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International Interior Design Association

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Design Rebels

By Tegan Jones

Dorris Hardoon Woodward tells stories for a living. Without using words, she constructs her tales out of carpeting, wall coverings, furniture and fixtures. As an interior designer who works outside the typical industries of corporate, healthcare or retail, she believes the message is in the medium. And every space has something to say. 

“Woodward and her husband are co-owners of Taft Design + Associates, a Manchester Village, Vt.-based full-service interior design firm that offers a range of graphic design, creative writing, master planning and other services. The firm executes Woodward’s philosophy of storytelling through design in its theme park, exhibition, entertainment and educational projects. With a client roster that includes Aladdin’s Kingdom theme park in Doha, Qatar; Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla.; and the Moundville Archaeological Park and Museum just south of Tuscaloosa, Ala., the firm creates interiors that are both functional and fun.

“While Woodward’s projects are truly unique, her career path is gaining in popularity. Increasing numbers of interior designers are branching out beyond the typical spaces that have long been the profession’s bread and butter. These “rebel” interior designers may focus their niche services on the design of airplanes and yachts, set design or even philanthropic work. The list goes on.

“Perhaps fueling this growth is the rising number of interior designers venturing out on their own. In 2006, more than half of U.S. interior designers were either self-employed or worked in specialized design services, as opposed to traditional architectural or interior design firms. Whatever the motivation, these interior designers are looking for professional paths to sharpen their skills and spark their creativity — and they’re finding opportunities in uncharted territory.

An Intergrated Approach

Getting There

Woodward first developed her professional philosophy of collaboration and integration at the California College of Arts in Oakland, and next at her first post-college job as Director of Design at Marine World, an amusement park in Vallejo, Calif. There, she implemented these ideas using a multi-disciplinary approach that drew on all of the design-related knowledge she had learned in school. At Marine World, she worked on everything from retail spaces to stage areas — and learned about the practical application of interior design principles along the way.

From there, she moved to a position with Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, Calif., where she designed the interiors of pavilions, theaters and cruise ships. Woodward says she was fortunate to have the opportunity to stretch her creativity and test her integrated interior design techniques with companies that were receptive to out-of-the-box thinking.

But beyond being in the right place at the right time, Woodward believes she obtained these positions because she had a strong understanding of what she wanted to do: take an innovative, integrated approach to Interior Design and design in general. She suggests those looking to follow a similar path seek opportunities that integrate a wide range of design principles.

“When looking for a company, research their willingness to support and develop their designers, and their inherent overall understanding of design disciplines and how all forms of design are interconnected within a project, no matter how large or small,” she says. “Try not to be compartmentalized in your thinking and viewpoint.”

Woodward’s Taft Design + Associates calls itself a specialty design firm, one whose services encompass a wide range of offerings but concentrates on a specific product or industry. Because Taft’s clients generally work in education or entertainment, Woodward has found that an integrated approach to Interior Design best suits her clients’ needs. At her firm, interior designers work within a multidisciplinary team to intertwine design with graphic arts, structural elements and show concepts, creating a holistic end-product that meets each client’s specific goals. “I believe Interior Design, exhibition design and graphics all go hand in hand,” she says.

This philosophy contrasts a more traditional approach that pragmatically defines Interior Design by clearly detaching it from architecture or graphic design, she says. At Taft, the interior and physical structure of a space are developed in tandem. And both concepts revolve around what the client is trying to say.

“How we begin a project is all based on storytelling,” Woodward says. “Whenever we work with a client, we really do begin with the message they want to convey.”

For example, for a recent project designing the Moundville Archaeological Park and Museum, the team was challenged with subtly engaging visitors in the history of Mississippian culture throughout the space. Additionally, interior elements had to adhere to a specific set of storylines and cultural and historical specifications, while creating a mood appropriate for each gallery in the museum. Working with the museum’s archaeologist and curator to ensure that lighting and casing requirements for sensitive artifacts were met, the design team used a combination of show-oriented special effects, unique floor finishes and creative wall coverings.

Part of what will keep guests interested and entertained is the way the educational content merges with the show design, Woodward says. “When you experience [the museum], you will be curious to know how the two elements of Interior Design and exhibition design blend together,” she says. “Because, as a visitor, you will engage with the environment as a whole.”

Working Overtime

Even for veteran interior designers, volunteer projects can provide opportunities to learn new skills. As Head of Philanthropy for the Northern California Chapter of IIDA, Susie Jue, IIDA, seeks out not-for-profit initiatives that allow her to employ her design abilities in other types of applications, improve problem-solving skills and connect with other interior design professionals in the area.

In this role, Jue, who is also Manager of Office Planning and Design for grocery retailer Safeway in Pleasanton, Calif., is currently co-chairing a project to redesign the Multi-Service Center South, a homeless shelter owned by the city of San Francisco and operated by the St. Vincent de Paul Society. The center provides support services to roughly 400 people each day. But while the building offers adequate food and shelter to those in need, its institutional-looking interior did little to create a comforting, home-like atmosphere, Jue says.

This spring, a team of more than 40 Chapter Members eagerly took to the task of brainstorming design solutions for the shelter’s lobby, dining room and sleeping areas. But the team soon hit a major financial roadblock.

“Basically, the city of San Francisco said, ‘We have no money in the city budget for any kind of renovation,’” Jue says.

The Chapter was tasked with raising funds and securing donations on its own. Fortunately, Jue had overcome this obstacle before and knew she could leverage connections within the community to attract the support needed to finish the job.

Along with organizing fundraisers and soliciting the support of local businesses to earn enough money to buy supplies, she also collaborated with local contractors to get materials and labor donated. While many companies prefer to sell materials to charitable organizations at the wholesale prices they pay, Jue and her team have partnered with several local suppliers who have agreed to donate their labor and some of the required materials — and successfully raised more than $30,000.

“We’re starting off with the reception area, because that’s where the main impact would be when you walk in,” she says. “Once we finish there, we’ll move to the dining room and keep going until our money and donations run out.”

Many of the nonprofit projects on which Jue has worked, however, have had at least a small budget. For example, with the help of donations and organizational funding, Jue was able to focus on the specialized needs of the San Rafael, Calif., Guide Dogs for the Blind facility when she and the Northern California Chapter helped update their dormitories several years ago.

Because the primary users of this space are blind, Jue and her team had to think about Interior Design in an entirely new way. “When we think of design, we think of visuals,” she says. “But blind people rely on touch and smell. You don’t even think of those kinds of things when you’re designing a typical facility.”

To create a more pleasant tactile experience for the residents, the team selected vinyl wall covering for the halls. They believed individuals feeling their way around the building would appreciate the texture — and staff would have an easier time cleaning fingerprints, as well. The presence of dogs also created several material-related challenges. The draperies had to be animal-hair resistant, so the team tested fabric samples by rubbing them on the dogs to see which ones would work best.

Reap the Rewards

Beyond giving her the chance to do interesting and engaging work, nonprofit projects have provided Jue with the networking opportunities and unique skill sets needed to boost her career. Through meaningful relationships built during these types of projects, she often connects with the best people to help her in her corporate role.

“As far as my career goes, all the partnerships, alliances and friendships that I’ve made through my involvement with IIDA and working with other designers on these projects can only help me get things done at Safeway,” she says.

But the benefits of her work go far beyond the bottom line. “Although I don’t know any of the people that are staying at the St. Vincent de Paul center, I know I’m helping somebody,” she says. “That makes it very rewarding.”

Thinking Inside the Box

During the first 16 years of her career as an interior designer, Lily Davies worked primarily on hospitality, commercial and institutional projects. She designed the interiors of restaurants, hotels, government facilities, performing arts centers, and convention and exhibition spaces — large, sometimes grandiose spaces meant to house thousands of people.

But in 1999, Davies, now Senior Interior Designer with industrial design firm Teague in Seattle, began working within the confines of an airplane’s cabin and had to abandon broad statements to focus on the tiniest details. Working in the aviation industry, where customers routinely spend several hours within inches of wall coverings and seat fabrics, requires thinking on a much smaller scale, she has found.

“One of the things we thought about when Teague was designing the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in 2003 was, ‘What is it that the passenger experiences as they’re sitting in this space? What are they looking at?’” she says. “They’re looking at the ceiling and the sidewalls. They’re touching the surfaces around them.”

When designing airliner interiors, Davies and her team focus on selecting fabrics that are both comforting and familiar to the touch in order to enhance both the tactile and overall travel experience for passengers. Materials used must meet Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, but Davies can still custom design the textiles she specifies, giving her more control over fabric look and feel.

Another difference between working in the airline industry versus designing for typical commercial or hospitality clients is the involvement of the interior designer in the process. When dealing with architects on commercial projects, for example, Davies would actively be involved with the project until completion. But in engineering projects, specifically for clients in the airline industry, the interior design work is finished before implementation even begins.

“Building an aircraft is really more of a manufacturing process of a product,” she says. “It’s different from commercial design in that we don’t go through the project administration phase. That’s up to the engineers at that point in time, and the people that build the airplane.”

While Davies’ path to aviation design was more serendipitous than intentional, the challenges and opportunities at Teague constantly fuel her interest in Interior Design. For those still looking for their own unique paths, her advice is simple: Follow your heart.

“Just follow your passion and love what you do,” she says. “That will translate into inspired design.”