REVIEW: Educating the Interior Designer conference in Ghent, September 8, 2023

By DOCOMOMO Belgium / October, 9, 2023 / 0 comments

Review by Benoît Vandevoort, Els De Vos , Fredie Floré, Sam Vanhee
Source: Society of Architectural Historians – SAH Historic Interiors Affiliate Group

On September 8, 2023, the conference ‘Educating the interior designer’ took place in an unusually warm and sunny Ghent, Belgium. It gathered scholars interested in the history of educational practices specific to interior design, convinced of their valuable contribution in situating the professionalization of the design discipline throughout the twentieth century. Participants reflected on how educational institutes have influenced the emergence and evolution of professional interior design in their respective countries. To do so, they looked at the role played by individual and eminent teachers, the evolution and organization of specialized programs within local educational policy, and the formalization and dissemination of specialized knowledge and skill, both within and beyond the classroom. The conference was organized in the framework of a four-year research project that espouses the educational history of interior design as a seminal research lens to understand its shifting and elusive professional identity. This project is funded by the Research Foundation Flanders, is supervised by Els De Vos (University of Antwerp) and Fredie Floré (KU Leuven), and employs two PhD students, Sam Vanhee and Benoît Vandevoort, collectively constituting the organizational committee.

Panel discussion of the first afternoon session. Photographed by Benoît Vandevoort on September 8, 2023.

Appropriately, the conference took place within the walls of the former Ghent Saint Luke school, showing how pedagogical practices of architects, artisans and interior designers were heavily influenced by the political ambitions held by their training schools. Founded in the late nineteenth century as part of the neo-Gothic movement in Belgium, the Saint Luke schools were rooted in the reception of Puginian Gothic Revival style on the continent. As a means of reinstating Christian values most purely embodied in medieval architecture, they reintroduced the style, requiring a scholarly and archaeological study of Gothic elements. Lunch and coffee were served in its wood-paneled library, and the reception took place in the carefully curated sculpture garden in the inner courtyard of the school; pedagogical instruments that made the ideological agenda of the school palpable throughout the day.

The conference program consisted of three paper sessions, as well as a keynote address. The morning session drew attention to the emergence of interior design as a discipline and looked at the different contexts in which the design practice popularized and institutionalized. While the increasing awareness of interior design as a separate practice was rooted in education, it was equally catalyzed by popular media, political convenience, economic prosperity, and specific understandings of neighboring, but dissimilar, disciplines. Carlos Bártolo (Lusíada University) showed that, although specialized design programs in Portugal were only founded in the 1960s, the acknowledgment of interior design as a standalone practice was thanks to the “bunch of lads” that materialized the political ambitions of the Estado Novo in the 1930s and ‘40s. Collectively, they outfitted conservative domestic ideals with a modern image, and testified to a growing need for specialized service. These decorators, architects, and artisans can be seen as the predecessors for a second generation of full-fledged interior designers. Similarly, Catriona Quinn (University of New South Wales) revisited the interior design programs at Australian technical colleges long before university diplomas were issued in the 1980s. She attributed the historical omittance of interior designers to a “technical difficulty”, as their programs remained associated with trade-based education, unlike the academic prestige granted to architecture and architects. To discuss these programs, she explored, for example, the significance of color theory courses as taught by educator Phyllis Shillito and embedded the programs within the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. Benoît Vandevoort (KU Leuven) jumped ahead in time, taking us to 1990s Flanders, Belgium. He demonstrated how the internal split in specialized educational programs—differentiating the interior designer from the interior architect from 1993 onwards—coincided with a gradual construction of a so-called ‘architecture culture’ in the region. Focusing on the intersection between professionalism and architecture, he discussed the mechanisms accountable for the absence of interior specialists within this specific form of architectural discourse. Ending the session, Michela Bassanelli and Jacopo Leveratto (Politecnico di Milano) similarly engaged with this disciplinary difference, arguing that interior architecture in Italy can’t possibly be dissociated from architectural thinking. To do so, they invoked two generations of architects: a first one of so-called ‘interior masters’ (represented by Gio Ponti and Carlo Scarpa e.g.) presenting themselves as ‘all-round architects’; a second one (with Filippo Alison e.g.) consolidating the discipline’s position in training schools, not as autonomous programs, but as an integral part of architecture practice. Finally, they reflected upon the specific potential of interior architecture to tackle problems faced by the architecture discipline today.

After the coffee break, keynote speaker John Potvin (Concordia University) reflected on the gendered nature of interior design practice. By provocatively confronting the audience with four quotes, he showed how discussions of interior design as a profession are pervaded by gendered assignations. These are not only rejected by their own professionals, but are also mobilized by outsiders as a means to attack an entire professional community. As shame constitutes a foundational part of the profession, Potvin argued for claiming back the effeminate aspects of the discipline. At the same time, he observed how ignoring queer theory within the study of interior design has complicated any adequate discussion of its history. What followed, among others, was a witty and topical analysis of 1920s visualizations of young male decorators; a discussion of how the imagery of interiors played a part in the sentencing of Oscar Wilde—essentially criminalizing decoration—and an exploration of how dimensions of camp as a self-articulate act can contribute to interior design’s reclaiming of its most feminine aspects.

The first afternoon session concentrated more closely on the history of specific schools that have offered a program in interior design. Collectively, they departed from the assumption that both the position and evolution of specialized programs are representative for the changing professional conditions of the discipline. First off, Olivier VallerandVirginie LaSalleand Jean Therrien (Université de Montréal) brought us to Montreal, where the in-betweenness and ambiguous qualities of interior design can be ascribed to its programmatic move from an architecture school to one of industrial design. Their historical account brought yet another layer, as Montreal’s bilingual nature complicated the legal and cultural status of the discipline, and professional jurisdiction is highly dependent on the language used. Mary Anne Beecher (The Ohio State University) also expounded on the seemingly awkward fit between interiors and industrial design, as her university’s program originated from courses on product design that increasingly came to encompass space and enclosure design. This understanding of the ‘interior as product’ relied on knowledge of the relation between human activity and volume-defining systems, informed by the emergence of environmental design in 1970s America. Next up, Sam Vanhee (University of Antwerp) zoomed in on the interplay between two Belgian schools: the Brussels La Cambre institute and the much lesser-known Royal Academy in Mons. Though each indebted to very different educational traditions, the Mons program in interior design was largely based upon the Brussels model, itself rooted in modernist Bauhaus tradition. An in-depth analysis of this institutional relationship sheds light on the specific case of the interior design program at the Mons Academy. To conclude the session, Lucinda Kaukas Havenhand (University of North Carolina Greensboro) took a closer look at the words used to justify, legitimize, promote, and transform the program of interior design at UNCG. Drawing from her influential 2004 Design Issues article “A View from the Margin”, she reread program descriptions to situate their efforts at emancipation, as well as their signs of professional embarrassment. Ultimately, she questioned the impact of these descriptions, observing a curriculum that hardly changes and detecting an increased confusion in prospective students’ understanding of the program.

The final and shorter afternoon session focused on two individuals that were active within a broad understanding of interior design practices. These papers went beyond an analysis of the work of their protagonists to reflect on their specific contribution to the emerging discipline of interior design. Gioconda Cafiero (University of Naples “Federico II”) discussed the teaching practices of Filippo Alison. She focused especially on his research into re-editions, which coincided with the critical rejection of modernism’s ahistoricism in Italy. Invoking the undeniable interplay of Alison’s teaching, research, and collaboration with industry, Alison’s furniture design could be considered as part of an encompassing, spatial practice, which largely transcends the scholarly attention previously dedicated to his “I Maestri” Cassina collection. To conclude the day, Deniz Hasirci (Izmir University of Economics), Melis Örnekoğlu-Selçuk (Ghent University), Zeynep Tuna Ultav (Yaşar University) and Deniz Avci Hosanli (Izmir University of Economics) turned their gaze to Nilgun Çarkacı. Departing from interviews with Çarkacı and her collaborators, they showed how her educational practices are widely entangled with her contributions to interior design’s professionalization and institutionalization in Turkey, and therefore closely related to her promotional efforts in professional bodies.

Together, the papers presented at the ‘Educating the Interior Designer’ conference underlined the importance of studying the history of educational practices in order to advance our understanding of the professional field of interior design. They provided an overview of different methodologies and theoretical frameworks that can be addressed for developing such histories, taking into account the sometimes limited source material. While, individually, all paper contributions focused on context-specific cases, collectively, they offered a rich basis for transnational comparison and exchange – something the conference organizers aspired to stimulate.

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