Monday, November 02, 2015

Donning the mask of the upholsterer

In "Seminar in the City" today, our theme was Parsons. I'd had students read the history narrated on the Parsons website, skim the catalog to an exhibition put on by the archive a few years ago on a representative change in Parsons' signature Interior Design program in the late 1960s, and read one of the documents quoted there, J. Allen Tate's Notes toward a philosophy of design education (1969).

The new approach was called "environmental design," taking into account psychology and sociology in crafting spaces for human use. Tate quotes Frank Alvah Parsons in advocating a reorientation of design away from questions of taste and service to the rich and powerful toward something more like public service. Shouldn't everyone be able to live in a well-designed environment? Parsons students now worked on hospitals, community centers, correctional facilities. Post-shift Parsons was interested in helping add a sense of dignity to the human condition. Tate cannily quoted Louis Brandeis in arguing that design should be understood as a profession:
 
I'm not sure if my students bought it. The second stipulation in particular sounded out of synch with their sense of a field full of people seeking to become famous. As for public spiritedness, that sounded to them a lot like, well, us, at the progressive liberal arts college overshadowed by Parsons! (They've complained before that nobody's heard of us, but everyone's heard of Parsons.) Surely the ones foregoing "financial return" out of concern for "others" are the utopian liberal arts students, not the practical careerists at the design school, or?

Their skepticism about the compatibility, let alone convergence, of design and progressive liberal arts/social research is interesting at this stage in our history. As I told them, the 1970 merger between Parsons and the New School for Social Research came out of the blue, making sense to neither party. It took a good forty years for the component schools to get over mutually resenting or ignoring each other. But we're an ever more thoroughly integrated "design-led university" now. The web history of Parsons writes from this new synergy, making the merger make a kind of teleological sense - as if the two institutions were already speaking the same language before they found their way together. 

Perhaps we tell the story of Tate's "environmental design" revolution because it fits this narrative need. But I have to confess to enjoying learning about the history and philosophy of interior design. 

Our interior spaces are the interstitial zone between our physical bodies and the built environmentAt times the interior designer continues where the architect left off, moments later he wears the mask of the upholsterer, frequently he may complete the thought of the fashion designer, and occasionally he responds to the urban planner. Interior design is where the built environment meets the user most directly and where many surrounding fields converge.
Danielle Epstein, "Interdisciplinary Shifts," Radical Shifts:
Reshaping the Interior at Parsons 1955-1985 (Parsons School of Design, 2011), 24-34, 24

This inspired me to rhapsodize on the interdisciplinary kudos of interior designers, juggling a dozen approaches and skills, including hearing their clients while still offering them more than they could have come up with on their own. (My ears were still abuzz from hearing a Dutch designer tell me recently that fabrics are philosophical articulations of time - or something like that: I didn't understand what she was talking about, at all, but found I wanted to.) And I really like the ideal of adding a sense of dignity to the human condition. This seems more human-scaled, if perhaps less ambitious, than our current commitment to churn out graduates who'll make for a "more just, more beautiful and better-designed world."

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