Interior design students at the Fashion Institute of Technology are revamping neglected spaces.
Most weekday mornings, around 40 people file into St. Paul’s House, a homeless-services center in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, to receive free breakfast. Until recently, the 16-by-34-foot basement room where they ate was functional—but far from comfortable. There were no tables for the staff to use as they organized meals. A tiny bathroom sat at the front of the room; its door opened straight onto the dining area.
In community spaces like St. Paul’s, which has been serving low-income New Yorkers since 1945, interior design is often an afterthought. The Fashion Institute of Technology’s Integrated Service-learning Project, led by associate professor Carmita Sanchez-fong, is trying to change that. The program gives places like St. Paul’s a quick upgrade—at no cost to the beneficiary. “We have to see interior design as an engine of social change,” says Sanchez-fong.
She first realized that her students could make an impact after Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012. The following year, FIT undergrads offered 17 families from Long Beach, Long Island, design proposals that they could implement as they reconstructed their homes. Since then, Sanchez-fong’s students have completed seven projects, with the help of funding from a local nonprofit, Hope for New York, and pro bono materials sourced from local vendors. The work is entirely carried out by students and volunteers from other schools.
This past summer at St. Paul’s House, Sanchez-fong and her students swapped out harsh ceiling lights for smaller fixtures. She moved in a long metal table donated by Benjamin Moore. Emily Vila, a fourth-year student, speckled walls and sanded and painted doors, while Lizbeth Jimenez, an FIT alumna and junior designer at a New York architecture firm, meticulously laid out a herringbone pattern in the wood floor. “Having a patterned floor makes it unique,” Jimenez says, “makes it feel like a home.” The team also built a wall to separate the bathroom and eating area.
Sanchez-fong sees FIT’S project inspiring more public–private design partnerships. She’s already fielding inquiries from other schools. “It’s my hope that just like we have Doctors Without Borders,” she says, “we will one day have Interiors Without Borders.”