Interior Design Students Connect With Community

Working on the large urban scale, with a transient and local population, college students make connections between inside and outside.


We’re surrounded by technology and design. As a fledgling designer I must be ready to help understand, address, and improve the “human condition.” At Otis College of Art and Design my fellow students and I had the opportunity to do so during the 2013 Donghia Master Class.

After a great deal of discussion, we agreed that all three issues are important. Some said that quality of life (QOL) was not related to happiness, that we do not need the quality of life to be happy, arguing that QOL and well-being together, shape society and culture acting as tools to happiness. The one fundamental question was “What does it mean to be happy?” Happiness, as we came to understand it, was what allows people to “do better” and have “peace of mind.” We may have fewer things than others, but we could still be happy.

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What, then, are the things that we cannot live without? -The human body – the physical machine that allows us to experience life; -the brain – what allows us to thing and function; -the heart – the mind of the body and soul. Beyond these three, the critical issues that we needed to consider were mobility, density, and work/play. This informed our 14-person student team to focus on putting together a “more than urban” scale project for the Westchester area adjacent to the Los Angeles Airport (LAX). Our task, to define happiness, became something more than just a design project; it was to define a way of life for the future.

Today, people are constantly on the move. This is especially evident near LAX. Here most of the population is either working for or moving through the airport. This mobile culture is on the ascendant. Acknowledging this fact, we in the Donghia Master class led by Shashi Caan of the New York City-based Caan Collective, focused on the general well-being of this culture as well as the lifestyle of those who live in the immediate area of LAX. In addition, we were challenged to find ways to revitalize the area, and to create a central place where everyone would gather. Our inspirations included the idea of a “watering hole” or a natural place to gravitate as a place everyone would like to gather. How do we bring people to this central meeting place and destination point? We looked at radial/nodal organization; then, we thought of the project as a temporarily permanent place which would accommodate the transient nature of the LAX population and the fixed or more permanent nature of the Westchester population.

The goal of creating diversity and density within the site started to determine different “nodes” or points of interest near the site or within the city.

The connections to the different “nodes” are critical:

  • The Beach – is a public attraction and yet there was no former connection from the neighborhood.
  • Downtown – is important as a cultural community that’s distinctive of Los Angeles and showcases the busy city life of LA that also ties in the Hollywood culture.
  • Culver City – provides accessibility to the different amenities and will help to revitalize the community.
  • The Wetlands – allows for a fresh, natural, and unique place that can showcase environmental maturity and progression.
  • LAX – is the gateway to the world that allows for a global connection and becomes the income source to the site, also allowing the site to help brand LA.

Confused, at first, it was hard to see how a project of such urban scale would qualify for an “Interiors Master Class”. Understandably, we were intimidated by the scale of the work as well as the metaphysical aspect to the prompt. But soon it became clear that the project was, after all, about the experience of the transient person and the concept of the interior and exterior was not blurred but broken. As soon as we let go of this concept, the ideas began to flow and we divided ourselves into three pivotal groups: Design, Transportation, and Presentation. Leading the Presentation group required constant communication between all groups to adhere to a singular identity. Luckily, our class consists of students dedicated and talented to put in long hours into polishing this idea.

Imagining the connection terminal from LAX to re.LAX.

We focused ourselves on designing a place that would act as a cultural mixing pot, not limited to Los Angeles but a global public. This helped us think about ways to enrich the local culture while providing a place for people in transit to enjoy being part of something unique, thus making the area a destination of its own.

Concept sketches and renderings of transportation “POD”.

Within POD in transit to re.LAX.

Arriving to site re.LAX.

Connection between re.LAX and the beach “Runway”.

Connection between re.LAX and the Wetlands.

                  Working as a team this large is a rare occurrence in the curriculum we are used to; therefore, we decided to take full advantage of the opportunity and play to our individual skills and support one another through our weaknesses. Decision making was deliberately (and sometimes not so deliberately) slow to assure that we were making smart decisions on time management and areas of improvement. Of course there were snags intermittently and a clashing of design preferences, but it was all with good intentions. For me it was a most interesting and pleasurable experience to work with so many people on a singular project with the design expertise of Shashi. Our research on demographics, location proximities, community, and Los Angeles yielded this target three pronged design brief:

  1. To build cohesive community for Westchester.
  2. To provide a destination place for the inhabitants of Westchester.
  3. To provide a local experience for the “in transit” traveler at LAX with a minimum of a three hour layover. (The three hour time frame is an important block since it also services the minimum “night out” opportunity).

A video documenting the overall design process can be found here.

Derek Yi, IIDA, is a recent graduate of OTIS College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, designer, and environmental advocate.

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