Students at Westchester’s Otis College of Art and Design re-imagine Barbie’s Malibu Dreamhouse

By Michael Aushenker

Otis product design major Ciara Zeolla won a Best In Show award for her pink onyx and stainless steel coffee table

Otis product design major Ciara Zeolla won a Best In Show award for her pink onyx and stainless steel coffee table

Generations of young girls have grown up playing with Barbie.

For a pop-up exhibit this weekend at the Santa Monica Place mall, students at Westchester’s Otis College of Art and Design have partnered with El Segundo-based Mattel Inc. to put a fresh spin on the blue-eyed and anatomically impossible blonde’s Malibu Dreamhouse.

The project was an opportunity for students to apply their creative skills in a real-world setting, Otis Assistant Provost Karen Girton-Snyder said of the assignment. She applauded participants for thinking beyond Barbie stereotypes and doing diligent research of the toy’s history since its 1959 debut.

“Who is Barbie? Who is this toy representing? They did the research. Barbie was the first toy to have a job, the first toy [promoting] a woman to be president or an astronaut. It was really fascinating,” Girton Snyder said.

For her part of the assignment, product design major Ciara Zeolla, 22, fashioned a coffee table out of a naturally translucent pink onyx and added LED rope plates with a stainless steel rose atop the onyx. Her contribution won her Best in Show, the Mattel project’s top prize.

“The idea of doing furniture for something so iconic immediately appealed to me,” said Zeolla, who grew up playing with Barbie toys. “One of most exciting aspects was working for a corporate client with such a specific style.”

The assignment did, however, come with its challenges.

Each student in the class received $800 to work with, a budget that Zeolla exceeded by racking up $2,000 in expenses.

Ground rules included trading on Barbie’s most contemporary look, no sharp edges and employing Barbie’s signature color — pink.

“They give the parameters because they know the students are going to rebel against [the theme],” she said.

Zeolla said she focused on Barbie’s complex identity.

“By day she’s a businesswoman, by night a socialite. These materials [in the table] are perceived as soft, but inherently they’re not,” she said.

Fine arts student Jack Hourihan contributed a painting for the Dreamhouse.

“This chance offered an opportunity to fulfill my [pop culture and media] curiosities and interests as an artist along with meeting the demands of a client. That, for me, was the greatest challenge,” Hourihan said.

The “Barbie Housewarming” pop-up exhibit runs Saturday through Monday in a second-floor storefront near Nordstrom at Santa Monica Place, 395 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica. Visit for more information.