A springtime Thursday afternoon finds two state administrators in the Montgomery Student Center, where converse interior design students lead them through a series of sophisticated plans for the lobby of a Spartanburg facility. The administrators ask questions of the students as they navigate large, colorful, computer-printed designs pinned to a wall of the Piedmont Natural Gas Conference Room. The next two three-member teams in Converse’s accredited Interior Design program then show off their proposals, capping two months of intensive, interactive work for the Spartanburg Area Mental Health Center (SAMHC). It’s as real as it gets.
After the lively two-hour presentation, SAMHC Executive Director Roger Williams and Center Administrator Jeff Greene told Converse Assistant Professor of Art Meirav Goldhour that they would be taking the students’ plans to state architects in Columbia. The hands-on project came about thanks to serendipitous networking at a dinner party last year when Williams met Goldhour. The two began discussing the Dewey Street facility’s ungainly 20-year-old lobby.
The 5,000-square-foot entrance to the 50,000-square-foot outpatient center is supposed to help make people feel better, but, as Williams says, “It’s not welcoming, it’s not inviting.” Enter Converse. Culminating work that also included multitudinous emails and consultations with SAMHC, students talked Williams and Greene through designs for improved “wayfinding” and “biophilia”—terms about how people move in a space and about incorporating natural elements, respectively.
“We strive to improve quality of life,” says Ruth Beals, Owings Associate Professor of Interior Design, under whose leadership the program first earned its coveted credential from the Council for Interior Design Accreditation. Established in 1970 and billed as the only accrediting body focused on interior design, the Michigan-based agency calls its approval of more than 180 undergraduate and graduate programs worldwide “one of the most influential factors in curriculum development and student recruitment.” After teaching 11 years at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, Beals was hired in part to bring Converse’s 30-plus-year-old program up to those national standards. “Converse had an excellent record of job placement, of good work, but they were lacking some digital presentation and design theory,” she says. “They were doing great work, but it just lacked theoretical premise—students did the work, but they didn’t know why they did it.”
“It’s been amazing just teaching the students how to look at things really hands-on, having the opportunity to meet with real clients.” – Meirav Goldhour
Goldhour, who joined the five-member department in August, expounds on that: “We are in academia. We can’t just decide something’s visually appealing. We have to know why it’s visually appealing—what research has been done that a blue color is considered calming and soothing, for instance.” In a tour of the interior design studios on the upper floor of the Mil-liken Arts Building, you’ll see such beguiling conjectural projects as a Japanese bathhouse, ice-skating rink, prison, and health center for air-traffic controllers. Each room looks, feels, and operates like a professional design studio, with state-of-the-art printing and computing equipment, high-end trade magazines that industry has donated, and desks that each student takes as her own.
After immersive courses in theory, with hypothetical designs based on analysis, deep research, and collaboration, students in the 74-credit-hour Bachelor of Fine Arts program roll up their real-world sleeves. This last year alone has yielded three community projects, including the Spartanburg Area Conservancy’s plan to turn its farm and barn into a food cooperative with retail and teaching spaces.
The SPACE project was more blue-sky than the actual blueprint—unlike the mental health center, which is one of 16 such sites in the state and whose 145 staff serve some 6,000 patients annually. In the last three years, Converse’s program has seen 100 percent placement after graduation, with 50 percent typically working part-time in the field during their senior year, Beals says. One of them, Brianna Putnam ’19, is among several Converse interns at Milliken & Co. and has earned a full-time job there. Back at Montgomery, after the presentations, Williams tells Goldhour, “It’s so funny, you keep telling us, ‘Thank you for giving us the opportunity,’ and we’re like, ‘We’re not doing anything, you’re doing all the work, we thank you.’ We’re committed to this, it’s not just an academic exercise.”
Originally published in The Converse Magazine.