Justin Wilwerding

Justin Wilwerding, program director of St. Kate's new interior design major. Photo by Thomas Ellis.

Inside Job

St. Kate's new interior design major explores a discipline that is changing the world from the inside out.

By Joel Hoekstra

From Dwell to HGTV, Americans seem fascinated with the way we design our offices, hospitals and homes. But Justin Wilwerding, program director of St. Kate's new interior design major, says the field involves challenges that go beyond knowing how long it takes for wood stain to dry or being able to spot the Pantone Color of the Year (Tangerine Tango!).

Interior design is a burgeoning field that requires creativity, communication and critical-thinking skills — all of which a liberal arts degree helps hone — as well as a strong background in business.

Wilwerding taught previously at the University of Wisconsin–Stout and chaired the interior design department at Minneapolis' Brown College. He worked closely with Paula King, dean of St. Kate's School of Business and Leadership, for nearly two years to develop the new major, which attracted its first crop of Katies this fall.

Why is a university known for humanities, healthcare, business and STEM education launching a major in interior design?

St. Kate's prepares students to lead and influence, and interior design firms provide a great opportunity for women in our bachelor's degree program to excel. The Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science that we're offering in interior design also complement our other baccalaureate programs — such as fashion merchandising, apparel design and graphics — that focus on finding creative solutions to business challenges.

How will this program differ from the interior design education offered elsewhere?

No other liberal arts college in the Twin Cities has interior design; this alone gives us a competitive edge. We are applying for Council for Interior Design Accreditation, also an important differentiator. Most interior design programs are associate degree programs that aren't rooted in the liberal arts. We're currently inviting transfer students from those programs to join us to finish a BS or BA degree.

The interior design major is located at International Market Square near downtown Minneapolis, home to dozens of showrooms and design firms. Students can see firsthand how the design business works, make invaluable contacts, pursue internships and secure professional positions after graduation. 3M is also providing support for our program, which we take as a ringing endorsement.

Where does interior design fit into the liberal arts framework?

A liberal arts education helps students view the world from multiple perspectives. Design also requires problem-solving and communication skills, the ability to work in teams, to think critically and creatively.

Interior design brings together a lot of disciplines: the arts, psychology, chemistry, communication. As a designer, you may be focusing on residential spaces or healthcare facilities, government offices, schools, wellness centers or industrial plants. That process benefits from the integration of a liberal arts education.

What was your role in forming the major?

After graduating from the University of St. Thomas with a degree in fine arts and Catholic theology, I earned a master's degree in interior design at the University of Minnesota and taught at the University of Wisconsin–Stout. I was there about six months when I realized that my classes were nearly 95 percent female, and I wondered why St. Kate's has no interior design program. The idea rattled around in my brain for the next 20 years.

In 2009 a colleague suggested I propose the idea to St. Kate's President Andrea Lee, IHM. So I did. An incredible team of dedicated faculty worked on this project. I served as a consultant, along with Annie Ballantine, a designer and a 2005 alumna of St. Kate's.

What are the characteristics of students who become good designers?

Creativity is important, but the ability to think critically is also requisite. And good communication is essential, because design problems are complex. They require strong social and emotional intelligence and nimble thinking. You have to be able to talk and listen carefully as clients explain their business and their goals. You have to understand the nuances of the situation and the psychology of the people you're serving, or you're not going to be a very good designer.

The first foundation class for the major, "Design and Society," began in September. Who enrolled? We have an art-and-design major, a theology major, a biology major, a sign language and interpreting major. I'm over the moon about this. I'm introducing these students to the process of design, and they are bringing the viewpoints of their respective disciplines to the discussion.

Why is interior design housed in the School of Business and Leadership?

Design is a business as much as anything else. But architecture and interior design have historically focused on the creative side of the equation. As a result, there are some very large gaps in interior design education and, within the design industry, gaps in developing leaders with business acumen, project management and financial skills.

Dean King has a strong design background as a former senior vice president and officer at Gabberts Furniture and Design Studio in Edina. So this major fits well in this School. It complements the other creative, design-related programs in the School of Business and Leadership.

Does interior design really require business skills?

Historically, interior design arose out of arts and crafts schools and focused on colors, materials, textiles. Nowadays we also consider space planning, traffic flow, safety and the clients' brand. To get answers to questions like these, designers increasingly rely on research to make evidence-based decisions.

At St. Kate's, we also impress upon students that interior design needs to serve many constituencies. With a focus on healthcare design, our designers will understand how to help people age in place safely, improve the quality of life of those with chronic disease and create healing spaces.

In a year or two, how will you measure the program's success?

The program will be considered successful if we attract great students who graduate to become designers who lead and influence in the field, and who use research and evidence to create exceptional design solutions.

We want to provide the profession with people who are prepared to lead from an ethical perspective. We want to produce leaders who will drive the field to be sustainable, globally conscious and innovative.

Joan Kelly

Visit the Interior Design homepage for more information on the program