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Progressive by design

MU’s Interior Design Program ranked in nation’s top 10

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photos by Shane Epping and Benyamin Schwarz
  • Published: Jan. 21, 2009
Interior design gallery

Student work is displayed in the Rogers Gallery in Stanley Hall, which is named for former department Chair Kate Rogers. The projects reflect mastery of digital-imaging, knowledge of architectural principles and attention to detail in interiors. Photo by Shane Epping.

Interior designers in MU’s Department of Architectural Studies might have been pleased, even honored, to learn their undergraduate program had been ranked among the nation’s best by the industry-standard-setting Design Intelligence.

But they weren’t surprised.

Having operated in multiple incarnations since 1898, the program finds itself on solid ground. Instructors prep students for spots at top design firms. Researchers stand as the go-to experts in emergent fields. Students collect pro-level awards. State-of-the-art facilities foster everything from furniture making to high-tech digital rendering. While faculty members herald the new ranking as “really, really big,” in some ways it’s window dressing for an already well-built program.

Marriage of true minds

Department Chair Ruth Brent Tofle says the foundation of good design education is collaboration among great faculty. All faculty teach — and all students take — both interior-design and architecture courses. Since the 1990s the interior design program’s hands-on studio component has adopted an architecture-studio model, with students developing real solutions to design problems posed by instructors or, in some cases, actual clients. Studio instructor Michael Goldschmidt says the hybrid program is both rare in schools and highly valued in firms.

“What it adds to our graduates is an ability to go seamlessly between those worlds of architecture and interior design,” says Professor Benyamin Schwarz, “to try to accomplish the final goals that we all share.”

Collaboration extends outside Stanley Hall as well. Professor Newton D’Souza, for example, works with children in 4-H programs in his learning-design and multi-intelligence research. In designing with digital media, Professor So-Yeon Yoon teams up with the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies and the School of Journalism. Imaging-technology expert Professor Bimal Balakrishnan hopes to build on the department’s expertise in 3-D rendering and animation by entering the world of virtual reality — a step that also would involve more partnerships.

Pioneers in greener pastures

Student building a model

Allison Eckert works on a studio project in the Department of Architectural Studies. Photo by Benyamin Schwarz.

One of the department’s biggest and latest interdisciplinary projects is an entry in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. Collaborating with peers from the Missouri University of Science & Technology, MU students work to design, build and operate a solar-powered house that’s both aesthetically and ecologically sound, addressing 10 vital components ranging from engineering to marketing. The Show-Me Solar team competes against 19 selected finalists from around the world, all of whom will assemble their houses on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in October.

The competition is a natural fit for the department, which promoted sustainability long before it was en vogue — so long, Goldschmidt says, MU designers take “green” as a given.

“This is what we expect of everybody now,” Goldschmidt says. “It’s not just the trend of the day; it’s an essential part of practice and an essential part of design.”

The department led the College of Human Environmental Sciences in becoming the first college on campus to initiate and sustain a complete recycling program — and also decked out its own gallery with bamboo flooring and recycled fabric. Student and faculty designers work with local firms and, through MU Extension, Missouri homeowners in boosting energy efficiency and environmental sensitivity. Several faculty members are LEED professionals accredited by the U.S. Green Building Council, and instructor Barbara Buffaloe leads an MU chapter of Emerging Green Builders.

Design for the people

You might say responsible design is the cornerstone of the program. Students are challenged to consider how their work affects not only their planet and their industry but also the inhabitants of the spaces they design — with particular emphasis on children, people with disabilities and the elderly.

“Environment makes a difference,” Tofle says, “and it makes the biggest difference to those who are more vulnerable.”

As researchers and practitioners, Tofle, Schwarz and Professor Ronald Phillips are much-sought experts in the rapidly growing field of environment and aging. Tofle has worked with the National Institute of Mental Health and the Veterans Administration’s Administration on Aging. Since 2000, Schwarz has served as editor of the Journal of Housing for the Elderly. Three faculty members work with the MU Interdisciplinary Center on Aging.

Following in their teachers’ footsteps, last year MU students competed in the Green House Design Charrette, a national project that proposes a radically creative shakeup of models for assisted-living facilities that serve the elderly. Of the competition’s seven winning designs, two came from MU student teams: Aaron Chen, Meredith Jones and Yi-Ching Tsai on one, Chris Sutton and Andrew Hughes on the other. They were the only students to win awards; all the other winners were pros.

Practicing and preaching

So, how are students able to not only perform but also excel while going neck and neck with professionals? They do it every day.

Balancing theory (academic research and instruction) with practice (real-world, hands-on learning), MU’s interior design program employs both full-time, PhD-wielding professors and working-professional adjunct instructors — with many of the faculty members coming from overseas. The combination of diverse perspectives and approaches helps students build on their skills as they progress from early, abstract ideas to complex, user-driven designs.

“Students need to be able to extrapolate from their experiences from project to project,” Tofle says.

The setup also means the department makes efficient use of facilities. Because adjunct instructors teach after business hours, classes are held in the evenings as well as mornings and afternoons. Serving diligent night owls, studios are available 24/7. The hours reflect the program leaders’ dedication to their craft.

“Good design is good design is good design,” Schwarz says. “We take this responsibility very seriously.”

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Reader feedback

  • Terrific!!

    The recent Mizzou Wire story “Progressive by Design” is terrific! The story captures the essence of what we do. 

    Karen Pojmann heard the faculty voices and captured the spirit of our enterprise in writing the article.

  • This is wonderful!

  • It was with great pleasure that I read your story titled "Progressive by Design."  Securing national ranking is an accomplishment that is well-deserved and very significant. The faculty of the Architectural Studies Department at Mizzou are incredibly talented, deeply dedicated and highly innovative. Kudos to Mizzou, Human Environmental Sciences and Architectural Studies for this wonderful achievement.

  • Wow! This is a great article! It makes me proud. I am also very glad to see that my favorite instructors are still there!

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012