Educating the Citizen Designer

What if schools took the high road and pulled together all design understanding—for the benefit of society?

If interior designers and architects continue to engage in their ongoing turf war, the rest of the world will pass them by. This thought was voiced, often and in many ways, at a discussion on a recent Sunday. We were a small group of interior design and architecture educators, plus one editor, called to the University of Cincinnati by Hank Hildebrandt, associate director for undergraduate studies in architecture and interior design at the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP). Hank asked us to discuss the often heated relationship between the two professions, what this legacy of conflict is passing on to our future space/place makers and form-givers, and where the possible escape routes from this quagmire might be located. He prodded us with questions like: What is it that interior designers do better than architects? Should the next generation learn to be interior architects rather than interior designers? Are interior designers trying to grab architecture’s sex appeal, just as “information architects” are doing?

While such queries proliferated throughout that day, one throwaway comment captured it all for me. Someone mentioned that among the interior design and architecture firms bidding for a recent corporate job, there was an unexpected entrant, a major accounting firm. The accountants sold themselves on the merits of their financial analysis, plus their ability to put teams together, and sure, they would hire interior designers and architects. Did the world just pass by the design professions, again, in favor of more easily understood skills? The accountants seem to be winning.

The night before our discussion we were treated to the university’s 52nd Annual Fashion Show and Honors Night. As the models (professional and student) strutted their newly stitched finery on the catwalk, it became clear that ornament, decoration, craft, color, historic reference, and high technology were alive and coexisting in this corner of the world. But as we later ambled through the exhibits of architecture and interior design projects, we rarely spotted this expansive and exuberant sensibility. Excellent computer renditions stressed the sleek and the corporate modern—great portfolio fodder, acceptable and on-demand design skills showcased attractively. And it all made me wonder if the fashion students ever ran into the architects and interior designers on the wide and meandering staircase that Peter Eisenman designed to knit DAAP together.

I realized then that architectural gestures serve their purpose only if they’re supported by human gestures, in this case the willingness of the faculty and students to learn from each other’s differences and use their newfound understandings to create inventive environments and objects. What if design schools set out to educate responsible citizens? I wondered the next day as my plane idled on the Cincinnati tarmac. What if fledgling designers of every discipline were given more time in school and given the same solid foundation of humanities and sciences, in addition to an understanding of structure, materials, ergonomics, space, and technology? Armed with these fundamentals, students could choose to be technicians, colorists, decorators, interior designers, architects, product or communications designers, or even invent their own focus, each and every one an essential contributor to a complex society. Why quibble over titles when there’s so much to learn and so much to do?

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