Auburn, industry partners collaborate to improve interior design office space, enhance students' product knowledge

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The learning environment in Spidle Hall did not reflect its designation as a nationally ranked interior design program. In fact, offices for interior design faculty still featured the 1960s-era furniture from when the building first opened.

That is until a partnership between Facilities Management, the Provost's Office, Interior Design Advisory Board, industry partners, donors, interior design faculty and the College of Human Sciences administrative team resulted in the creation of 11 'working labs.'

The labs are the office spaces for faculty, graduate teaching assistants and administrators, including Dean June Henton, who has had the same office furniture and carpet since she became the college's top administrator 28 years ago.

Each office is considered a lab for its functionality as a teaching tool, showcasing current developments in ergonomics, productivity, sustainability and creativity in workplace design.

Carol Warfield, head of the Department of Consumer and Design Sciences, which houses the interior design program, said the goal is for interior design students to enhance their product knowledge through first-hand exposure to products and services offered by different industry partners.

Until now, Warfield said students' product knowledge was limited to companies and manufacturers they had visited on field trips, specified in design projects or wherever they completed an internship.

"Expanded product knowledge was a recognized need for our program," she said. "This working lab project is addressing that need."

Carpet and furniture in these offices were donated by various industry partners. Sherwin Williams donated all the paint and Facilities donated the labor for painting and some installations.

Faculty members became clients, working with company representatives to determine what features best served their needs.

For instance, Paula Peek, the W. Allen & Martha Reimer Reed Associate Professor of Interior Design, replaced her 1960s-era Steelcase desk with a modern glass-top piece by Knoll. She accented it with three different seating areas – a couch, an iconic womb chair and a set of bronze skeleton chairs – for her to interact with students. They also reflect current trends in office design and her laid back personality.

"It's all about multiple interaction spaces in the same office," said Ben Chappell, an Auburn alumnus and owner of Interior Elements, a contract furniture dealer based in Mississippi.

Steelcase provided Associate Professor Shari Park-Gates with a projection system at one end of her desk, which allows students to easily display their work on a TV screen to enhance discussion and critique.

Brian Clark, a strategic account manager with Steelcase in Birmingham, Alabama, called it a "working piece of furniture."

Assistant Professor Amanda Gale selected items that reflect what she teaches in sustainable design: a desk set from the showroom floor of Geiger/HMI and carpet from Interface, the LaGrange, Georgia-based manufacturer of sustainable carpets.

W. Allen and Martha Reimer Reed matched grant funding from Facilities and the Provost's Office to remodel two additional spaces – a Mac computer lab and a design resource center. The redesign is more functional and student-centered to stimulate creativity and learning in line with the university's focus on Engaged Active Student Learning, or EASL.

Junior Taylor Owens said she noticed how her professors managed before with outdated furniture. But since the renovation, she said each space serves as an example of what interior design is, and how it can be practical, functional and personal.

"We are more motivated now than ever before. We can see what we as designers are capable of," she said. "This gives us more knowledge of the different brands and products available today.

"And the more you know about a product, the better designer you will be."

Owens' favorite office is Henton's, who replaced a wooden executive-style desk with what the student from Lake City, Florida, calls "a sleek and sophisticated" desk from OFS. It resembles more of a table than a desk, which Owens says makes it "breathable."

Looking at the newly painted walls in the dean's office reminded Owens of what they learn in class – how much simply changing the wall color can alter the feel of a room.

"You still have an executive feel in here, but the wall color and her furniture choices make it brighter. It also feels more spacious," Owens said.

Clark and Milton Bresler, a member of the Interior Design Advisory Board and senior territory manager for Krueger International in Birmingham, Alabama, agreed the collaboration isn't about competition for these companies.

"We aren't just doing business with Auburn, but investing in future interior designers," said Bresler.

"This will pay a lot of dividends for everybody involved," added Clark.

Warfield said the next project will include upgrading the lighting in Spidle Hall, especially on the first floor, where the interior design offices are located.

Note: Paula Peek, the W. Allen & Martha Reimer Reed Associate Professor of Interior Design, and Anna Ruth Gatlin, a two-time Auburn alumna working as an interior designer with Facilities Management, received the President's Outstanding Collaborative Units Award for their work on this project. A $5,000 award will be divided between the pair.

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