Last winter Bruce Tharp and Stephanie Munson, the husband-and-wife design team known as Materious, entered their latest creation, the Cubby, in Design Within Reach’s second annual Modern + Design + Function: Chicago Furniture Now competition. A combination coat hook and storage nook, the deceptively simple design–a slightly upturned hollow cylinder–beat out 183 other entries to win Best in Show. The award got the attention of design-porn blogs like Inhabitat and Stylehive, and over the spring the couple was inundated with e-mails from people as far away as Japan asking where they could buy one. Not too bad for something Munson says started out as a “napkin sketch over a burrito,” and which they’d never even planned on selling.

The Cubby is actually the second Materious design to win at the DWR contest; last year the award went to the Progeny, a tepee-shaped coatrack with pegs and supports for both kids and adults. It was one of the first projects Tharp and Munson did together–they’ve only been collaborating for two years. They’re both full-time educators–he teaches design research at the School of the Art Institute, she’s an assistant professor of industrial design at UIC–and they design things together mostly for the fun of it. Competitions, Munson says, are pretty good motivators. “It’s not necessarily about bringing things to market,” says Tharp.

Both Munson, 33, and Tharp, 38, studied engineering as undergraduates, and both had the same experience–it wasn’t quite what they were looking for. “You’re cranking out ‘What’s the gear ratio? What’s the bending ratio?’ on this stuff,” Tharp says. “But it’s really disconnected from the human who may actually be working with it.” Munson took a class on industrial design at the University of Michigan and loved it, “but it was my senior year,” she says. “I thought, I’ll just get a job and maybe it’ll go away.” After graduating she moved to Detroit and worked for Ford for two and a half years, calculating the placement of interior features in various vehicles. She left to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, where she earned a master’s in industrial design, then landed the job at UIC four years ago.

Tharp earned his BS in engineering from Bucknell University and then enrolled at the Pratt Institute in New York, where he studied industrial design. It was there that he first noticed the gulf between product research and the actual needs of the public. “Here we are, a bunch of designers, saying, oh, this is what they want,” he says. “I remember thinking, All right, who is they and how do we know?” He completed the master’s program and decided to study sociocultural anthropology at the University of Chicago. “People thought I was crazy,” he says, but he saw it as a logical step. “Here we are designing stuff that exists within a social context, but we don’t know anything about the social context.”

For his dissertation Tharp studied the Amish in Indiana–not the most mainstream group of consumers to observe, but that’s exactly what sparked his interest. He says the question for the Amish wasn’t how to eliminate consumption, but how to consume in a way that made sense. “In the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy a Coke bottle becomes this social object,” he says. “We see that over and over again when modernity intrudes into pristine cultures–they love this stuff. It’s not that it’s bad.” Working with a buggy maker, Tharp saw firsthand how technology was incorporated in acceptable ways–using solar panels to power government-mandated flashing lights, for instance, and switching from wooden to fiberglass wheels, which last longer and require less maintenance. “Their culture is full of compromises they have to make,” he says. “But as long as they can find a distinction between their way and our way, they’re OK with some changes.”

While completing his dissertation Tharp got a job in the design department at Haworth, a high-end office- and architectural-interiors company in Holland, Michigan. He worked alongside cognitive psychologists, ergonomists, and interior specialists, all studying how people function in the workplace. With his background in engineering and anthropology, Tharp became a go-between for the company’s researchers and designers. “They had a brilliant cognitive psychologist there,” he says. “He’d write a very thick report that would be great to publish in any psychological journal, and he just dumps that on the designers’ desks.” On the other hand, “designers get involved with the research, but they don’t have the insight that a social scientist does.”

Tharp met Munson at an industrial design conference in Milwaukee in 2003, and started making frequent weekend trips to Chicago after they got involved a year later. Last August, as the relationship became more serious, he decided to leave Haworth to take the teaching job at SAIC (though he still works for the company as a freelance consultant). The couple married in May at the Mies van der Rohe-designed Farnsworth House.

The goal of Munson and Tharp’s designs is to bring technology into the home in a user-friendly way, drawing both from his theories of consumption and her experience with interactive technology. “We don’t even know how to set our own answering machine,” Munson says. “It’s such a simple thing–you should be able to push a button.” One project they’ve completed, the Forecast, is an umbrella with a stand that uses WiFi to access weather reports; when there’s an increased chance of rain, the umbrella’s handle glows blue. (Ambient Devices, a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, will offer a similar device for sale later this summer; Munson and Tharp have no such plans.) Another project they’re working on is an electrical switch that doesn’t require wiring; it uses an energy-harvesting crystal (rather than batteries) to generate a radio-frequency signal that can power any electrical device outfitted with the proper receiver.

Sustainability and reuse are also a focus. A set of high heels that were chopped off shoes from a Salvation Army are being turned into hooks; they’ll be mounted on wood retrieved from felled city trees and covered in wallpaper scraps. Munson is also working on an updated version of their Nutriplates–ceramic dinner plates ringed with nutritional information about various foods, which they first made last year. She says the inspiration came from a set of plates she and her sister used as kids that had the alphabet printed on them. One of the new twists she’s considering is visually communicating information about portions; to that end she’s been working with two psychologists, one from Loyola University, the other from La Rabida Children’s Hospital’s childhood obesity program, and testing the design on kids between the ages of 11 and 13. “I’ve just started doing research about how much form influences how much you drink, how much you eat,” Munson says. “The bigger the plate is, the more you put on it and the more you eat. I’m interested to see where that goes.”

“We’ve got mounds of projects,” Tharp says. “Inevitably we won’t do all of them.” Of those that do come to fruition, they say, probably only a few will ever be available commercially. (The Cubby is available at Orange Skin in River North, where it sells for $90; there’s a possibility it will be mass-produced.) It’s the pleasure the couple gets from the process of design that makes their work worthwhile. “That’s what’s really great about our positions,” Tharp says. “We don’t have to make a living.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mireya Acierto.