The Kids’ ConneXion

Once upon a time, finding a carpet or upholstery sample in the materials library at Parsons School of Design wasn’t a task for the feeble-hearted student of interiors. Fabrics, wood finishes, and product catalogs had a room of their own, but it was small and cluttered with donated samples long out of production. “It was a dump,” admits Shashi Caan, director of the interior-design program. The new Angelo Donghia Materials Library and Study Center is no dump. Open since February, the center gives samples, swatches, and strike-offs a large, luxe home.

The project got its start during the 2001 Parsons/Starwood Design Competition (see “The CEO and the Students,” April 2002), an annual contest that invites undergraduate seniors to design a space in a Starwood hotel. The seven-person jury “saw Parsons as having a real world-class program in interior design—the student work was new, innovative, and compelling,” dean H. Randolph Swearer says. “But then they looked around.” He says a consensus developed that the facility wasn’t on par with student output.

After the competition, word got out to the Angelo Donghia Foundation. Funded by the estate of the late Parsons alumnus and dedicated to improving interior-design education, the foundation began discussing potential charitable contributions. In early 2002 Parsons received $500,000 to help establish the new materials library.

Designed by architecture firm Christoff:Finio, the study center is a glass-enclosed room inserted into the third floor of the school—a kind of Modernist island in a sea of lockers and drafting boards. In addition to the materials library, it includes a classroom and gallery to seduce students to explore. Meanwhile, the construction project reconfigured the school’s lighting- and interior-design departments so that their work spaces are now conjoined. “It lends more to the culture of the studio—the cross-fertilization between students, which is part of a larger group inquiry in that whole program,” architect Martin Finio says.

To augment the new digs the Donghia Foundation has funded a five-year materials curator position to pursue and document new products. The new curator, Emily Stevenson, says she’ll follow her senses and choose materials less familiar to interior designers. “If I see a pure, raw chunk of something, it just gets my imagination going,” she says. Building on a pledge to stock cutting-edge and mutant materials, Swearer hopes to open materials libraries in Parsons’s other departments during the next five years; the school may also create a fabrication facility so that materials dreams can become material reality more easily.

The school is even contemplating opening the libraries to postgrad design professionals. Where play-for-pay libraries such as Material ConneXion offer a glimpse of untested experimental products that may not yet be available, the Donghia Center would benefit small firms that need proven materials for immediate use. “Material ConneXion is a great resource for inspiration,” Caan says. “But the reality is that you don’t have the time to do the in-depth research to follow the products you find there.” The school’s materials “aren’t so far out that you don’t know what to do with them,” she adds. “All this stuff gives the latitude to conceptualize and search—and it’s available now.”

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