Dana Knapp hovers over a project that sums up five years of work at Kansas University.
She's working on an idealized interior design for a school, one for which she's let out all the stops. She said she talked to teachers and examined research at the School of Education, incorporating all that data into a design she hopes would please her mentors.
The school may never be built, but at least it lets the creative juices flow. It's a created outlet that the interior design program at KU allows her to experience before she attacks the world of corporate budgets and space limitations.
"I was always interested in art but I didn't exactly know which field," Knapp said at the close of the 1990-91 academic year. "I'm interested in the environment and the space that surrounds everybody.''
THE SPACE that surrounds workers is the primary concern of the interior designers and facilities managers who are in training at the design department in the School of Fine Arts. The school offers a five-year bachelor's of fine arts degree in interior design, a discipline that integrates art skills with a sense for business, organization and architecture.
"Making a definitive introduction to interior design is pretty difficult because there's so much confusion over what it is," said Phillip Hofstra, a KU assistant professor of design, who is one of the faculty members in the program. "Many people have different sets of approaches to what it means, and it's undergone a fairly recent evolution over the past 30 years.''
What that means is interior design goes far beyond matching the drapes and the couch in your home. It means matching form to function in a way that will please the people who inhabit the space.
THE PROGRAM'S emphasis is on corporate or commercial interior design. But students also can aspire to designing interiors of homes or apartments.
"Basically, if you're trained to design an office you can also design a living room," Hofstra said. "But if you're trained in home design you can't necessarily design an office. So we make sure you have the basic training for work on a corporate level, and then you can choose to work on homes. It gives you greater flexibility.''
Hofstra traces the development of contemporary interior design back to the 1930s, when executives began to design offices with an eye toward greater efficiency. Rather than decorating interiors with lavish, sometimes gaudy machines or furniture in a haphazard fashion, the emphasis was placed on creating a unified whole, integrating both the shape of the office and the objects workers used.
"FUNCTIONAL design doesn't just entail the style of furniture but also the placement of all the furniture and partitions in a designed space," Hofstra said. "It involves a lot of architectural creativity on top of fashion. In theory, what counts is the whole volume of space.''
Then, beginning in the 1960s, several breakthroughs allowed designers to start thinking about office space in a new light. Du Pont developed a form of inexpensive partitions that could be manipulated in an office to create private space for workers. Designers also began thinking about what the office workers actually did, and where the work they were doing flowed to. The result was designed office clusters that facilitated the passing of information, ideas or paper from the bottom of the department to the top. In other words, design was overcome by a wave of logic.
"WHAT IT all means is that, in 30 years, the evolution of practice in interior design means it's much closer to interior architecture," he said.
Some of Hofstra's own designs were on display last spring in the design department's faculty show in the Art and Design Gallery. In addition to his duties at KU, he is the owner of the Hagemann Design Group in Kansas City, Mo.
In one of his works, he laid out a series of office partitions for the newsroom at the Kansas City Star. The reporters' desks were arranged so they would have some privacy and yet be able to converse with their peers when writing articles.
The design also featured an arresting bit of whimsy the floor of a lounge area had a big star on the floor. In the austere, 1930s-style of design called Bauhaus, that kind of frill would have been taboo. But this is the '90s, and Bauhaus has been greatly modified.
"A TRUE designer seeks simple solutions in building a human space," Hofstra said. "After modern architecture, there's been a movement to make spaces a bit more grand, a bit more human. I think we've learned in 30 years what are appropriate decorative activities. Ornamentation is not inherently bad. Bauhaus was a rejection of Victorian ornamentation, which often concealed a poor quality of execution. I think it's interesting that out there there's a craving for something that gives more attention to symbolism and iconography.''
So the solution is to let people be people, but in a way that fits in with what they're supposed to be doing.
"People will add their own decoration to a sterile space no matter what designers say," he said. "The key is to add those human accessories that work with the client's needs''
USUALLY, INTERIOR design students take the two-year basic design curriculum, which includes drawing and basic concepts of design. Then they enter a three-year sequence with Hofstra and Jane Wong, an associate professor of design, which includes a heavy dose of lab work. They also can take courses in the School of Architecture.
The program culminates in a senior project that includes a paper, a design model and a critique. The key to the project is creativity, not cost Hofstra said he tells his students to go all-out. That way, they can get a sense of what should be done before they start dealing with the limitations of a client.
"I try to give students enough room to experiment and take risks," he said. "I don't let economics drive the program, because they'll have to deal with that soon enough.''
OF COURSE, working with a client figures into the equation as much as all that design training. The needs of the client become paramount, and research skills are essential. For example, Knapp did extensive research before she knew what she wanted to do with a school.
"What we teach is how to move toward developing design solutions,'' Hofstra said. "We teach interviewing and data gathering, either through surveys or direct interviewing, to figure out if the stated or the perceived need is in line with the actual needs of an organization.''
Hofstra earned a bachelor's degree in architecutre from KU as well as master's degrees in computer science and marketing from Webster University. Although he said he lends his expertise in interior design, he doesn't want to turn the students off with tales of "real world'' negative experiences.
"I try to avoid saying things like `in the real world,''' he said. "I mean I say to the students that school is a real world, too. It doesn't get any more real than this.''