It began as a humble home-study program, architect Sherrill Whiton’s innovative answer to a 1915 decline in the building industry. But rising demand in his “Home Study Course in the Decorative Arts” led to the founding of the New York School of Interior Decoration (later renamed the New York School of Interior Design) the following year. The history of the school—which is celebrating its centennial this year with a laundry list of programming, events and tributes—mirrors in many ways the development of the design industry itself.
“When you think about the scope of history, 100 years is not really a long time,” shares current NYSID president David Sprouls. “But if you look at interior design as a profession and the school as an educational institution, incredible strides have been made over the last century.”
“When our founder started offering classes on interiors out of the offices of his architecture firm, he was filling a void, meeting a need. Having studied architecture at Columbia University and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he felt architects in the United States were not well-versed in the art of designing interior spaces,” says Sprouls. “A school was born, and an institution evolved over the decades, just as the profession did.” In celebration of the school’s 100th year, Sprouls walks EAL readers through the evolution of the school—and where it’s now headed.
“In the early years, Whiton offered classes on-site in New York City, as well as a home study course that became wildly popular. In the 1920s, the school was chartered by the Board of Regents of the State of New York and the certificate and diploma programs in design soon rivaled the popularity of the home study courses. Moving about the Upper East Side of Manhattan as the school grew, faculty such as Lucy Taylor, Nancy McClelland, Inez Croom, Paul Frankl and Louis Bouche were brought on to teach aspiring designers.
“A home study advertisement from 1926 summed up the profession and the time period: ‘A delightfully arranged course for either professional or cultural use.’”
“The early 1950s brought an important change,” shares Sprouls. “The name of the institution was altered from the New York School of Interior Decoration to the New York School of Interior Design, reflecting the evolution of the curriculum as well as the professionalization of the field. As post-war construction boomed in the 1950s and 1960s, with commercial real estate taking off, the curriculum expanded. Degree programs began to be offered in the 1970s, [including] the Associate in Applied Science and Bachelor of Fine Arts. And the past decade has seen a growth in our graduate program offerings reflecting the diversification of the industry.”
The school’s mission, focus and courses have transformed throughout the years: “The incredible difference between 1916, 1966 and today is the amazing array of choices and options of what to study. The school’s offerings were mainly geared towards residential applications in 1916. In the decades after World War II, you began to see commercial design enter the curriculum. Today, we have nine programs on both the undergraduate and graduate levels, spanning from a certificate to post-professional Master of Fine Arts. Students are learning everything from the importance of scale in a traditional Park Avenue sitting room to issues of evidence-based design and daylighting in our specialized graduate Master of Professional Studies programs,” says Sprouls.
“In the early years of the school’s history, students were studying at home or out of the office of Whiton’s firm. In 1966, classes were held on two floors of an office building on East 56th Street. Today, on-site classes are held in a beautiful converted carriage house on East 70th Street, as well as at an award-winning LEED platinum Graduate Center, designed by the top design firm in the world.
“Pens, T squares and watercolors were the tools in 1916, and even 1966. Today, the computer mouse has replaced all of that. We still emphasize hand-drafting and rendering as an important way to capture ideas and work out design problems, but the CAD programs available are incredible and powerful tools.
“In some ways, technology has also allowed us to come full circle. The home study courses that were offered in the early years included 11 lesson books with essays, illustrations, textile samples, and assignments for students to send back to faculty for correction. Lessons covered Theory of Decoration; Color Harmony; Decorative Textiles; Floor & Wall Treatments; Furniture Arrangement; Period Styles; Lighting Fixtures, Curtains and Hangings; and more. But with the growth of the curriculum and rigorous standards, by the end of the 20th century, the home study program had been phased out. However, those classes became the forebears of the certificate program that we still offer on-site today.
“Because of technology, we recently began to offer the certificate program online...and our online offerings are not limited to the certificate program. We have just started offering two of our Master of Professional Studies programs online: Sustainable Interior Environments and Healthcare Interior Design.”
How has NYSID impacted the field itself? The school’s offerings began to change with the post-WWII construction boom, Sprouls shares. “You began to see office and hospitality design working its way into the curriculum. The role of the designer also began to shift. Professional organizations like ASID and IIDA started to formalize their existence.… Decoration no longer reflected the depth of the profession. It was evolving well beyond surface ornamentation into the realm of a holistic approach to interiors in all of its aspects. The 1970s saw major developments in the profession as well as the institution. NYSID was accredited by the newly formed Foundation for Interior Design Education Research (today’s Council for Interior Design Accreditation) and authorized to offer both the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and an Associate in Applied Science degree.”
Early faculty were pioneers in their field; after all, at the time of NYSID’s founding, though Parsons did have an interior design department, there was no other school in New York strictly for interior design. Sprouls shares some of the most notable names: “Nancy McClelland taught historic and modern wallpapers at NYSID in the 1920s and 1930s and continued as a guest lecturer into the 1950s. Lucy D. Taylor, an author, educator and expert on room composition and color (a pupil of Albert Munsell of the Munsell Color system) was on the faculty from 1928 to 1950. Louis Bouche, who later became a noted artist and muralist, was associate director of the school and taught courses until the 1950s.”
Significant graduates include Inez Croom, who established both a firm and a company that manufactured and designed hand-screened wallcoverings in addition to becoming a charter member of ASID and a founding member of the Decorators Club of New York City; Ruben de Saavedra, who ran a firm for 30 years that worked globally and “epitomized the persona of the society decorator”; and Ellen Lehman McCluskey, who established her firm in 1946 with projects and clients including the Plaza Hotel, the Regency Hotel, the Waldorf-Astoria, Le Cirque, McGraw Hill, and the library of the White House, among many others.
Today, the school has expanded its offerings—with specialty graduate degrees in sustainable design and lighting design, for instance—yet remains true to Whiton’s initial mission. “Our residential design curriculum is as strong as ever, being deeply rooted in an understanding of design history. Sherrill Whiton would even recognize many of the course offerings! But we don’t stop there, and neither does the profession.” Over the next 50 to 100 years, the school intends to grow alongside the people it serves. “I am confident that there will still be a need for beautiful, stylish and functional residential interiors that will reflect technological advances and the needs of an evolving society.... NYSID will be right there training designers to meet the challenges just as it always has. The way we live, work, play and heal is changing.”
The school will mark its anniversary throughout the year with an ongoing schedule of alum panels, exhibitions of student projects, and a symposium on “Interior Design: The Essential Profession” that addresses designers, industry leaders and editors. Happily, there will also be a celebratory bash, the 2016 Annual Dinner. The event will honor Ellie Cullman with the Lifetime Achievement Award, Deborah Nevins with the Landscape Design Award, and Jamestown LP with the Green Design Award. NYSID is also debuting its first-ever Centennial Medal, recognizing James Druckman of the New York Design Center with an award designed by artist Michele Oka Doner, an NYSID Honorary Doctorate recipient and NYSID Advisory Board member.
Check out the full lineup of centennial events.