Starting from home.

Since his thesis, Neal has been featured on NBC for Pride Month on his queer design perspective, and soon he will be imagining queer tomorrows in transportation as he begins working for the Mercedes-Benz Future Transportation team. You can like him on facebook here.

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