Exhibition: Radical Shifts: Reshaping the Interior at Parsons, 1955-1985

Third Annual Exhibition of the Kellen Design Archives

March 23-April 8, 2011

Sheila C. Johnson Design Center

Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries

Parsons The New School for Design

66 Fifth Avenue, at 13th Street


In the 1960s, Parsons’ famous Interior Design program reinvented itself as Environmental Design, breaking traditional barriers to expand design’s role as an agent of social transformation. Radical Shifts tracks this contentious conversion, recovering a pivotal moment in Parsons’ history.

The upheaval within the school reflected—at times drove—critical conversations in the greater design community, mirroring the intense cultural and social interrogations and transformations occurring across the country. Drawing on the rich collections in Parsons’ Kellen Design Archives, Radical Shifts marks the passage of interior design as practice and pedagogy from the beginning of the 20th century through its aggressive reformation in the 1960s and ’70s. In examining this historical moment, the exhibit itself crosses into a wider field of investigation, probing the role of institutional memory in upheaval and transformation—a conversation that not only crosses design disciplines, but transcends the field of design itself.

While the cross-disciplinary venture ultimately reverted to discipline-specific programs, the school never returned to its earlier fealty to teaching “good taste” based upon historical models in service to wealthy clients. Now firmly inserted into the school’s genetic code was the command that good interior design be conceived for clients from a range of economic and social backgrounds. And forty years on, the widened focus and progressive agenda introduced during this period is apparent everywhere at Parsons, just as the school again reaches across disciplines and seeks more holistic approaches to design issues.

Exploring a creative discipline from a historical perspective, the Radical Shifts exhibition is poised at the nexus of design practice and academic scholarship. Juxtaposing drawings, plans, photographs, curricula, memoranda, media critiques and other primary materials, the exhibit will examine dueling pedagogical and theoretical articulations. A mobile recording booth built for the AirSpace project–representing a collaboration between James Briggs, Media Studies, New School for General Studies, and Robert Kirkbride, Department of Product Design, Parsons School of Constructed Environments, and their students—will serve as an audio guestbook in which visitors will record their responses to the exhibit, and these voices will be broadcast back into the gallery, contributing to an exhibit that both investigates and seeks to replicate a spirit of participatory engagement.

Program of events:

Thursday, March 31 “History, Holes, and Institutional Memory”

6:30 p.m.

2 West 13th Street

Bark Room


Laura Auricchio, assistant professor, Parsons School of Art History, School of Art and Design History and Theory, moderates a discussion on the conceptual and real-world challenges of putting on history exhibits, using “Radical Shifts” as jumping-off point. Panelists include Kathleen Hulser, senior curator for history and chief education curator, New-York Historical Society; and Shannon Mattern, professor, The New School, Media Studies and Film; and Wendy Scheir, director, Kellen Design Archives; among others.

Friday, April 1 “Engagements”

3:00-5:30 p.m.

66 Fifth Avenue, at 13th Street

Kellen Auditorium


A discussion of alumni, faculty, and administrators from before, during, and after the reinvention of the Parsons interior design curriculum during the 1960s discusses the intellectual bases behind the shift, the experience of being at Parsons during this period, the wider implications of the shift for practice, and the relevance of this historical moment for our current era. Introduced by Parsons Executive Dean Joel Towers, the panel will be moderated by Joanna Merwood-Salisbury, assistant professor, Architectural History and Theory, Parsons School of Constructed Environments, and will include David C. Levy, Parsons executive dean and chief executive officer, 1970-1987; Jean Gardner, associate professor, Social-Ecological History and Design, Parsons School of Constructed Environments; and Parsons alumni Charles Burleigh, Catherine Minkiewicz, Luis Rey, and Marty Spiegel.

Following the panel will be a presentation by artist Robert Irwin to open the annual symposium, Aftertaste, put on by Parsons’ MFA Interior Design program.

A joint reception for Radical Shifts and Aftertaste will begin directly after Irwin’s presentation.

Tuesday, April 5 “Debate Club: Young Designers On Getting Schooled at Work”

6:30 p.m.

66 Fifth Avenue, at 13th Street

Arnold and Sheila Aronson Gallery

Recent graduates Loren Daye, Love Is Enough. Ltd., and Jonathan Lee, Art Director, 2 x 4 Inc. discuss how their training prepared them for work after school.



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