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My Journey from a Liberal Arts Major to an Interior Designer

11.21.17 / Erica Curtis, LEED AP

It was a quintessential autumn weekend when I rolled up to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, a place I had not visited for many moons (I won’t specify how many). Some things were reassuringly the same as during my student years: pedestrians outnumbering the cars on College Hill Road, the main drag that bisects the campus; the statue of Alexander Hamilton still presiding quietly over the quad, unperturbed by his recent Broadway fame; and the view east over the Central New York hills, always stunning at this time of year.

The occasion for my visit was Fallcoming Weekend, when alumni return like homing pigeons for reunions and celebratory events, and the foliage reaches its fiery peak. I was invited to join a six-person panel discussion on careers in design and construction organized by student Sindy Chen and the Career Center. Hamilton is squarely a liberal arts college: there are no architecture, interior design, construction management, or engineering majors offered. You can, however, major in fine arts, art history, physics, and economics, as did some of my colleagues on the panel. You can also major in French, as one other panelist and I both did. The panel’s unifying message was that our liberal arts educations, which required a diverse course load with an emphasis on written and oral expression, primed us for work in design fields.

This collegial group of alumni plus the father of a current student included three architects, all of whom have solo practices focusing on residences; the owner of a general contracting firm; a writer for Architectural Digest’s website; and me, an interior designer. Our audience was made up of students, curious parents, and a sprinkling of alumni. I recounted my discursive path to design school and into the interior design profession, as well as how my time at Hamilton attuned me to thoughtfully planned spaces. While many French majors concentrate on literature, I was consumed by the physical expression of French culture - the grand chateaux, Paris’s ancient streets, exquisite textiles – which propelled me to spend my junior year in France. To explain what my job entails, I asked the audience to scan the tiered classroom in which we sat: I pointed to the furniture, the carpet, the acoustic wall panels, the whiteboards, lighting, and window shades as elements of my purview. I showed images of ARC’s current K-12 and university projects, and some elicited smiles of recognition (BC football!). The Hackley School alumna on the panel is excited to tour the ARC-designed Walter Johnson Center for Health and Wellness at her next reunion. I also shared snapshots of our office to describe what a vibrant, colorful, tactile place it is and invited interested students to come visit!

At the panel’s conclusion, I set out to inventory the campus’s building stock. Since I graduated, there have been considerable upgrades to existing structures and a few noteworthy additions. Kirner-Johnson, where the panel was held (and where I slept through Introduction to Anthropology and English 101) had morphed from a brutalist block into a sprawling student center with – I had to rub my eyes – a cascading indoor “stream.” I toured the Kirkland side of campus, which was constructed on an apple orchard to house a women’s college that merged with Hamilton in 1978. I roomed there for my three years on campus because its modernist architecture, art studios, and adjacency to the lovely wooded Root Glen had an aesthetic allure. 

As a lone wind generator whirled in the field behind me, I could see that the facilities department had embarked on an energy-efficient retrofit of the single-ply plate glass fronting all the dorms, a wise investment given the long, snowy winters. On the north side of campus, the dingy squash courts that I knocked around in were replaced by the 10-court Little Squash Center, a facility fit for hosting NESCAC championships. Most impressive were the two newest buildings, both constructed in the past five years to honor the arts: the handsome Wellin Museum and the arcing Kennedy Center for the Theatre and the Studio Arts, whose stone cladding references the older buildings on the main quad.

The sports teams did their alumni proud that afternoon, winning most games over Colby. After saying “à bientot, Hamilton,” I headed off for supper at a friend’s in nearby Earlville. He had majored in ballet and, after a career as a professional dancer, is now raising sheep and beef cattle on his family’s farm (and teaching dance at our alma mater). You never know where that liberal arts degree might take you!

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