Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Alvin meets Parsonzilla

Today's New School Century class was about the New School's merger with the Parsons School of Design - something which happened 42 years ago, but with which the institution and many of its members still have not come to terms. (Michael Walzer, recalling the Exodus, might note that these kinds of changes take 40 years to process.) Just recently our new president has argued that the entrepreneurial thinking of designers is vital to the "creative economy: it is time for design to become the fourth pillar of university learning. But at the time nobody was thinking in terms like these. What were they thinking? I've been reading the transcripts of some interviews the dean of Parsons conducted in 1977 with various people involved in the merger, and it's interesting stuff.
New School was interested in "diversifying" its offerings, but had not thought of a school of design. It was Parsons which contacted them, a phone call in January 1970 starting What would you say if I were to tell you that Parsons is going out of business? Indeed, respected but financially mismanaged Parsons was about to close shop, unless it found a commitment of support from some other institution in just two weeks. We don't know who else they contacted, but it was clear that nobody was in a position to make so big a decision so quickly. Except New School which, the interviewees recalled smugly, was "administratively" run and could make such a decision without consulting faculty (!). Awareness of Parsons at New School was close to nil. Allen Austill, the enterprising Dean of the Adult Division sent to check out the educational culture of the place (he was impressed), reported he knew "Nothing" of Parsons before that, beyond the Parsons table. There's a tape recording of the meeting where the merger was announced to the stunned Parsons faculty; it sounds like the press conference after a coup d'etat. The New School's Graduate Faculty was evidently none too happy either, and an old Alvin Johnson loyalist on the board of trustees thought the founder's vision of an intellectual, not a professional, place had been betrayed. This image of "Parsonzilla" from the Parsons 1973-4catalog seems a good depiction of the situation: A second-year class in illustration is given the assignment to “go home and draw a piece of a dragon – any piece.” At the following class session, the random parts are assembled to form an extraordinary mascot… In any case, Parsons soon moved out of its leased quarters on East 54th Street and into the 66 Fifth Ave. building New School had taken over from another failing institution, the Mills College of Education. It raised tuition (New School president Everett thought that a higher price tag suggested higher quality) and was able to offer a BFA. It added night and summer classes, doubled the number of programs, acquired a dormitory for its students. Where it used to send out 2000 catalogs it was now included in the New School catalog, 130,000 of which went out each season. And soon, as enrollments in New School's other divisions fell (the end of the Vietnam war reduced MA enrollments at the Graduate Faculty, and the culture of adult ed changed), it was Parsons keeping the New school afloat!

A great success story, no? Still, the cultures of whatever The New School was and a design school were and are quite different. We asked the class to debate the benefits and challenges of the merger, and all the important and enduring issues quickly surfaced, and the same quandaries: should there be more synergy between design and liberal arts curricula or less, between academic and professional? To inspire them I put up the concoction above, based on one of the pieces from More Furniture in 24 Hours by "Spiros Zakas and his students at the Parsons School of Design" (1978). We remain very much a work in progress, brilliant and unconventional, like the W Chair, which supports one sitter because it accommodates two. The photo in my starting slide, by the way (another concoction by yours truly), was taken by famed American industrial designer Charles Eames when he and his wife Ray traveled to India to make recommendations for a National Institute of Design in 1958. (One of our Parsons colleagues recommended the Eames Report as still compelling, especially in our own India-Chinaward moment.) The Eames' India Report starts with an ode to the lota, the brass water container the woman is carrying in the photo, and with the sorts of questions you'd want to ask to learn from the tradition which generated it while also rooting in it an edgy modern creativity. I imagine Austill was asking himself kindred questions about Parsons when he went up to see it... And we've been doing the same in our course as we study the New School's component visions and divisions.

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