Embracing Science

They were once bankers, teachers, and social scientists. One of them was a doctor. Now they’re all grad students in their late twenties and early thirties, studying for their master’s at the New York School of Interior Design’s newly opened graduate outpost on Park Avenue South. I sat in one of the attractive, minimalist meeting spaces with Chris Cyphers, the school’s dynamic president, who is brimming with the optimism of someone with a clear vision: interior design in the 21st century is grounded in social and environmental consciousness. This vision is apparently what led 220 prospective students to apply for the new program’s 32 seats.

There were teachable moments all around us. Daylighting and how it helps shape a space and determines material, color, and texture choices; the constant and transparent monitoring of everything from air quality to energy use—these are among the many things the space teaches its occupants. There were no telltale odors of that familiar (and, we now know, unhealthy) new-building chemistry here. The interior was as fresh as Park Avenue can be on a clear, crisp, blue-sky day. In addition to the design (by Gensler), the president is proud of the state-of-the-art computing, design, and model-making technology.

While all this has come to define an excellent design education, I kept thinking about another resource here: the students themselves. I also imagined the richness of the conversations—and the design solutions they will come up with—when the doctor brings up issues of health, the social scientist introduces new findings on human behavior, and the banker analyzes the bottom line while safeguarding the well-being of people and environment. Then I imagined even greater possibilities.

What if every designer had a deep understanding of science or at least knew what to ask of a biologist, a sociologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, a material scientist, and a banker? After all, each of these experts holds part of the intricate knowledge system that defines humanity. What if we combined a designer’s razor-sharp intuition and creativity with the scientist’s rational and analytical approach? Charles and Ray Eames clearly envisioned this connection in their classic 1968 film Powers of Ten. Are we finally ready to become our design heroes’ true heirs?

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