Inflatables & Soft Sculpture (99-361)

Instructor: Olivia Robinson (
TA: Tatyana Mustakos (
Time: M/W 11:00AM-12:50PM
Location: Hunt Library, A5 (Fabrication Lab)
Class website:
Instructor office hours: Wednesdays, 3PM-5PM in A10 (Physical Computing Lab)
TA office hours: TBD

I animate the forms with air pressure to enhance their spiritual effect. If something breathes, responds to external forces, yet has a will of its own, in a sense it is alive. Or is it possessed?
— Flo McGarrell
* the anima part of the word animate comes from the Latin root meaning the soul, or the inner self of an individual

In this course students will focus on the design, fabrication, and creative applications of sculptural and inflatable forms created from soft materials. Soft sculpture and inflatables have a rich history: from early inventions such as hot air balloons and zeppelins, to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, to highly inventive architectural structures, to sculptural works by contemporary artists. Students will learn techniques for turning flexible, flat materials into three-dimensional forms by methods such as inflating with air, stuffing with materials, and holding with a rigid structure. Students will learn to use the sewing machine, as it will be a primary tool for construction. Patterning will be explored extensively, including working from found patterns as well as designing and creating your own. Students will work at a range of scales – that which the body can hold and that which can hold the body. Students will work both individually and in collaborative teams. What we make will be informed by experimentation, readings, slides, and exploration of context.


  1. Skillfully use and craft patterns to construct 3-dimensional forms from 2-dimensional planes.
  2. Demonstrate technical skills in sewing to create soft sculptures and inflatables in small, medium, and large scales.
  3. Identify and present about artists, designers, architects, and others who employ soft sculpture or inflatables in their practices.
  4. Collaborate in a team to generate, create, evaluate, and document ideas and projects.
  5. Demonstrate an exploration of research, skills, concepts, and forms through an independent individual project.
  6. Articulate material and conceptual choices in discussions and critiques.
  7. Apply feedback and brainstorming through a revision process.
  8. Contribute productively to a critique environment with open responses, constructive criticism, and positive feedback.
  9. Document and reflect upon your process and finished assignments.
  10. Plan, organize, and safely execute a public exhibition of our class’s large-scale inflatable collaboration.

Many of the materials will be provided for your use during class. This is true for your collaborative assignments and our final large-scale class project collaboration. For your individual projects, some materials may be provided, but in general you are expected to find, borrow, or purchase many of the materials you will need.  

Please bring the following tools with you to each class: scissors, fine-lim sharpie marker, pen/pencil, and a notebook/sketchbook (for note taking reflective writing, research and drawing).

Please read and become familiar with the IDeATe lending and purchasing policies, which can be accessed at The IDeATe facilities are shared student resources and spaces. As such, all members of the IDeATe community are expected to be respectful of the equipment, the spaces, and fellow students and their projects. Always clean up after completing your work, put things back in their correct place, and leave the lab in better condition than you found it. For convenience, some materials are available for borrowing and for purchase at IDeATe Lending (Hunt A29). If you experience any issues with IDeATe facilities such as swipe card access, access to the room reservations system, non-functioning or damaged equipment, etc., send an email describing your issue to:

There are 3 short-term group-based assignments, 1 short-term individual assignment, 1 research presentation, 1 independent creative project, and 1 collaborative final project. The final project will be a collaboration with the Exploded Ensemble. Our class will create an architectural large-scale Dream Pavilion within which the Exploded Ensemble and other visiting musicians will perform an overnight concert. Our Dream Pavilion will create the physical and visual experience for the public. Due dates for every assignment are listed on the course calendar. Assignments are due at the start of the class on the due date indicated.

Submitting work is a two step process:

  1. Firstly, assignments are presented in class. Your work must be finished and completely installed by the beginning of class on that project’s critique day. Projects that are not completely installed and set-up by the beginning of class not be critiqued that day, unless prior arrangements have been made with the instructor.
  2. Secondly, documentation of the work is submitted on the class website by one week after the due date. The class website is powered by WordPress, an easy-to-use and open-source CMS with no shortage of online documentation and support. Creating excellent documentation can be just as much as work as creating the work itself – so leave time for this planning and execution!

Additional required workdays: During the second half of the semester, most of our class time will be focused upon the design, construction, testing, and modification of our Dream Pavilion. In order to complete this ambitious project, we will need extra work time together. Everyone in class will be required to attend at least one Saturday or Sunday 6-hour work session. We will decide on those dates together to work with your schedules.

Dream Pavilion and Overnight Concert: This event will take place on Saturday, April 28 into Sunday, April 29. Everyone is required to help set-up and take down our Dream Pavilion. Mark your calendars!

Assignments will be presented and critiqued in class on their due dates. Attendance on critique days is absolutely essential. The entire class will participate in critiques. Our goal will be to have productive, supportive, and thoughtful critiques. Critiques will begin with audience persons describing their experience of the work. Our considerations will include, but not be limited to the following lines of thought:

  • Observation: Fully describing the physical aspects of work that you observation. What do you see? Where is is located? What do you hear? What are the materials used? How does it’s size compare to the size of our bodies? How does the audience interact or experience the work?
  • Interpretation: Based on what you have carefully observed, what does the work “say” to you? What story did this work tell us? How did the work make us feel?
  • Neutral Questions to the Maker: Neutral questions are ones that open, without searching for a specific answer, and are without judgement. The point of neutral questions are to support the artist/designer/engineer better understand their own work through open reflection and discussion. Makers should be ready to share about their process and decision making about their projects.
  • Questions from the Maker: A critique can be a wonderful time for a maker to get feedback. Come prepared with questions that you would like to hear feedback on about your project.
  • Suggestions: If you have a suggestion that you believe relates to the work, before offering it, consider if the suggestion will help the maker reach their goals for the project.


  • Full presence in class each week. Your presence is vital to our class community! (see full Attendance and Participation policy later in syllabus for details)
  • Commitment to the well being of the class community. We are a community that benefits from each member’s active engagement. Your willingness to listen and work cooperatively, ability to voice your own opinion, and effort to be consistently engaged are the key elements of success. You are expected to be respectful of your fellow students, your instructor, the space we share, and the time that we have together.
  • Contribute to your group. Many assignments in this course revolves around group-based projects. Three short-term projects will be completed in groups of two to four students. The final project will be a collaboration with the entire class. Each group member will be assessed on their individual contribution to the project. Put in your fair share of work, and try to find a unique perspective that allows you to make valuable contributions to your team.
  • Use technology professionally. Unless they are needed specifically for an in-class activity or language translation, please put away your computers and cell phones for the entirety of the class. Using them during class activities is disruptive, distracting, and disrespectful.
  • Come prepared for class and turn in all assignments on time. For each meeting, come ready to work, discuss, share, and make. Assignments are expected to be fully realized and complete at the start of class on the dates indicated on the course calendar. Students missing critique and/or turning in assignments late will only be eligible for up to 85% of the maximum points for that assignment. Assignments more than a week late will not be accepted without prior arrangements. If you are not able to finish a project by the due date, come to class anyway to participate in the critique of your classmates work.
  • Time investment and work ethic. At least 6 hours of work time outside of class each week is required.
  • Use of safe and respectful studio practices and protocols. Our classroom is a communal space that we share with many other people – each of you is responsible for helping to maintain the studios and tools.
  • Care for yourself. Do your best to maintain a healthy lifestyle this semester by eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep and taking some time to relax. This can help you cope with stress, but all of us benefit from support during times of struggle. You are not alone. There are many helpful resources available on campus and an important part of the college experience is learning how to ask for help. If you or anyone you know experiences any academic stress, difficult life events, or feelings like anxiety or depression, we strongly encourage you to seek support. Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) is here to help 24/7: call (412) 268- 2922 or visit their website. Over 25% of students reach out to CaPS sometime during their time at CMU.


  • Be accessible. I will hold regularly scheduled office hours each week. You can find those details at the top of this syllabus. If your academic or job schedule does not allow you to come to my office hours and you are in need of a meeting, please email me so we can set something up.
  • Quickly respond to emails. I will respond to emails within 48 hours, usually within 24 hours.
  • Promptly return grades and feedback.  Your grades will be made available to you via Canvas, within 2 weeks of presenting the work. This will allow you to monitor your grade in throughout the semester.
  • Solicit student feedback. I constantly strive to improve my ability to teach. You should feel free to email me your feedback at any time. I hope that you will provide your candid and constructive comments.
  • Help to provide necessary accommodations. If you have a disability and have an accommodations letter from the Disability Resources office, I encourage you to discuss your accommodations and needs with me as early in the semester as possible. I will work with you to ensure that accommodations are provided as appropriate. If you suspect that you may have a disability and would benefit from accommodations but are not yet registered with the Office of Disability Resources, I encourage you to contact them at

Grades are based on your assignments, projects, research presentation, and class participation. For group projects, your work will be evaluated based on your specific role in the project. For example, a project with excellent construction but poor installation would result in an excellent grade for those doing construction, but a poor grade for those handling installation.

The three short-term group assignments and one short-term individual assignment will be graded on a scale from 0 to 6 points. Of these 6 points, 3 shall be awarded to the concept and creativity in the work. Another 3 points shall be awarded to the quality of the technical execution of the work. For both criteria, creativity and execution, the determination shall be made accordingly:

0: Incomplete. For example: it is not finished, the work does not address the goal of the assignment, the work was not delivered on-time.

1.5: Satisfactory. The work was delivered on time and addresses the goal of the assignment.

3: Excellent. The work demonstrates an outstanding creativity or execution. The work demonstrates great insight.

The Research Presentation and your Independent Project will be graded with a specific rubric for each. Those rubrics can be found at the end of this syllabus.  The Collaborative Final Project will also be graded with a rubric, which will be handed out with the assignment when it is give to the class.

Class participation will be worth 20 points. This includes your participation in discussions, activities, and critique during class-time, as well as active engagement with our collaborative final project.

To summarize:
Short term assignments: 4 x 6 = 24 points
Research Presentation: 16 points
Independent Project: 20 points
Collaborative Final Project: 20 points
Class participation: 20 points
Total: 100 points

Your presence and participation are VITAL to success within this class. Many of our projects will be collaborative and are literally dependent on your participation. You are invited, encouraged, and expected to engage actively in discussion, reflection, and activities.

Within the first week of our course, please look ahead and see if you need to miss class for any excusable reason (religious holidays, CMU-sponsored events, medical or family emergencies, etc.) and email me as soon as possible. Everyone is permitted one absence without the deduction of participation points. If you do not use this absence, then the extra points you earn will be added to your lowest score when calculating your final grade (i.e., extra credit).

Students who accumulate three or more absences will only be eligible for up to 85% of their total final grade. This means that if you have three absences and would otherwise receive an A in the class, you will receive a B. If you have four absences and would otherwise receive an A, you will receive a C, etc. If there are extenuating circumstances that require you to miss more than one class session, please come and discuss this issue with me in advance of your absence(s).

If you must be absent, you are responsible for what happens in class whether you’re here or not. Organize with your classmates to get class information and material that you have missed.  

Students who repeatedly arrive late or leave early will be eligible for only 75% of the participation grade, unless they have made prior arrangements with me. Arriving more than 20 minutes late will be noted as an absence.  

We will be learning new skills in designing and constructing 3-dimensional forms.  It is perfectly acceptable to use found patterns for these creations.  As artists and designers  it is fully acceptable to use found materials (patterns, video, images, etc)  and to use these materials in creating new works of art/design. When using found materials (patterns, images, video, etc) in your own work there are two requirements:

Attribution. You must clearly identify where the found material came from or who made it.

Transformation. You must significantly transform the materials you are using. You should extend the material, modify it into something new, offer new insight into the concepts underlying the material, etc. Work that uses borrowed materials without significantly transforming those materials will result in a low grade.

More information on CMU’s Academic Integrity policy can be found at:

See this page.

Research Presentation Rubric
Independent Project Rubric

(1) Student Expectations and Instructor Commitments are based upon Chris McComb’s syllabus for Integrated Product Conceptualization.

(2) Academic Integrity statement based upon Jesse Stiles syllabi statements.