For Art & Design senior Nick Tilma, inspiration comes from seeing the beauty in the objects lining the streets and hanging from the sides of buildings; the ones that most of us pass by every day with little more than a casual glance.

“I’ve always been fascinated with the urban landscape, and just these things in parking lots, and weird things that come up … even that sort of block at the end of a parking space,” Tilma said. “Just how heavy it is and how permanent it is.”

While Tilma is currently using his appreciation for form to work toward a BFA with a concentration in Product Design, his interest in the aesthetic qualities of everyday objects grew out of a game that he and his father played to pass the time while driving around the streets of Grand Rapids.

“My dad and I used to just drive around, running errands or whatever, and one day we were just like ‘Let’s start a list and name all of the different cars we see,’” Tilma said. “So, while doing that, I started really studying the shapes of the cars and drawing them, studying car design.”

As Tilma explained, his studies of car design gradually grew into a broader study of form and function.

“Fundamentally, it was just understanding form. You know, studying every detail of the car and understanding how the lights work, how the different shapes come together in three dimensions.”

Tilma transferred to the University three years ago after a year at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids. During his time here, he has assembled a portfolio of minimalist pieces that crystallize the strange beauty of everyday objects into an exploration of the intersection of form and function.

For his senior thesis, which will be presented in an exposition this coming spring, Tilma decided to expand on that exploration with a series of lamps made of fluorescent tubes set into concrete in a variety of geometric shapes. A pyramidal lamp reminiscent of an M. C. Escher staircase sat on the desk in his studio as he described his vision for the project.

“(The concrete) is going to last forever, which is kind of scary to think about,” Tilma said. “And then the idea of contrasting that with this glass tube was another sort of play within the object itself. It’s actually set in the concrete — you can’t replace it. So it’s a kind of commentary or just playing around with the ideas of permanence and fragility.”

At the same time, Tilma is cognizant of the fact that his pieces are, above all, functional objects.

“So it’s like a product — it’s a lamp, you can look at it, it’s not super bright — but it’s also … there is a concept behind it. I don’t want to push that, at the end of the day I just want someone to view it as a beautiful object, but there are those underlying ideas.”

In the future, he sees himself working as a product designer either on a freelance basis or as part of a larger consulting firm. That type of commercial work, he explained, is, in a way, easier than the sort of work he’s currently doing for his thesis.

“There is a kind of joy in (designing products for a company) because designers love working with constraints. The more constraints the easier it is for us because there are less unknown factors.”

But he certainly doesn’t see himself giving up the creative outlet that more personal projects like his lamp series provide. For a person like Tilma, who constantly looks at the world through an aesthetic lens, it’s impossible not to find something for inspiration.

“I’m a super observant person … I’m always seeing my whole environment,” he said. “I find all of these interesting-looking … I call them ‘unintentional sculptures.’ You’d be really surprised if you just look around.”

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