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Radical Shifts: Reshaping the Interior at Parsons (1955-1985) oral history project

Identifier: PC-07-01-04


The oral histories comprising this collection were conducted in 2010 in preparation for the exhibit, Radical Shifts: Reshaping the Interior at Parsons, 1955-1985, to record perspectives on the interior and environmental design departments at Parsons School of Design in the 1960s and 1970s. During this period, Parsons' interior design program adopted a more experimental program of study in the newly-created Environmental Design Department.


  • 2010



5.2 Gigabytes (22 digital audio files; 09:42:26 duration; 8 PDF transcripts)

Language of Materials


Scope and Contents

This project consists of nine interviews undertaken in preparation for the exhibition, Radical Shifts: Reshaping the Interior at Parsons, 1955-1985. The exhibition ran from March 23 to April 8, 2011 in the Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, Parsons The New School for Design, 66 Fifth Avenue in New York City. The interviews were conducted by Joanna Merwood-Salisbury, professor of architectural history and an administrator in Parsons The New School for Design's School of Constructed Environments; by Wendy Scheir, director of the New School Archives at Parsons; and by Danielle Epstein, a student in the MFA Interior Design program who co-curated the exhibition.

The interviewers sought to record a range of perspectives from alumni, faculty, and administrators who were involved with Parsons' interior and environmental design programs in the 1960s and 1970s. To this end, over the summer of 2010, Scheir sent a letter of inquiry to alumni of the interior and environmental design programs at Parsons. Several respondents were invited to participate in oral history interviews. In addition to alumni, the interviewers contacted former faculty and administrators who had been at Parsons during the period under investigation. The intention of the interviews was to gather background information and document the evolution of the Parsons program through the voices of participants. Portions of the interviews were used in the exhibit, and the transcripts and audio recordings have been preserved in The New School Archives and Special Collections, and are open to researchers.

A total of 22 digital WAV files comprise the collection, totaling 5.2 gigabytes of digital audio. Most of the interviews are approximately an hour in duration. The New School Archives, now a part of The New School Archives and Special Collections, funded the transcription of all of the interviews.

Access Restrictions

Collection is open for research use.

Use Restrictions

To publish images of material from this collection, or to post the recordings or transcripts in any public form, permission must be obtained in writing from The New School Archives and Special Collections. Please contact:

Biographical/Historical notes

From the early 1920s to the mid-1960s, the idea of interior design taught at Parsons School of Design was heavily dependent on the practice and writing of New York-based society designers like Elsie de Wolfe. In 1970, Parsons established a Department of Environmental Design under Chair Allen Tate. The Department was not a new entity, but a renamed and greatly altered version of the famed Department of Interior Design, which Tate and others had been in the process of remaking since 1964. Environmental Design was then a new discipline, purposefully open-ended and loosely interpreted by many universities and design schools across North America at the time. The Radical Shifts exhibition explored the transition from Interior Design to Environmental Design, tracking an often contentious transition in the remaking of a department utterly altered, with an ambitious intellectual agenda, a commitment to socially engaged design, and experimenting with new cross-disciplinary pedagogical methods.

Interviewer biographies

Epstein, Danielle
As a student in Parsons' Interior Design MFA program, Danielle was co-curator on the Radical Shifts exhibition. Since graduating, Danielle has worked as a teacher, production manager, and design consultant.
Merwood-Salisbury, Joanna
Joanna Merwood-Salisbury is Director of Academic Affairs and Assistant Professor at the School of Constructed Environments, Parsons The New School for Design [CHECK IF CURRENT]. An architect by training, she received her Ph.D. in architectural history and theory from Princeton University in 2003. Prior to coming to Parsons, she taught at Bard College, the University of Illinois in Chicago, and at Barnard and Columbia Colleges. Her scholarly foci are nineteenth-century architecture and urbanism in the United States, along with transformations to interior design pedagogy and practice starting in the mid-twentieth-century. The University of Chicago Press published her book, Chicago 1890: The Skyscraper and the Modern City, in May 2009. She has published articles and reviews in many scholarly journals including AA Files, the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, the Journal of Architectural Education, Technology and Culture, Design Issues, Grey Room, and Lotus International. She serves as faculty advisor to Radical Shifts: Reshaping the Interior at Parsons, 1955–1985, which initiated with her research into the history of interior design teaching at Parsons. Along with Kent Kleinman and Lois Weinthal, she is a co-editor of After Taste, a forthcoming book aimed at expanding the definition of interior design as a practice and as an academic discipline." ADD NEW BOOK
Scheir, Wendy
Wendy Scheir came to The New School in 2008 to direct the Kellen Design Archives for Parsons The New School for Design (a unit of The New School Libraries and Archives). The Kellen documents the history of Parsons since its founding in 1896 and houses archival collections that reflect and support Parsons' curriculum. In 2012, while continuing to lead the Kellen, Scheir established the first ever university archives at The New School. Scheir came to The New School from the New York Public Library, where she was Project Archivist on a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to process the records of the New York World's Fair Corporation, 1939-1940. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, a Master of Fine Arts in Film, and a Master of Arts in History and Archives, all from New York University.

Organization and Arrangement

Interviews are arranged alphabetically by name of interviewee.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

All interviews for this project were commissioned by the New School Archives.

Existence and Location of Copies

All recordings comprising this project are available in digital form for researcher access. Digital transcripts (PDF file format) for each interview are also available for research use.

Related Materials

The Kellen Design Archives holds multiple collections that address the subject of the exhibition and interviews. These include the Environmental Design Department records in the record group Parsons School of Design academic departments, programs and schools collection (pre-2009 accessions) (PC.02.01.01); Environmental Design Department: projects from classes taught by Jean McClintock Gardner (PC.02.05.01); the David C. Levy records (PC.01.04.01); and the student work of Kathleen Madden, Marty Spiegel, Chuck Burleigh, and Casey Danson, among others in Parsons School of Design academic departments, programs and schools collection (pre-2009 accessions) (PC.02.01.01). Other oral history interviews of interest may be found in the Parsons School of Design Centenary oral history project (PC.07.01.01), especially those with Stanley Barrows, Allen Tate, and David C. Levy. A digital video recording is also available of a panel discussion that took place in conjunction with the exhibition. Chuck Burleigh, Jean McClintock Gardner, Marty Spiegel, and David C. Levy were among those on the panel.

Guide to the Radical Shifts: Reshaping the Interior at Parsons (1955-1985) oral history project
New School Archives and Special Collections Staff
September 13, 2016
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