“Education isn’t just sitting in a classroom and reading or taking in knowledge and completing your assignments,” says Ian Montgomery, MS Package Design ’18, principal of the San Francisco-based design firm Guacamole Airplane. “It’s about relationships with people who are further along the path than you are, and them seeing themselves in you, and helping you grow.”

Originally from Los Angeles, Montgomery earned his undergraduate degree at Stanford University and then moved to New York City to earn his master’s in packaging design at Pratt Institute. “I was very attracted to Pratt because they had great facilities,” he says. “Pratt kind of gives you the keys to the kingdom, and if you’re motivated, if you’re a self-starter, you can do whatever you want, and that suited me quite well.”

Montgomery’s graduate thesis focused on sustainability and recycled materials, which saw him working toward building his own recycling machines based on open source schematics he had discovered. In the process, he found support and encouragement among his professors, including Eric O’Toole, assistant dean of the School of Design and associate professor, who Montgomery says was willing to consider an untested idea “and give me space to try and prove myself, maybe fail.”

And when a packaging design student with no welding experience approached the metal fabrication expert Jenny Lee, adjunct professor (CCE) of fine arts, about trying to build recycling machines, Montgomery says she didn’t hesitate to help him: “I’ll take you through it,” she said.

The final product, a series of experimental plastic-recycling machines, built in studio space at Pratt with support from Guerilla Science—an organization helmed by Mark Rosin, associate professor of math and science—have since been exhibited at galleries and festivals across the country. “And I still have the machines in my studio today,” Montgomery says.

Designers review seaweed film prototypes around a studio table
Ian Montgomery and colleagues in the Guacamole Airplane studio. guacamoleairplane.com

After earning his MS from Pratt in 2018, Montgomery founded Guacamole Airplane, with a focus on sustainable packaging, informed by material innovation, climate science, and “the unique opportunities of modern industry to work towards decarbonization.” Over the years, clients have included Nike, Whole Foods, Dell, Allbirds, and more.

Montgomery now sits in the mentor’s seat himself. Alongside his design work, he teaches brand and packaging design at the University of San Francisco. His advice to his students? “It’s such a magical thing to be a student,” he says. “Think of yourself 5 or 10 years down the line and think about who you’re setting your stones with and what types of people or organizations, or what types of values, you want to work with, and create work that appeals to those people. Find a little nugget of a self-directed idea and pursue it.”

To further support and champion student designers, Guacamole Airplane launched a designer-in-residency program two summers ago, to “create an opportunity for designers to do work that would never be supported in a traditional, commercial sense.” (More information on the program is on the Guacamole Airplane website, which also features the Sustainable Packaging Supplier Guide, built and expanded from Montgomery’s graduate thesis.)

The first designer to join the biannual program was then Pratt student Mary Lempres, BFA Fine Arts ’18; MID ’23, whose work during the eight-week residency explored coral formation and biomineralization (the process by which all living things create minerals, like the material that forms skeletal structures). This ultimately made its way into her Pratt thesis, a plant-grown structure to restore coral reefs called Reef Rocket, which she has continued to develop. The project won IDEO’s Emerging Solutions Award in the CSAA Climate Resiliency Challenge last summer.

“She’s a better designer than I am,” Montgomery says of Lempres. “I was so excited to be able to use my studio to create a platform for her to do a lot of experimental work and she taught so much to our staff here. We benefited so much. It was a two-way street.”

Light-skinned man with short beard, wire-rimmed glasses, blue work shirt, and white T-shirt smiles at the camera
Ian Montgomery ’18
Read more mentorship stories from the Spring 2024 special section.

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Pratt alumni and students innovate materials with a positive environmental impact.

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Graduate students Charlotte Böhning and Mary Lempres draw on the digestive power of mealworms to produce Chitofoam, a sustainable polystyrene substitute to help reduce plastic waste.