A Studio Foundation for an Evolving Discipline

Presented by: Kimberley Furlong and Marie Gentry, PhD.

The interior design discipline is becoming more collaborative, faster paced, more diverse, less clearly defined. Lines between allied disciplines are blurring. If interior designers are to grow in relevance, lead innovation, and evolve in response to societal and technological changes, academic programs must provide a broad foundation that encompasses the human experience and empowers future designers with diverse design thinking skills, design agility, and confidence (Heinz, 2012; Preston, 2012).

While graduates must be highly skilled in interiors-specific subjects, they must also be capable of crossing conventional disciplinary boundaries. 

"With massive advances in technology and shifts in cultural, social, political, and economic conditions, the twenty-first-century designer requires a far more integrated and diversified knowledge than ever before.  For a designer who shapes the built environment for people, it is important to have a broad overview of all design-related and general global impacts.  But it is also very important to cultivate a depth of expertise which can be put to specialist use." (Caan, 2011)

First year studio is the opportune time to lay the groundwork and breakdown preconceptions of the discipline. 

To support a strong design foundation and “…develop his [the student’s] understanding and his recognition of the abstract elements of any design situation” (Kostellow as cited in Hannah), three goals were identified: build a common design language, focus on relationships of spatial elements, and promote accountability. Three discrete, progressive teaching units included: Precedent, Light, and Body/Inhabitation. Each consisted of 5 assignments comprised of research, exploration, concept development, drawings, models, photos, and written analyses. Underlying themes (form, scale/proportion, compositional systems, transition, structure, assembly/making, light, inhabitation) associated with spatial qualities were considered (Ching, 2007). Weekly seminars required students to present precedent research that reinforced themes and foundational concepts.  

Strategies to encourage confidence, rigor, and accountability included evaluations that assessed product and process equally on three criteria: Integrity and Pursuit of Process, Grasp and Understanding, and Resolution and Product.  Evaluation of work was communicated at six and ten weeks through individual progress meetings. Daily pin-ups with peer reviews encouraged accountability and increased self-confidence.  

The most successful students were open to diverse ways of problem-solving, including experimentation with multiple solutions. For those eager to learn, a progression of foundational and skill development was evident, regardless of initial skill levels. See project examples in Appendix A.   For students accustomed to explicit recipe-driven instruction and detailed grading rubrics, this studio approach was challenging. 

The methods outlined may serve as an instructional model for first year studios. Regularity of weekly assignments, independent exploration, experiential learning, resistance to interiors-specific content, and less frequent assessments emphasized process over product.  Requiring a broad foundation in design fundamentals may prepare future designers to be confident and elastic.  

"It is these high performers that are easily adaptable, have broad skills, are technologically adept, innovative and are self starters. They are mentally nimble and are able to take their skills and easily apply them to new situations. These individuals are the ones all companies want." (Heinz, 2012)


  • Caan, S.  (2011). Rethinking design and interiors: Human beings in the built environment, 1st edition.  Laurence King Publishing.
  • Ching, F. (2007). Form, space, and order, 3rd edition.  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Hannah, G. G. (2002.) Elements of design: Rowena Reed Kostellow and the structure of visual relationships. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.  Retrieved from: http://www.rowenafund.org/publications/rrk_publications_about.html
  • Heinz, J.S. (2012, March 19). Future of the interior design profession (Keynote address). Baltimore, MD:   Interior Design Educators Conference.  Retrieved from:  http://www.officeinsight.com/1588
  • Preston, J. (2012). A fossick for interior design pedagogies. After taste: Expanded practice in interior design. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Appendix File 1
Appendix File 2
Appendix File 3
Appendix File 4
Appendix File 5

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