By Ryan Van Cleave
The Interior Design (ID) major started at Ringling College of Art and Design in the 1930s, and, for decades, it was a robust piece of the College’s suite of academic programs. It is easy to see why – students who study interior design here do far more than just beautify interior residential spaces. They design the experiences inside hospitals and hotels as well as in offices, schools, and restaurants. They learn the essential components of sustainable design and work with innovative building materials and methods. They discover how to take designs to the next level in both real and virtual contexts through state-of-the-art technology.
In short, through texture, form, light, and color, Ringling College Interior Design students transform empty spaces through design to make them come alive.
Originally, this field of study at Ringling College began as Interior Decoration (1934-1948), and later became Interior Design (ID). ID was first accredited in 1986 under Foundation for Interior Design Education Research (FIDER), now the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA), and has remained fully accredited since then. Times have changed and Ringling College is always evolving to meet the demand of incoming students and the creative economy. The Interior Design program will always be an important part of our history.
The commitment to excellence from the Ringling College ID major is evident in the success of its alumni. To name just a few – Sascha Wagner (’96) is president/CEO of Huntsman Architectural Group; Christopher Roy McConnell (’95) is owner and creative director of Why Not Bespoke; and Chitra Patel (’13) is a project designer for Bisley North America.
Success has been the norm for other graduates of the major as well. Ned Darr, for example, was in 1961 accepted to both Ringling – although back then it was Ringling School of Art and Design – and the Rhode Island School of Art & Design (RISD). “In the end,” he explains, “I chose Ringling because its teachings were firmly based in historical design. The 17th, 18th, and 19th-century French and English periods were stressed. The students all did watercolor renderings of rooms from various historical periods, learning the key details of each.”
Back then, the ID courses were taught by Charles Nelson Bradley, a graduate of Ringling’s own Interior Design program, which was started years earlier by Bern Bullard. Darr adds that “this education was the backbone of my career in the profession, which endured for several decades. I am forever grateful for what I learned from 1961 through 1964.”
Of course, he’s sad to see it go. “I have very fond memories of my time at Ringling. Not just from my studies, but because I found the love of my life there – Walton Luck, who was a year ahead of me in ID and graduated in ’63.” They started their own interior design business, Darr-Luck Associates, and were together as a couple for nearly 57 years.
A relatively recent alumna of the ID major is Suzanne Wright (’06), a senior interior designer and show set lead at Thinkwell Group – a global experience/entertainment design firm. “Ringling prepared me to be not just a creative person, but also a true professional,” she notes. She goes on to say that she learned “not just how to complete an assigned task, but to own your creative process and clearly communicate that to others. Ringling fosters a welcoming community to be your very best self.”
And last but not least, there’s Stefanie Voinea, a current Interior Design senior who’s also the very last ID Trustee Scholar. She says that she’s hopeful about her future and thankful for the opportunity of being able to study Interior Design at Ringling. “I can’t imagine not being here for these last few years, and it’s truly been an honor to be part of the last class.”
Voinea almost deferred college for a year, which would’ve meant missing the window to be part of this final ID class. “Knowing how much I fell in love with this major, and that I enrolled at the perfect time and stuck through,” she says, “it’s just such a privilege and honor. I also feel it sets a standard – to give our best in everything we do in school and in our careers, because we were able to get this degree at such an amazing school.”
Talk to any graduate of the ID major, and the story’s the same – Ringling’s ID major changed lives and made careers. Not bad for a major that began ninety years ago with a single course in decorating.
The sole remaining ID faculty member, Seongwoo Nam, has been with Ringling College since 2000. Like many at the College, he has mixed feelings about ending the major. “I’ve worked here 21 years, and it’s like my baby,” he admits. “At one time or another, I taught everything for this major and I’m proud of all we’ve done. But the end of Interior Design is absolutely the right move for Ringling College. It’s time to move ahead and challenge ourselves in new ways.”
Going forward, prospective students who would have applied to Interior Design might instead find a home in Ringling’s new Entertainment Design (ED) major. While not an equivalent experience, they both share the guiding principles of making spaces come alive through design and creating innovative solutions for space-related experiences. Plus, ED works with theme parks, which certainly speaks to a new generation of design thinkers!
Still, despite the excitement for the future, we will miss Interior Design all the same and will continue to honor its incredible alumni for their outstanding contributions, to the field and to Ringling College.
- 1932-1933: A Decorative Design course and Interior Architecture and Decoration course were first offered.
- 1934: The Interior Decoration department was officially founded.
- 1938: Maude Loomis Dean became the first named faculty member for the department.
- 1948: The Interior Decoration major was renamed Interior Design.
- 1965: The Interior Design department sponsored the first student art gallery on campus upon the acquisition of the old restaurant on the corner of US41 and 27th Street. They also organized the first student outdoor art sale which became the annual “Student Sidewalk Sales.”
- 1977: Third-year design students went with Department Chairman Charles Nelson Bradley on a special study tour to New York City, Paris, and London (the first time a Ringling College department took students on a major study/industry trip).
- 1978: The ID major was renamed Interior Design and Space Planning, and incoming Department Chairman Bernard Soep significantly updated the program.
- 1986: The IDSP major gets initial accreditation with FIDER (Foundation for Interior Design Education Research), and is granted full accreditation in 1989.
- 1991: The major returns to the name Interior Design.
- 1995: FIDER grants 6-year accreditation (the longest available) at the first professional degree level to the ID department. This accreditation has been extended every term and was last awarded in 2019.
- 2021: The ID major graduates its final seniors.