Tonya Sweet

Tonya Sweet profile picture

Senior Lecturer, Design for Social Innovation School of Design


Teaching in 2019

Research interests

Resilient Design, Speculative Design, Social Design, Sustainable Design; creative practice; design pedagogy

Seismic Cabinet, furniture designed by Tonya Sweet
Seismic Cabinet, 2015. The Seismic Cabinet celebrates the enduring experience of earthquakes within the context of a New Zealand housing vernacular. While seismic events expose people to feelings of anxiety and helplessness, the Seismic Cabinet aims to mitigate these negative emotional responses through playful interaction: As the user slides the cabinet door a device is triggered resulting in the perpetual creation of a “seismic” mark. In its reference to a seismometer, the act of mark-making pays homage to the memory of earthquakes of the past as well as supporting an attitude of resilience towards future seismic events.


MFA, Sculpture, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, USA

BFA, Furniture Design, The Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island, USA


Joining VUW’s School of Design in 2012, Tonya Sweet is an artist-designer and established design educator with expertise in object-oriented critical design. Tonya was granted a Master of Fine Arts degree in Sculpture from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and a Bachelor of Fine Art in Furniture Design from the Rhode Island School of Design in the United States.

Earthquake First Aid Kit, 2016.Research shows that the consumption of alcohol increases following seismic events and other natural disasters. The Earthquake First Aid Kit aims to raise awareness about the threat of substance abuse as it relates to earthquakes, as well as to foster psychological resilience in light of the day-to-day stress and anxiety associated with the imminent threat of seismic events. The contents within the Earthquake First Aid Kit are only accessible as a result of a strong seismic event: Upon being triggered by earthquake-induced motion, a sensor releases the door of the cabinet making the contents accessible.


Tonya’s research and creative work challenges common preconceptions regarding the role of design in mitigating the negative psychological impacts of traumatic events. Currently this subject is explored through an investigation of eco-anxiety in the context of humanity’s growing awareness of climate change-related phenomenon with a specific focus on the anticipation of natural disasters. The outcomes resulting from this research – speculatively designed objects, films, and images – aim to foster psychological resilience and facilitate alternative strategies for combatting our contemporary vulnerability in the face of an uncertain future.

For more see

Statement of Supervisory Interest

I support collaborative endeavours and supervision of design-led research that reflects my current research trajectory, or that centres on relevant issues including:

· Design in/for the Anthropocene

· Design as a tool to address and raise awareness about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

· Visualising climate change

· Design for natural and man-made disaster

For more information, see the webpage for C.R.I.S.I.S. Design Research Innovation Lab

Of Shelter, 2012. Vulnerability is often expressed through the qualities of the protective entity: the thickness of the shell, the system of armament, and the general language of exteriority surrounding a delicate interior space, object, or otherwise intangible presence. Whether the focus of protection is physical or psychological, the function of the armament is much the same. This work explores these ideas through a sequence of metamorphosis in which the interior is initially implied and ultimately exposed.


Tonya is a passionate design educator with diverse university-level teaching experience across three countries including the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and New Zealand. Through her extensive engagement in cross-disciplinary education from student’s first year to their postgraduate studies, Tonya has developed pedagogy and taught courses in design theory, sustainable design, maker culture, foundational principles of design, analog and digital fabrication techniques, sculpture, architecture, interior design, and furniture design. She is an advocate of facilitating heuristic and empirical learning opportunities that synthesize critical thinking, theory, and practice, and that foster an innovative, conscientious, and inclusive approach to design development.


Prior to dedicating her career as a design educator, Tonya gained over six years of professional experience as a furniture designer and fabricator. Her experience bridges a range of scales and disciplines including architecture and construction, exhibition design and fabrication, and the design and production of bespoke furniture.

Full list of publications by Tonya Sweet.


Teaching in 2019