She puts the ‘art’ in ‘industrial arts’: How Jennifer Dec added twinkle to the Five Star Gala in 10 not-so-easy steps

The lab is buzzing loudly with the sounds of high-tech machines doing high-tech things. A few students are standing at work tables, heads down and focusing diligently on class projects. We’re in the MCC-Business & Technology FabLab. The ceilings are high and the lights are low, and the smell of chemicals suggests something fancy is being fabricated as we speak.

Indeed, Jennifer Dec is keeping watch over a laser cutter, carefully guiding sheets of hand-painted acrylic that will soon be made into beautiful lanterns.

A couple of months earlier, Jennifer, lab specialist in the FabLab, was approached by MCC’s Five Star Gala planning committee to conceptualize and create table centerpieces for the 2013 gala. Her response was the same as it always is: “Yes.” With a timeline of about eight weeks and a general framework that the design should reflect the event’s elegant 1960s postmodern vibe, Jennifer came up with a few concepts. The committee landed on a set of cylindrical designs of varying heights that would serve as lanterns surrounding glass cylinders with twinkling tea lights in them. Jennifer and a team of students and colleagues got to work creating. Ahem…fabricating.

Jennifer is widely regarded as MCC’s fabrication whiz. She makes it look easy to turn a boring plastic piece into a unique conversation piece. But the process to do this is, of course, more complicated than it may seem on the surface. Here is the multi-layer process for how these particular centerpieces came to be:


1. The Five Star Gala committee asked for centerpieces with a sophisticated 1960s theme.

2. Jennifer came up with the basic concept for an acrylic multi-panel lantern to surround cylindrical glass candle holders.

3. She created design files of the basic lantern structure then prototyped the designs out of plastic, tweaking along the way to ensure that the angles, dimensions and fit-together-ness were all just right. 

4. Jennifer made a template of the basic design and the team of students, using Corel Draw, AutoCAD or Illustrator, each created a different design so the tables would have some variety.

5. Jennifer gathered the supplies:

  • 41,472 sq. in. worth of clear acrylic plastic sheets
  • 6 quarts of silver, black and white acrylic paint
  • 18 cans of lacquer
  • 12” x 300 ft. of paper mask
  • 1 gallon of liquid mask

6. Jennifer and team got to work painting the sheets of plastic to give them the desired color and texture. Most took at least 3 coats of acrylic paint + 2 coats of lacquer.

7. After the sheets were dry, Jennifer and the students prepped them for the laser cutter by affixing the paper mask (a protective covering) to the unpainted side of the plastic. On the sheets they had painted white, the team also slathered on the liquid mask to protect the sheets from scorching. (Fire hazard: They had to wet the paper to keep it from catching fire during the laser cutting process. Not every sheet escaped unscathed.)

8. Jennifer and the others took turns hand-feeding the painted, paper-backed, lacquered-up sheets through the laser cutter, which was programmed with the designs that they had created. This part of the process took three weeks–a total cutting time of about 76.5 hours, Jennifer calculated. The laser cutter is high-tech but not lickety-split.

9. After they came out of the laser cutter, the sheets had to be manipulated before being prepped for assembly. (Most of the designs involved cut-outs of hollow-centered circles, so the centers needed to be popped out. Also, the paper mask needed to be peeled off the back of all pieces and the liquid mask peeled off the front of the white pieces.)

10. At last, it was time for final assembly. The team used small disks to fasten together the panels of each acrylic lantern and used adhesive to secure every disk in place.


2013 centerpiecesThe final product was 60 beautiful centerpieces + some extras just in case: 68 centerpieces x 3 lanterns per centerpiece + 73 additional pieces = 277 hand-crafted, multi-panel lanterns. With 37 parts per lantern, Jennifer and team used a whopping 10,249 parts for this project!

Each of the lanterns, which were three different heights, was paired with a glass cylinder and an LED tea light. A trio of lanterns—one of each height—made up each centerpiece.

While Jennifer was the mastermind on the project, she is quick to credit the team who worked alongside her: students Joseph Steen, Lillianna Porter, Samantha Gallagher and Mayra Valdez and gala_hunt192 smallfellow lab specialists Brenna Gargotta and Chris Page from the MCC Prototype Lab.

In her characteristic praise-deflecting style, Jennifer also shares the credit for her own skills with the “brilliant instructors” at MCC-Business & Technology. Math instructor Kimball Marsh provides excellent instruction in mathematics & critical thinking skills, she says, and precision machining lab technician David Hawkins is a genius in all things machine-tool related.  William Allyn, engineering technology and CADD program coordinator and Prototyping Lab manager, has a way of making design work in AutoDesk software a real and usable skill, Jennifer says.

“The know-how to accomplish intense projects such as the Gala centerpieces is the direct result of the outstanding instruction that is found at the Business & Technology campus,” she says.    gala_hunt066 small

Jennifer has been working at MCC-Business & Technology for five and a half years, including the last two years in the FabLab. Her history with MCC stretches back to the mid-1990s, though, when she earned an associate in arts at the Blue Springs campus, the predecessor to MCC-Blue River. After working awhile, Jennifer returned to MCC as a student in 2007 when she enrolled in Making it in Kansas City, a 16-week intensive manufacturing skills training program. When she completed the MIIKC program, Jennifer joined the staff at MCC-Business & Technology as a part-time lab assistant. A couple of months later she was hired as a full-time lab technician.  

The 2013 Five Star Gala wasn’t Jennifer’s first foray into high-profile fabrication projects for MCC. She also led the charge to create the table centerpieces for the 2012 gala. Also, she and David Hawkins from the Precision Machining Lab at MCC-Business & Technology, created a beautiful, one-of-a-kind gift for MCC’s 2012 commencement speaker, Gov. Jay Nixon.