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Design school starts its lessons in the dorm

How RISD does a dorm: Start with a landmark,embellish stylishly, and design the furniture

The kitchen and dining room of a two-person loft unit at the Rhode Island School of Design's new dorm in downtown Providence features furniture designed by school faculty.
The kitchen and dining room of a two-person loft unit at the Rhode Island School of Design's new dorm in downtown Providence features furniture designed by school faculty. (Globe staff photo/Lane Turner)

PROVIDENCE -- It's not often that colleges get to build new student dorms, but when they do, you can count on certain predictable design elements.

The furniture will be durable, if not absolutely party-proof, and closets will be big enough to stash a year's worth of gear.

But when that college is Rhode Island School of Design, one of the country's top art and design schools, there is another factor: designing for what RISD undergraduate Jung Hoon Lee calls ''the artistic lifestyle."

This was the challenge facing RISD, which this week unveils a 500-student residence in a converted bank in downtown Providence. Located at 15 Westminster St., the building, nicknamed ''15 West," is so innovative and, some might say, posh, that Lee is actually feeling guilty about his new digs, and he hasn't even moved in yet.

''I think it's overly nice," says Lee, a junior from Maryland studying film, animation, and video. ''You're nurturing the next generation of artists, and you're giving them everything."

''Everything" includes, but is not limited to:

Spacious rooms with 11-foot ceilings where beds are tucked into alcoves or actual bedrooms, so that should inspiration strike at 2 a.m. a student can sculpt or paint without waking up a roommate; 8-foot windows that take into account artists' light preferences (''Sculptors like direct sunlight. Painters like northern light," notes architect Nader Tehrani of Office dA, whose Boston firm designed the residences.); bathrooms with bathtubs as well as showers (''It's a good selling point for the women students," says Brian Janes, director of residence life); and an extra sink in the hallway ''to speed up the morning traffic jam," Janes says.

Then there's the furniture. Unimpressed by the design aesthetic of existing lines of dorm furniture, RISD commissioned its furniture department faculty to design its own furniture, a line that's environmentally friendly and artist-centric. Desks are equipped with wide drawers to hold drawings and portfolios. Upholstery comes in hip, lively colors like apple green and ''butternut." Desk chairs are designed with a rack below the seat for storing laptops.

To say nothing of the in-house dining hall, featuring some of the hippest furnishings in the contemporary design universe, such as sculptor Harry Bertoia's mid-century black wire chairs, and cement coffee tables by Maya Lin. It will be open to the public and serve meals ''in particularly creative and inventive ways" to reflect the interests and aesthetics of the student body, says Elizabeth O'Neil, who oversees design, marketing, and retail at RISD. These are students, she says, who, ''more than the average student, have a very high level of concern for nutrition and organic farming and sustainable resources."

''Everything" also includes residence life in a 12-story building on prime riverfront property in what was once an imposing neoclassical bank, built in 1917 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The building's main entryway features a gilded coffered ceiling, ornamental polished-bronze elevator doors, and grand polished chandeliers -- and ''you can't get those at IKEA," notes Anna Schwartz, a staff member who oversees residence life at the dorm. Next year, RISD's vast art library will move into the area that was once the building's monumental bank hall, and will open its doors to the public.

''I've been through the building, and, boy, it's pretty nice. I'd like to have an apartment there," says Alden Anderson, a commercial real estate agent in Providence with CB Richard Ellis. ''They call them dorm rooms but they are really apartments, at the end of the day," he says, estimating that some of the 15 West units could fetch $2,000 a month if they were commercially available.

To be sure, RISD isn't the only college upgrading its residences to such an extent. ''The big trend with amenities is people trying to make residence halls look and feel more homelike," says Connie Carson, president-elect of the Association of College and University Housing Officers. ''Fierce competition among colleges has been one factor. That and the fact that [these students] aren't even used to sharing a bedroom." Lesley University in Cambridge is designing a residence bathroom with Corian countertops and framed chrome mirrors. A new residence hall at Michigan State University boasts a bubble jet soaking machine.

But perhaps more than many other schools, ''we give ourselves a mandate to be creative and inventive and resourceful," says O'Neil. ''It's not that we have more money to throw at it than other nonprofits. We have the same financial expectations. The dining program has to turn a profit. The furniture can't be vandalized. But there is the added burden of making it look like a place that seems considered to the students. That it's not a default institutional furnishings program."

''We want people to realize you are at a design school, not a land grant college," says James Hall, director of campus design and exhibitions. ''The way we look says a great deal about who we are."

RISD is a body of 2,200 students studying architecture, textiles, graphic design, digital media, painting, and other aspects of the visual arts. Tuition runs at $27,510 per year. Housing rates for 15 West range from $4,950 for a double room with beds tucked into alcoves behind curtains, and a common space and kitchenette; to $14,850 for a two-bedroom loft-style apartment with a large living area and full kitchen, including a dishwasher. The rates are per academic year and apply to the room, not per occupant.

Several RISD grads were involved in designing the residence, including Tehrani and Cambridge architect Janet Stegman of Stegman + Associates. (Also part of the collaboration was the architectural firm ADD Inc of Boston). The dining hall, fittingly named ''Portfolio Cafe," has a logo -- correction: a ''graphic identity" -- designed by RISD student Mitch Goldstein. Lighting is by alumnus James Dieter, and wallpaper is by another alum, Michael Rock; it's a graphic pattern of bold white commas and assorted other punctuation marks, designed for Knoll, the New York design firm.

''Everyone on this project went out on a limb," says Stegman, who specializes in student housing. ''Not to a scary degree, but everyone pushed their expectations. Throughout the design process, we took things that are standard in student housing -- like durable materials and fluorescent as opposed to incandescent lighting -- and said, how can we make it look different?"

A guiding premise is that art students are different from other students. For one thing, they arrive with an inordinate amount of things -- far more than the standard laptops, storage cubes, and collapsible laundry baskets that are the mainstay of college life -- such as ''frames, canvases, models, sculpture," Janes says. Plus, ''if they're walking down a street and see something in a dumpster, it's going to come back to the room and turn into someone's art project."

Taking this into account, closets are oversized and doorless. This pleases students like Johnathyn Owens from Chicago, who is studying industrial design. ''I like lots of space because I have lots of stuff," he says. ''Two computers and a monitor that's really big. I've got, like, a book shelf and a CD rack. I have, like, six pillows. A lot of notebooks. A lava lamp. MOMA-type storage cubes."

He pauses to think. ''A guitar. Tons of toy figures. Posters. Lots of books, in every genre. A photo printer. Leftover wood. Yellow foam, for models. Fixatives. Filters. Canvases and so much paint. So much paint."

And there is more. ''I have fish," he says. ''Fish supplies. A rice cooker. A blender."

Another factor taken into consideration in the design is that ''art students work at night," says Stegman. ''Part of it is one never knows when creative inspiration will hit you. Being creative can happen at any time and part of it is adopting a persona. They aren't confined to the typical hour."

For this reason, the rooms aren't standard mint cubicles where students use the same space for sleeping and studying. Each unit is different, some with larger, more open spaces, some with river views, some with more walls or a central column.

Underclassmen have rooms RISD calls ''alcove suites" in which beds are tucked inside a nook hidden behind a unique room divider artfully fashioned from Tyvek-like building paper. Students who want to pull an all-nighter can paint or sculpt in the adjacent living space.

''We took more of an artist loft approach," says Stegman.

Colors are intentionally neutral, mostly whites and grays. ''The artists' studio will be filled with their own expressive potential," says Tehrani. ''We made a point of reducing any character, because the character comes with every student."

Lee's restrained imprint will be minimalist in the extreme, and so the spare color of the dorm suits him just fine. ''I like blank walls," he says. ''I think better. I don't like decoration at all."

Still, like any artist, he is finding it difficult to conform to the new norm. ''I have friends at the University of Maryland basically living in cinderblock cells," he says. ''I don't think schools should pamper their students. Students are here to learn."

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