Set designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella and his wife, anthropologist Christine Hegel-Cantarella, wanted to craft an artistic representation of what it means to be impoverished in affluent Orange County. A stage production was ruled out – too moralistic. They chose instead an immersive art installation, a walk-through space on the UC Irvine campus in which visitors could put themselves in the shoes of Orange County’s working poor.

The exhibit, entitled “214 sq. ft.,” re-creates a motel room occupied by a composite family. The cramped quarters provide a lesson in efficiency and creativity,
as clothing, books, toiletries and household appliances are neatly stacked and labeled. A “chore chart” reveals the inner workings of daily life.

“This is the story of many families living under many circumstances,” says Luke Hegel-Cantarella, assistant professor of scenic design in UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts. “Our project is about the triumph of living in a room like this.”

The installation, on display in the Social Science Plaza through Monday, April 16, was developed in collaboration with the Project Hope Alliance, a nonprofit that serves the Orange County homeless population through the Project Hope School and Family Stability Program. Part of the UCI Center for Ethnography‘s Rethinking Design Series, it’s intended to reflect the experience of homelessness among the working poor, who often take shelter in low-budget motels.

The 214-square-foot exhibit was derived from images and personal narratives of motel life sourced from the HBO documentary “Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County.” Audio and video recordings from the film, directed by Alexandra Pelosi, are embedded throughout the room, emanating from open drawers, lamps and paintings.

“Our vision was to take this documentary and make it three-dimensional,” says Christine Hegel-Cantarella, assistant research specialist in the UCI Department of Anthropology’s Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion. “We relied on the documentary for a certain degree of realism but also made creative choices with the aim of conveying the complexity of how families cope.”