I printed off a chapter from the ‘Interior Design as Environmental Design’ which was titled The Parsons Program in the 1960’s, then carried out a close reading of the context. I highlighted words I wasn’t familiar with and researched their meaning to help me further understand the context it was written. I then read it again and highlighted sentences that I was a little more intrigued with.
To give you some back story, The Parsons School of Design was founded in 1896, a private art and design college based in Greenwich Village, New York City. It was known for an education in a very specific version of good taste, with a mixed style of New York and French luxury, the curriculum remained largely unchanged until the mid-1950’s where the board of trustees decided that the school was out of touch with the reality of design in post war America. This decision then led to changes to the curriculum, to align it more closely with the social and economic concerns happening at that time. Low budget housing, Industrial Design and a Design in Commerce were introduced in an area of study, but the most significant change came about when James Howell and Allen Tate introduced environmental design, they did this by way of exhibiting their work in their studio space, which was converted loft in NYC. It was called A Place to Live and focussed on slum housing and included a reconstruction of a run down building, complete with ‘a naked tenement toilet’. The show did not create as much controversy as was first thought, many students didn’t agree that the changes were for the better, they were specifically studying at Parsons for their particular style and look and preferred that.
The Parsons School of Design seemed to be confined to one area of design, a very specific version of luxury, for nearly two centuries, seemingly because of the limited number of people involved, creating a very small and elite scene aimed at the wealthy aristocrats. Postwar America was changing, designers felt they needed to build up the American economy through architecture and urban design. Thank goodness for people like James Howell and Allen Tate, who brought together the idea of design based on physical wellbeing and social relations. Design then concentrated on the design process, creating human environments and building on a community of design professionals who worked together to create a better world to live in, looking at the science behind human behaviour rather than taste in decor, in turn creating equality and helping the economically disadvantaged. So many different people were working together to collectively change the curriculum so that lots of different areas were being taught, this way as a designer you can choose to specialise in one area or a few areas. This had a knock on effect with scientists, psychologists, sociologists, historians, that the core belief was now that spatial design has a direct impact on social behaviour. As with other Architecture firms during this time, design studios concentrated on socially worthy programs such as prisons, youth centres and low-cost housing, where students were encouraged to focus on the objective science of psychology, i.e. the manipulation of light and colour showing the changes in peoples behaviour. At this point, the programme of period style within the Parsons school was abandoned, it was so obviously not important to study. Eventually, in 1970, the Parsons programme was renamed the Department of Environmental Design.
The move from an elite studying of history of homes to designing spaces based on human wellbeing and social relations, reminds me very much of the Bauhaus movement, where Walter Gropius combined the Weimar Academy of Arts and the Weimar School of Arts and Crafts, to train students equally in art, architecture and applied arts. Our world is ever evolving and we, as designers, have the opportunity to create and evolve with it or stand still and stay stagnant, this will help nobody.
Fig. 2 – A naked tenement toilet from ‘A Place to Live’ Exhibition [Walker, T (2021) redesigned image taken from the original image Interior_Design_As_Environmental_Design.pdf [Photoshop] in possession of: the author: Stoford (accessed 24.7.21)