More than 30 students in Don Collier’s interior tour class explored Asian design influences in a weeklong trip to San Francisco.
A class of Texas Tech University interior design students spent their spring break in San Francisco touring design centers and showrooms, interviewing interior designers and hoping to make career connections in a city known for its style.
Interior design professor Don Collier, who leads the interior tour class, believes the firsthand experience his 37 students gained on the trip will be critical as they begin work in their profession. This is his 12th such trip; he rotates between New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston, visiting influential firms, museums and department stores each city has to offer.
“It's really about exposure to what their future profession is like,” Collier said. “It's not just color picking and decorating. That certainly is part of it, but it's exposure to culture, to manners, to the way people live, the way people work and the options that are available to them.
“I want to open the door to the glories and beauties of our art form.”
The students returned exhausted and with sore feet but also with a journal of their experiences and dozens of ideas for their final project – an operatic-themed fancy sushi restaurant – and ideas for homes, offices and other commercial spaces.
“It opened my eyes to the various aspects of an interior designer's life,” freshman Hayley Richburg said. “I feel like I understand what goes on in the design world better than I did initially going into this trip. I also feel as though this trip introduced my name into the design world.”
The purpose of the interior tour class, which is a 3-hour credit course, is to increase students' awareness of the larger world of interior design. Putting them in a different city to experience the historical, cultural and environmental aspects that contribute to the practice of interior design allows the students hands-on experience in their field. It also introduces them to up-and-coming trends.
Going to San Francisco opened their eyes to the Asian influence in design, which featured heavily in the final project: a design notebook for a formal restaurant called Butterfly's, influenced by the opera “Madame Butterfly” and the Asian art and culture they experienced in the Bay Area. Those notebooks drew both ideas and specific products and trends from the manufacturers and designers the students met with on their trip.
It was a fun week, but it was not easy. Once they got to San Francisco, Collier had his students running all over the city. The class went to the Asian Art Museum, Gump's, Chinatown, the San Francisco Design Center and dozens of design firms specializing in residential and corporate design.
Collier wants the students to come home with a good idea of what their field entails and what tools are available to them. Gump's, for example, is a major retailer that has been in business since the gold rush and is a major importer of fine Asian antiques, china, fashion, jewelry and furniture.
“It's a store I use a lot in my professional work,” Collier said.
They also went to well-known showrooms as part of a retail scavenger hunt for the investigation of retail design and some of the top design firms in the country. One of those was global design firm Gensler.
“Their office was very open and welcoming for their employees, which I loved,” Richburg said. “I loved seeing the employees collaborating on projects in progress, and I immediately had a goal to be a part of that someday.”
The last couple of days were spent in firms talking to designers. As a group they went to Knoll International, a major manufacturing corporation, then Collier divided his students into small groups and sent them to different firms to ask questions about the work.
“It's good to hear what they have to say about their jobs and their ideas,” junior Nan Poole said. “It's also great to familiarize ourselves with product lines and showrooms because we will be their clients in the years to come.”
They got honest answers to their questions, too.
“One of the design professionals who talked to us said something that upset the other students but I applauded (not literally),” Poole wrote in her journal. “He said this job is not fun! I'm so glad somebody said this. Interior design isn't all peaches and ponies, it's a lot of hard work. People think it's an easy job but it isn't. He meant it's hard work and it's exhausting, sometimes it's so intense. But he does love his job. He just wants us to have a realistic idea of how hard it really is.”
These interviews also introduced the firms to these students, who will be looking for internships and jobs in the next few years. Collier estimated about 20 percent of the students who take this class end up working in the city they visited.
“When we go to New York City and Chicago, I call our alumni, and they tour us,” he said.
Exploring San Francisco's Asian influence
They also went to the Asian Art Museum, which had three special exhibits. One, called “The Art of Seduction,” is an exhibit on Japanese geishas, including costume, manners, music and a display of kimonos. The students also viewed modern Japanese ceramics and the history of the Japanese block print.
“These are the prints that heavily influenced Frank Lloyd Wright in the American arts and crafts movement,” Collier said. “It was a perfect tie-in to other trips, like Chicago, which is basically a history of Frank Lloyd Wright.”
The message hit home for Collier's students, particularly for those like sophomore Cody Williams, who plans to sign up for this class again next year. Destination: Chicago.
“I have learned to be more aware of what different cultures have to offer,” he said. “I never realized how much the Asian culture has influenced our design in America.”
For Poole, who's lived in Texas her whole life, she discovered a world she'd only experienced through books, TV shows and movies.
“I saw this class as an opportunity to be exposed to a different type of culture than I'm used to,” she said. “This was a chance for me to be exposed to as close to the real thing as I could get without leaving the United States when it comes to Asian design.”
It also helped Poole's career goals come into focus.
“It is my dream to work on residential projects because they are much more personal than commercial projects,” she said. “I may move out of Texas. I've lived here my whole life and this trip really opened my eyes to search for new opportunities and experiences in new places.”
The interior tour class
The interior tour class meets at 9 a.m. every Friday. Before the trip the students research their destination, including the city's history and public transit system, the design firms they'll go to and the influences they'll see. After the trip they apply their newfound knowledge to design projects and explore, through essays, how elements they experienced on their trip can impact the process of design. They are graded on each of these assignments, so simply going on the trip is not enough for students to pass.
Collier chose San Francisco, Chicago, New York City and Boston/Newport, Rhode Island because each city has an established design center and provides a different design experience. New York has influence of western Europe and modern America in its architecture and museums. Boston has old colonial homes while the side trip to Newport gives students the chance to see the mansions of the Vanderbilts and the Astors, the most glorious expression of America's gilded age.
Chicago, home of Frank Lloyd Wright, rounds out the series.
“Chicago is probably America's greatest architectural city,” Collier said. “It's where the American style was born – the skyscraper.”
The interior tour class is open to all interior design students, but it fills up quickly. The class has an extra fee – this year it was $1,200 – which pays for the hotel, transportation in the city, several meals and entrance into the exhibits they attend as a group. Students are responsible for their airfare.
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