OXFORD — Two Miami University juniors in the department of architecture and interior design are finalists in Walt Disney Imagineering’s 26th Imaginations Design Competition. On Friday, Jan. 27, they won third place for “Niihka: A New Tradition.” Their project celebrates Miami’s special connection to the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.
Casey Liptak, an interior design major with a graphic design minor, and Erin Socha, an architecture major with an anthropology minor, are on the team with Liptak’s childhood friend, Sarah Miholer, now a junior engineering major at Carnegie Mellon University.
Liptak and Socha were working in the design studios in Alumni Hall when they received word they were semifinalists. During a Skype interview over winter break, they learned they were one of six teams (out of 336 that applied) to make it to the finals.
“We were very excited our work got recognized,” Liptak said.
The 21 finalists were awarded a five-day, all-expense-paid trip to Glendale, Calif., Jan. 23-27 to present their designs to Disney Imagineering executives and take part in an awards ceremony on the last day.
Finalists also have the opportunity to meet and network with Imagineers, go behind the scenes where they work and also interview for paid internships during their visit.
Their trip coincides with the start of spring semester at Miami, but Liptak and Socha received approval from faculty, who see it as a wonderful opportunity and a good excuse to miss the first week of classes.
The finalists were given a unique challenge — to apply the same design principles used in creating Disney’s famous theme parks, resorts and immersive experiences to design spaces that could conceivably be created at their own universities.
For their project, “Niihka: A New Tradition,” the trio spent October and November doing research on the Miami Tribe and designing a space that celebrates the Native American culture of the Myaamiaki people. The three coordinated their efforts through multiple Skype sessions each week.
“We really wanted to focus on something that was unique to Miami and one thing that really stood out to us was the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and that connection,” Socha said. The space incorporates the tribe’s traditional diamond pattern from its ribbonwork into the flooring and an LED glass smart roof whose shape drew inspiration from the geometric lines found on a turtle shell. They named the project Niihka (pronounced Nee-ka), a greeting meaning “my friend” in the Myaamia language, because they wanted something welcoming friends into the space.
Socha and Liptak said they have friends at Miami who are members of the Miami Tribe, which once inhabited the land on which the university was founded.
The space is designed to be a year-round outdoor area where visitors could feel close to nature. It would have heated floors from underground hot water pipes. The heat would then be trapped by the roof to make it comfortable even in winter. The design plan features an oak tree that is not real but would “very much act like a real tree” with solar leaves to run off their own energy.
As visitors progress through the space to the gathering tree — a significant symbol of the tribe’s culture — “there’s a series of storytelling through glass panels and lighting, and the roof is interactive to show you the constellations,” Socha said.
A Disney spokesman said comments from some of the preliminary judging included “praise for the Niihka team on paying tribute to the indigenous inhabitants of that area, as well as very charming illustrations and informative diagrams, and good execution and communication of the idea.”
Both women said this has been a wonderful experience being connected to Disney, which has touched their lives since they were little girls.
Liptak’s family frequently visited Disney theme parks, and her black pug is named Balloo, a character from “The Jungle Book” movie.
“It’s been my dream my entire life to work for Disney,” she said, “so when Sarah first told me about this project, I thought ‘well, if I’m going to do any project outside school that I’m not going to get class credit for it’s going to be for them,’” she said.
Socha and her sisters grew up watching Disney movies on repeat and enjoyed acting out the various characters.
“I was always so entranced by the stories they created,” she said. “It feels like you’re entering a totally different world, and you can’t help but get caught up in everything that is going on.”
So when Liptak invited her to join the team, Socha jumped at the chance “to create a world or space that could even touch on that type of Disney magic.”