Q&A with Jane Smith of Spacesmith on Designing at SVA

January 18, 2013

When it came time to select a firm to design the space for the MFA Design for Social Innovation Department (MFADSI), now in its inaugural year, chair Cheryl Heller tapped BFA Interior Design Department Chair Jane Smith. Aside from serving on the faculty at SVA, Smith is also a partner at the architecture and interior design firm Spacesmith, which gladly took on the project.SVA Close Up recently caught up with Smith to find out more about the challenges and triumphs of putting together such a unique space.

How did your project with the MFADSI program begin?
SVA President David Rhodes suggested that Cheryl Heller look at other spaces that had been designed recently at SVA. Spacesmith had completed several projects at the College, most recently for the MFA Social Documentary Film Department. Cheryl liked our work, we met, the chemistry was great and we went from there.

How did the unique nature of the MFADSI program affect your design of the space?
In describing the program, Cheryl Heller wrote of the need for the program to prepare students to apply the principals and ethics of social innovation as a means for engaging with and improving the world through design, and we believed the design for their space needed to reflect these qualities and be the cocoon within which this program could begin to grow, thrive and transform.

In addition, Cheryl brought specific, and somewhat unconventional, requirements for the MFADSI space, causing us to rethink and re-conceptualize any preconceived notions we had for the space. Ideas implemented in the final design include a play room that allows students freedom to write on walls, hang upside-down, and create (perhaps loudly); and a quiet room, with space to record podcasts, contemplate, write or collaborate. Other important considerations incorporated into the space were a focus on natural light, the inclusion of natural elements, efficiency, and a concerted effort to upcycle, recycle and limit the use of materials.

Were there any other key considerations in creating such a flexible space?
During our first project meeting, Cheryl stated that the program would “look at different models of being, making and doing” and “notice and examine the distinctions that create separations; getting rid of labels/silos/boundaries.” In response, we removed and transformed the physical and visual separations within the space; the exterior walls of one space become the interior walls of another, providing writing, thinking and drawing surfaces, storage, or a visual connection to light.

What other exciting projects does Spacesmith have in the works?
Spacesmith is just beginning a very exciting project in collaboration with Todd Williams and Billie Tsein Architects and Davis Brody Bond for a new US Embassy in Mexico City. We will also be working on other embassies in Stockholm, Rome and Kosovo.

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Additionally, we are designing a factory within an existing building for prefab housing units at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; various projects for Columbia University and St. John’s University; several floors in the Empire State Building for a multinational Hong Kong-based apparel company; a new Hermes store in Greenwich, Connecticut; and a new restaurant in Soho, to name a few. It’s quite a diverse portfolio, which we like!

Is there interplay between the work you do at Spacesmith and your work as chair of the BFA Interior Design Department? How do the two realms inform each other?
Absolutely! Not only do they inform each other, but the longer I chair the department the less division I feel between the two worlds. The practices of architecture and interior design are based on continuous exploration, processing, collaboration and engagement with the emerging generation of creative thinkers. To me, the cycle of learning, doing, leading and teaching is never-ending, and what better way than to join professional practice with academia? This is the underlying philosophy of SVA and it not only works for me, it enriches my life in a way that would be incomplete without one or the other.

Images: Courtesy of Spacesmith.

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