This past spring, 38 undergraduate and 8 graduate VCU interior design students were given the opportunity to take their studies beyond the studio and into the real world. In a joint collaboration between ICA staff, School of the Arts Interior Design (IDES) faculty, and BCWH Architecture colleagues, students were asked to examine design challenges presented by the ICA’s forum, a space defined by a 36-foot ceiling, a glass facade, a curving wall, and a sweeping grand staircase. 

A focal point of Director Lisa Freiman’s tenure, such collaborative projects are an ICA priority and a direct connection to VCU’s commitment to provide students with high-quality, real-world learning experiences. Simultaneously, the IDES faculty were pleased to elevate the studio experience by providing students with a real client and an opportunity to see a process take shape and to witness a structure take form.

With additional support of key staff at BCWH and VCU’s interior designer, the project became an official endeavor led by three faculty members. A series of exercises were developed to heighten the students’ understanding of the building’s spaces and to focus their attention on critical program needs. To capitalize on the freshness of the students’ perspectives, assignments encouraged curiosity and the “what if?” mentality that beginners often bring to the process. Embracing one of architect Steven Holl’s favorite working methods, students were asked to complete a watercolor each day. Through the practice, students considered the forum’s light, volume, flow, and visitor experience. Additionally, the students created study models and storyboards that explored two key functions of the space: how the ICA receives visitors and how the forum meets the needs of a range of programs and events.

At the project launch, Freiman provided an overview of the ICA’s objectives and needs, and BCWH colleagues presented an introduction to the building and its architectural plans using a 3D computer model. Further into the project, students visited the construction site and took a hard-hat tour, an unprecedented experience. At all interactions, project leaders answered questions from the students about space layout, architect-specified finishes, suggested construction materials, program needs, and audience expectations. For many students, this was a unique opportunity to meet and hear from a client, visit an active building site, and observe a structure as it is emerging. Each experience provided new insights into the design process, from understanding the difference between technical drawings and an actual space, to translating an architect’s vision, as well as insights inot the many different career opportunities and job paths encompassed in the field.

At the conclusion of the project, staff from BCWH, the ICA, and guest designers were invited to participate in critiques. Students presented concept boards, a showcase of their ideas organized in an interconnected narrative, illustrated with the process sketches, study models, sample watercolors, furniture and fixture selections, and points of inspiration. During the critique process, guests evaluated the students’ work against real-world criteria, provided guidance about technique and expectations, and encouraged innovation. Through this project, the students have become a part of the process and members of a specialized community.

This fall, highlights from the project — featuring drawings, watercolors, and design models by the students — were on view at VCU’s Cabell Library. To conclude the program, an open panel discussion was held in the Cabell Library Lecture Hall, inviting the public to participate in a reflective conversation about the project led by IDES alumni, participating students, and architects.

Video: A Forum of Ideas
Exhibition: A Forum of Ideas
Digital Wallpapers: Design Studies for the ICA