The incubators of emerging talent share how the interior design curriculum has changed. What’s been added and what’s been tossed?
RISD Spatial Dynamics Studio
Yo IKEA, allow Kanye to create.” If he were running for office, Kanye West’s third-person entreaty tothe Swedish furnishings company might be the perfect sound bite for a bonkers election year. But we are dealing in cultural currency not social policy, andthis populist machinery runs on retweets. The rapper, Fashion Week presenter and social media habitué really does want to design furniture, furthering the point that the distinctions between artistic lanes are becoming pixelated, all in the name of the brand. Should a “Kanye West for IKEA” collection come to fruition, West would manage any critical response with braggadocio and thick celebrity skin.
If there was a poisonous dart to his passion project, it would come in the form of one hissing interrogative, “Did he go to design school?” In an era of “anything is possible,” the millennial generation wouldn’t be faulted for taking a few shortcuts. The rules are different now. Things are flashier, faster. Still, moxie only gets you so far. In April 2015, it was announced that the Harrington College of Design in Chicago would be closing. Founded by New York interior designer Frances Harrington in 1931, the school originated as a lecture series for design professionals and eventually became a degree program with stature, turning out notable alumni such as Kara Mann and Frank Ponterio. Eighty-four years later Harrington was shuttering—attendance was low, expenses were high, whispers and rumblings reverberated about its quality.
The loss of any academic institution smacks our erudite value system with stinging disillusionment. Like an ancient monument defaced with the vodka-soaked graffiti of bullies and amateur anarchists, it’s hard to watch. Examining why Harrington closed would be a salt-on-the-wound exercise. Exploring the curriculums of today’s top design schools offers a chance to see how dreamers and innovators, rebels and instigators are shaped just before they enter the industry that will come to know their names.
For the emerging class of talent, the options are impressive. A prestigious group of colleges and universities presents first-rate education for future tastemakers. In general, the basic structureof an undergraduate interior design program adheres to the professional educational standards and guidelines set forth by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA). The style of each program is influenced by its place within the larger academic framework. “The character of each program changes whether it’s aligned with a school of human ecology, art and design or architecture,” says Carl Matthews, professor and Department Head of Interior Design at the University of Arkansas and former CIDA board member.
The National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) has its role, as do state agencies and trade organizations such as the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) and the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID). These formal, concerted layers are like the back-end development, essential and undetected. What is obvious is how evolved, expansive and immersive the top U.S. design programs have become. Approaches to sustainability and adaptive reuse, technology, social responsibility, handcraftsmanship, sourcing and interdisciplinary cooperation—these concepts ignite the classrooms of 2016 as students go headfirst into big ideas and blank pages.
Developing a design curriculum is the pedagogical equivalent of splitting the atom. It is the complex, prodigious work worthy of every hyperbole. For a discipline as vast and encompassing as design, so much has to make the cut, and in such a short amount of time. “There are twoessential elements for a great program: the technical and the conceptual,” says interior designer Jamie Drake who has a certificate of environmental design from Parsons School of Design and a BFA from The New School and remains an active member of the Board of Governors. “Drafting, sketching, presentation techniques, lighting design, construction basics—these are all necessary tools that must be taught. Concept definition and development, three-dimensional imagining, spatial relationships, color and texture as design devices are the roots of the artistic side of the profession.”
For incoming students, design is cap a D experience, a tidal wave of new ideas, analytical skills, definitions, techniques and starting points and contexts. For most programs, freshman classes are interdisciplinary; the students mix into their new environments grounding themselves before delving into the good stuff. “The first year is an opportunity for us to set the stage and start the groundwork on what art and design practice means at large,” says Nadia Elrokhsy, assistant professor of Sustainable Interior Design, Parsons School of Design. “It’s about the tools, skills, knowledge and methods that support that understanding and that general thinking about design.”
After this initiation, what a student responds to is personal. It’s the vision they have of themselves as a creative within an environment that sustains their curiosity and challenges them. At the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) the thought process is expansive. “We don’t teach design as it’s defined,” says Liliane Wong, Head of the Department of Interior Architecture. “The CIDA specifically requires the curriculum to be only about the interior. Our program is broader than that and includes the study of structures. We see the interior as something larger in terms of addition and subtraction within an existing structure. It could be an art installation. Or, for example, we’re piloting a new program in fall 2017 on exhibition and the narrative environment.”
The acclaimed New England institution was established in 1877. Its first interior decoration course debuted in the early 20th century. One of RISD’s signatures is its approach to adaptive reuse, articulated “through the alteration of existing structures” says Wong. For instance, one studio examined an outdated mega structure built in the 1960s in Seoul, South Korea. It was an exploration of how to reconnect and reactivate the space and neighborhoods. As students enter the department, study turns to found objects as a metaphor for reusing existing structures—everything from pop tops to gummy bears have been used.
At the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), the school’s commitment to adaptive reuse has manifested in SCADpad, an innovative project addressing issues of urban housing and carbon footprint. Three original units/ dwellings measuring 135-square-feet—the size of a standard parking space—were designed, featuring custom furniture and community green space. Development and production involved students, faculty and alumni. “SCAD has a rich history of interdisciplinary collaboration that spans over 40 majors. A great example of this collaboration is SCADpad,” says Khoi Vo, Chair of Interior Design at the school, citing “a lineup thatincludes industry professionals with expertise in cruise ship design, lighting, high-end residential and commercial and hospitality design.” Students even lived in the units for a few months for a true immersive experience.
Rather than pair cognition with digital advantage early on, RISD whole-heartedly emphasizes the hand. “We don’t allow students to touch the computer for a semester,” says Wong. “We want them to be comfortable with old-fashioned means of expression first.” In addition to studying the properties of concrete and wood, she says, they are invited to experiment and mess with form and possibility. In the Human Factors course, students focus on the body, the user and their environment and the physicality of space. Assignments range from ADA-compliance to areas created for napping or daydreaming.
SCAD also places high priority on tried-and- true methods. The famed school, founded in 1978 by Paula Wallace, places a strong focus on creative careers. Recalling her days in the studio, SCAD alum Ashley Sueiras, who graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in interior design in 2012, says, “It was a very hands-on approach. We were always sketching or 3-D modeling before jumping into the computer. SCAD’s School of Building Arts is definitely based on the arts. All students must take a number of Foundation Studies courses where classes included anything from Sculpture, 2-D Design and Color Theory. The foundation of art gives students the basis to later focus on technical and professional approaches,” she says. The background has served Sueiras well, as a senior designer at boutique hospitality firm Studio K, which counts Chicago’s hottest restaurants as clients.
RISD exalts creative integrity and innovation—from adaptive reuse coursework to pragmatic solutions that imbued dignity and community inside a homeless shelter for a graduate project—as does SCAD with groundbreaking collabs and practices. And these are no analog operations. SCAD students use the latest software, like Revit, Rhino, AutoCAD and AdobeCreative Suites. “They also have a full arsenal of hardware to realize any projects, including laser cutters, rapid prototyping machines and CNC machines,” says Vo. RISD plans to use a drone camera, augmented-reality software and more. At home in this duality, Wong says, “I feel at RISD we want to introduce the innovative within a respective relationship with the old.”
Determining the right tools for the right program is a unique art. As an educator, Carmita Sanchez-Fong, professor and assistant chair of Interior Design at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) describes it as being about “making sure that we find the right technology to support our curriculum.” FIT’s roots date back to 1944, and this fall a new curriculum will debut where “studio classes focus instruction on learning outcomes,” says Sanchez-Fong. The goal is to create a flexible studio environment where students can focus on personal interest and career goals, she says. The decision was also made to remove stand-alone software classes. “The committee recommendation was to integrate digital drawing skills in the design technology classes such as Materials Methods of Interior Construction, Interior Design Working Drawings, Interior Architectural Detailing, etc. so that software was introduced in tandem with its application in the profession rather than as an isolated tool.”
Modern life has acquiesced to technology, even if the decorative arts scream bloody mur- der. At the celebrated Parsons School of Design, there is no friction between the tactile and the electric. “The digital world is an opportunity to understand users better, but it’s also a way of harnessing the technology to support the experience that they are part in particle in designing, says Elrokhsy. “The conditions are framed and created by designers, and interior design is at a really important moment to be able to do the job, by being at the ‘fuzzy front-end’ of planning and decision making, which is understanding people’s habits, rituals, and behaviors over time and really connecting with what that means for design of the built environment. Understanding the role of color, material and technology – all those components of our study are now even more important in leveraging how we experience the world.”
The school’s new Maker Center debuts this fall at 66 Fifth Avenue, spanning 35,000-square-feet on two floors, the space will have 3-D printers, laser cutters and the thrill of unbridled 21st-century experimentation. It is also a place for integrating different disciplines and finding creative overlap through learning. “The potential of digital is really to tell different stories over time and to beable to do that over the design process, not just the outcome,” says Elrokhsy.
One such narrative includes the most personal of accounts, a student’s portfolio. Parsons’ Learning Portfolio is an ongoing digital record of students’ journey not just their final works. A personal compendium of notes, sketches, texts and work, it is a visual lingua franca between student and instructor. A design portfolio can also be a passionate declaration. “Design is an applied art. It’s not a fine art. It’s having an idea, and making it real. Creativity is at the heart of it,” says Ellen Fisher, vice president for Academic Affairs/ Dean at the New York School of Interior Design (NYSID). “How do you develop your ideas, and how do you represent and communicate them?”says Ellen Fisher, Vice President for Academic Affairs/Dean at the New York School of Interior Design (NYSID).
A distinguishing characteristic of NYSID is that its application process does not require a portfolio. Those who don’t have one are offered courses in the fundamentals: decorative arts history, drafting, creative thinking and AutoCAD, and later evaluated to determine acceptance into the program.
As a “single-focus” institution celebrating its centennial this year, NYISD has a unique perspective on the craft. The school of roughly 700 students attracts a percentage of “career changers,” like Fisher, who bring another kind of experience to the educational process. NYSID classes indulge in both old and new techniques. Says Fisher, “technology allows teachers and students to learn and teach in new and different ways by enhancing collaboration and communication. Teachers also use technology in digital drawing and art/design classes (like Photoshopand InDesign); they know AutoCAD and SketchUp.” This blend of hand rendering and digital techniques is a sign of the times. At NYSID classes like watercolors and rendering with markers have not vanished; they are offered as electives.
Established interior design firms marvel at the technical prowess of the younger design generation. In many ways it is unparalleled, and a hallmark of the emerging class. When seeking interns or junior designers for her team, New York–based designer Amy Lau, a Sotheby’s graduate, says, “no one is going to walk in the door unless they are proficient in AutoCAD. We want a designer to work in SketchUp and to use Photoshop.” She also acknowledges the need for a mix. “Hand-rendering is really important. And so is the abil- ity to sketch, so that we can communicate ideas three-dimensionally.”
While they applaud superb (and lightning fast) technical rendering skills, some designers lament the loss of hand drawing and drafting in the new generation. Martin Horner, co-principal of noted Chicago firm Soucie Horner with Shea Soucie, appreciates millennials’ incredible technical abilities. He also cites the vulnerability of young designers who don’t have strong drawing skills. “They don’t know what a quarter-inch size would look like on a plan because they are drawing in computer scale.”
Dorothy Greene, a principal at San Francisco– based design firm BAMO, values the speed and convenience of a computer-aided drawing, but also sees hand drawings for their unique expression, separate from technical perfection. “With a hand-sketch there is an artistry,” she says. “You’re conveying a mood to a client not always reality, so you don’t want to get too caught up with the mechanics of it.”
When interior designer Laura Barnett was earning her degree at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts she became an expert draftsperson, even working in ink. She wishes today’s portfolios weren’t digital. “I want to see the board. I want to touch and feel the fabric. I say, ‘Please bring the real thing.’ Looking at a picture doesn’t tell you enough.”
Pinterest, blogs, Instagram, online sourcing— how much is too much? “When I was starting out, we had to go source everything—tile, plumbing, furniture—and we had to leave the office to do that,” says Amy Morris of her namesake Atlanta design firm. “I worry that everyone thinks they can just print tear sheets and sell a piece of furniture that way. You have to go out and explore; you have to get off of your computer.”Laura Barnett shares the sentiment, noting akind of sourcing myopia. “It’s about the discovery,” she says. “Think of all things you’re missing as you’re searching for that one chair. You pass thousands of other pieces of furniture. Or you see something you didn’t know existed. If you go in seeking one specific chair, you’re not going to see that wacky divan that could work even better just because you weren’t looking for it. You don’t get the complete range if you’re not exposed to anything else."
While the industry’s online metamorphosis feels wild and limitless, for emerging designers this is just normal life. That line between digital reliance and overindulgence is a matter of opinion. Jackson Reynolds Van Matre, a millennial designer who began as an intern and was hired full-time at Soucie Horner, makes a compelling point. “I don’t think it’s a reliance, I think it’s an intelligence. If you have knowledge of a certain tool, why wouldn’t you use it?” His colleague and fellow alum from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Austin Childers considers online searches another form of information gathering. “I am constantly Googling information, whether it be about software, materials, furniture, vendors, etc. It feels absolutely necessary and plays a huge role in my work method.” Both designers consider the Internet a means and not an end, “We would never just source online,” says Van Matre. “It’s not worth it, and we have a high-end, high-caliber clients who expect more.”
Soucie Horner has a sophisticated internship program, which developed into a strong a mentoring experience. There are four full-time interns year-round with department leads who work with junior staffers, involving them in office meetings, giving them weekly tasks, learning opportunities and integrating them into most facets of the business. Both Horner and Soucie are graduates of the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago and embody an employer-educator viewpoint, “You learn by experience,” Horner says. “There are design principals, across the board. “I still remember a class taught by Linda Keane, who was a classicist at heart, and she was constantly putting into my head that you have to know scale and proportion. If you want to have any understanding of contemporary or modern architecture, you have to know the classics and you have to know history.”
Ellen Fisher of NYSID eloquently refers to this knowledge base as “cultural literacy.” She says, “It’s about understanding history and other attributes of places around the world and at home, and imbuing a space with those elements that have meaning: color, design motifs, scale, and even doorways and windows. Design is deeply influenced by an understanding of culture.” At times, cultural literacy is as straight forward as having the right references. “I find all the time that I am commenting about people and designers, and the younger designers have no idea who I’m talking about,” says Lau. “I can pull from so many different references, and that is so important. You have to spend time with the arts, artisans, makers and learn the process of how things are built, fabricated, OR just You have to spend time with artisans AND makers and learn the process of how things are built, fabricated,made and manufactured, that helps you as well.”
For interior design schools, one possible blind spot is the business and operations side. The NYSID has a natural advantage in this arena, as many career-changer students have spent time in companies, giving them a strong perspective on how businesses run. In their Professional Practice courses, students devise projects using a suite of business software called Studio IT that includes billing and specifying, well beyond Excel or QuickBooks. “We teach conceptual big ideas, critical thinking conceptual thinking and philosophy and we teach how to implement it and how to make it real,” says Fisher. “We want people to cultivate creative thinking and we show them how to make it happen from the creative and professional sides.” While he praises the incredible technology and conceptual thinking of his school, Jackson Reynolds Van Matre longed for other aspects as an undergrad. “Our program lacked real-life knowledge ... just the basic communication with vendors and showrooms, and how you address client concerns. Working at Soucie Horner, I have learned about budgets, deliveries and installs—those have been some of the most eye-opening experiences.”
Colleague Austin Childers, who earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture and interior architecture from SAIC this spring, credits school with imparting discipline and a good foundation. He offered these thoughts: “They don’t really teach you in school that the design world is multi-faceted.“It’s important to get yourself into business- and communications-oriented classes because these sorts of skills are necessary to succeed. I learned that pushing myself outside of the required curriculum helped me get my career started.”
Business education is a high-priority at in the interior design department of the University of Arkansas. “Students take economics and two business electives,” says Carl Matthews, as the program is housed in the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design. About 25 percent of the school’s interior design students get a minor in business. “When I talk about the program, I talk about balancing the creative with the technical; the theoretic, but always acknowledging that design is a business.” Matthews also points to a wider pattern the industry. “The largest sector of interior design is the work place, so businesses are going to be your client. You need to understand their values and become fluent in their language so you can go in and talk to a manager and find out their needs.”
Grooming the next generation is more than scholastic. It delves deep into the bold motivations and values of a vibrant group. As Matthews articulates it, “The millennial generation saw their parents get laid off and the country go through economic downturns. They’ve seen a post-9/11 society. They’ve seen issues happen in the world that give them a different worldview that’s not all about work. That’s one of the biggest arcs: an evolution away from a singular focus on career and success, more about human success defined in more culturally relevant, relationship terms. This group of students is more concerned about humanity and diversity. They really care about how design can improve the quality of people’s lives.”