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Designing a Career in Interior Design


Erica Curtis '94
Erica Curtis '94

I am an interior designer, a career that may seem surprising for a Hamilton College graduate. I also majored in French. To be frank, I didn’t concentrate in French for a love of literature, although my professors expanded my appreciation of it while on the Hill. Rather, I was enticed by the visual expressions of French culture: Louis XV furniture, les châteaux de la Loire, haute couture, all of which led me to join Hamilton’s excellent junior year in France program directed that year by Professor Martine Guyot-Bender.

My route to becoming an interior designer was indirect, although there were signs pointing toward that path along the way. While at Hamilton, I took a solid survey of liberal arts courses and spent a good deal of time enjoying how architecturally diverse the campus was. Although there was no “design major” while I was a student, the variety of spatial experiences between the modernist Kirkland and traditional South Campuses provided plenty of inspiration for a future interior designer -- or architect or landscape planner. I also spent free time reading design tomes and magazines, visiting noteworthy public buildings, and casually sketching.

After Hamilton, I used my French and Spanish language skills first as a teaching assistant and later as an editor for a travel website and for a guidebook publisher. Curiosity about the design profession lingered, and in my early thirties, I decided to take some tester classes to gauge my aptitude and bolster my confidence in the financial commitment. Ultimately, I enrolled full-time in a B.F.A. program at the New York School of Interior Design (NYSID). The school is located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side near fabric showrooms, museums, and galleries — important resources for seeing design “live.” The student body was a mix of 18-year-old first-years and those changing careers, all of us scurrying around with paints and pencils, fabric swatches, and unwieldy foam core boards. Immersed in courses focused on space planning, furniture design and architectural history, I realized I had found my people and a repository for an abiding interest. It was both a relief and energizing to finally land here.

While pursuing my B.F.A., I interned in a professional studio every semester and arranged visits for my peers to prominent Manhattan practices. Design is a trade, and it is critical to observe an expert’s habits and how a successful business interacts with its clients. Also, there is a leap between what you create in school and what happens in the field. The learning curve is steep. Clients entrust you with the serious and, sometimes, intimate task of shaping their home or workspace, making it safe, and respecting their budget. And contractors rely on you to communicate your intentions clearly and concisely. To sample different specialties in the design realm, I spent a year in the office of a notable hospitality architect, whose restaurant interiors referenced the Arts and Crafts movement, and then assisted a decorator who outfitted palatial private homes. I graduated during the Great Recession when many firms had laid off staff as construction budgets withered. Through a NYSID contact, I learned of an opening at a small firm that had a mix of residential and institutional clients and was lucky to land the job. 

Over the next few years, I participated in an incredible range of projects and learned from generous colleagues and clients. Among the highlights was the restoration of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and its rectory, which gave me a humbling view of the historic landmark and its occupants. Most crucially, I helped on several public and independent school and university projects. Seeing how teachers, students, and their families appreciated an improved learning environment solidified my interest in school design.

IAlumna Gym EC blogn 2013, my husband and I moved from New York to Boston. I am now on staff at ARC, a 50-person architecture firm that plans and designs academic campuses, as well as workplaces for science and technology companies. We work in teams consisting of several architects and an interior designer in a bright, spacious studio near Copley Square. On a typical project, I am responsible for organizing the interior layout, selecting materials for its floors, walls, and ceilings, advising on the lighting and graphics programs, and selecting furniture. Last year, ARC was engaged to renovate Hamilton College’s own Alumni Gym! I assisted in devising the graphics and finishes that updated this handsome athletic space. What a wonderful homecoming for a Hamilton alumna!

Eight months into the pandemic, we primarily work from home, with visits to clients’ sites as needed. Like many companies, we use the Teams or Zoom apps to communicate with each other and for client presentations – it’s fortunate that architectural drawings and 3D renderings are well suited to screen-based discussions. Although I connect virtually with my colleagues often, I miss in-person chats and seeing their sketches tacked to our office walls. Design is also a tactile discipline and normally, we can pop into our office’s materials library and handle a fabric or wall finish to determine its suitability. A bright spot this summer was a punch list trip to an athletic center I had worked on for the past two years. Walking through a project that you have cultivated from concept to construction is satisfying for any designer. On my desk these days are the plans for an admissions building and a dormitory for two boarding schools, a feasibility study for a local campus’s new health center, renovations to an existing client’s library and classroom buildings, and studies for COVID-responsive social spaces.

Design is never dull: there are constant advancements in construction materials and technologies, graphics tools, and ways to think about design in a larger context. Like many in the profession, I am contemplating ways to reduce a building’s impact on the natural environment and to enhance the health of its occupants.

When I was starting off, a mentor described design as “a big tent:” there are so many ways to articulate your interests and strengths. As an interior designer (or architect), you can specialize in planning homes, libraries, cruise ships, stores, hospitals, prisons – every space has a design, deliberate or not. It’s your job to make it an inspiring one.

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