A design student looks through materials samples available in the Materials Lab, on the lower level of Vol Walker Hall.

Tara Ferkel

A design student looks through materials samples available in the Materials Lab, on the lower level of Vol Walker Hall.

A grant from the Angelo Donghia Foundation will transform the Materials Lab of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design from a traditional materials library into a teaching, making and research workshop.

The $46,700 grant is the latest in a series of awards to the Department of Interior Architecture and Design from the Donghia Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes design education. In total, the school has received more than $215,000 in grants and student scholarships over the past seven years.

“The sustained support our students and faculty have received from the Donghia Foundation is remarkable,” said Carl Matthews, professor and head of the Department of Interior Architecture and Design. “It speaks to the high quality and nationally competitive nature of the work we are doing in the department.”

Between 2015 and 2019, four interior design students in the school were each recognized with a $30,000 Senior Student Scholarship Award, which is the largest, most prestigious award within interior design education. In 2021, the foundation awarded the school a $49,000 grant to explore the potential benefits of using virtual reality technology in design education.

The Donghia Foundation Inc. was established by the late Angelo Donghia, an internationally recognized interior design icon and source of inspiration to the design world. Among the foundation’s purposes is the advancement of education in the field of interior design.

This latest grant will allow the principal investigators, Jennifer Webb, Kim Furlong and Lynn Fitzpatrick, to purchase weaving looms, a printmaking press, a color testing booth and artificial lighting stations, as well as expand access to digital material databases for all interior architecture and design studios.

The program will also incorporate virtual reality (VR) technology purchased through the previous Donghia Foundation grant. Materials will be uploaded into the VR program, allowing students to experience their designs. This merging of the traditional method of creating materials with VR is an exciting opportunity for the professors.

Fitzpatrick, a teaching assistant professor, said this method will help overcome the disjunction between physical materials and how they are portrayed digitally.

“We are hoping to get students more interested in the actual making of materials,” she said. “Getting them to think more about specifying their own materials as opposed to going and getting just everything off the shelf.”

As students gain confidence with the materials, they will be more involved in the process, and less in just picking materials. While interior designers typically select materials from what is available, Furlong, an associate professor, said this process will help students gain a better understanding of what is possible. The hands-on approach will also increase customization and encourage opting for sustainable and regenerative materials.

The professors said they have already seen the impact a hands-on approach has on student projects. Fitzpatrick said that students in second-year studios will specify what materials they want and make them themselves when not available. This creative ability will set students’ work apart from others and allow them to bring something different to the professional world.

Students who develop this knowledge and skill base early in their education adapt more organically to this method of learning in their advanced-level courses, said Webb, assistant dean of graduate studies and an associate professor. She said these practices can start to inform not only the design process within studios, but can also influence the entire curriculum.

“Where you’re really creating from the inspiration, from the concept, then your work is going to be different from everybody else’s work,” Webb said. “That’s a good thing for your portfolio and in your practice, a way to fulfill their individual design intentions.”

“Mastering materials really empowers the students to be independent designers,” Furlong added.

An issue the professors have noticed with students coming out of the pandemic is a struggle with some creative elements required in the interior design field. Fitzpatrick said students lack experience, which leads to a lack of confidence. As educators, she said, they are introducing specific methods of creating into studios, helping students to realize their abilities.

“If you limit the number of variables, whether you’re working with color and pattern, or whether you’re working with weaving a fabric, you don’t have that much to contend with, and you can still make beautiful things. It gives them that boost of confidence,” Fitzpatrick said.

During the pandemic, students were absent from the classroom and missed practicing the hands-on learning approach. The new Materials Lab will bridge that two-year gap, bringing students back into the process and re-energizing their creative process, they said. While VR technology has been beneficial in this process, Furlong said it has also helped students see the importance of old-school, hands-on methods.

“Just to have a have a tool or a device that can go as fast as your mind can go, and sketching is usually it. The students are familiar with that,” Furlong said. “The hope is that this will empower them. This will offer more opportunities for the students to learn about materials specifically.”

But rather than completely shifting students to traditional making methods, this grant allows the program to unite those methods with modern VR technology. Fitzpatrick said this offers students a unique experience.

“One of the things that’s most exciting about this grant opportunity is that we get to work from both ends, from the very hands-on to the sort of newer high-tech,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think that clients as well as firms appreciate both.”

Initially, the grant will be used toward the weaving portion of the Materials Lab, which recently relocated to a larger space in Vol Walker Hall. One loom has been purchased already, and there are plans to acquire 14 more. The new looms will have a permanent home in the Materials Lab, where students can use them as needed.

The program will also focus more on lighting and its effects on materials. Students already take a lighting design course, but this new focus will help them bridge the gap between it and their materials course. Furlong said looking at different types of lighting and fixtures will give students a better understanding of materials.

“They’re looking not only at daylighting effects on materials, but actual artificial light effects on materials, which often falls into the interior designer’s realm,” Furlong said.

Within the design community, materials are sometimes considered aesthetically, as part of the décor. Webb said students have lost the role that materials play in the architecture and design field — as design elements that possess properties of mass and form.

“The students felt like materials were decorating, and they didn’t feel like décor was respected in the school. But now I think we have the opportunity to really talk about materials as an inherent part of space making,” Webb said.  

By elevating what interior architects and interior designers do, students across disciplines will begin to have an appreciation of materials and the role they play in the overall design process. Additionally, increasing the hands-on approach of the Materials Lab will help students develop a more well-rounded set of skills to do what other designers may not be able to do or are hesitant to do. Although the curriculum focuses primarily on smaller scale materials, Fitzpatrick said she believes the skills learned will set interior architecture and design students apart.

“Everything has a material, everything has a color, everything has a scale. What they’re learning might be smaller in scale, but things can be scaled up because we’re surrounded by materials. It’s something we all share between our three disciplines,” Fitzpatrick said. “It elevates the Materials Lab and turns it into something that is less passive and more active.”

The improvements to the Materials Lab will elevate it to the status of other labs and shops in the school. The professors say they are excited to see the former materials library move from a “closet of materials” to a true learning laboratory where students can explore materials.

Webb, Furlong and Fitzpatrick plan to incorporate the equipment into Spring 2023 studios and host an exhibition featuring student-made work in the Fall 2023 semester. 


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