On a given Monday, Wednesday, or Friday morning, around 40 people file through the basement floor of St. Paul’s House on a quiet block of 51 Street in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Some come with carts and bags; others with nothing much at all. All are homeless; all are in need of the free meals that the staff of St. Paul’s serves three days a week.
Until this week, the room, which welcomes over a hundred people each week, was functional–but far from comfortable. No wall divided the main dining room from the tiny bathroom in the vestibule; there was no table on which the staff could organize the plates that cycled through their visitors’ hands. When it comes to places like St. Paul’s House, which has been serving the homeless population of New York City since 1945, interior design, Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) associate professor Carmita Sanchez-Fong tells Fast Company, “is rarely front of mind.”
A program that Sanchez-Fong oversees at FIT is reframing the role of interior design in community-centered organizations, one project at a time; St. Paul’s House is just the latest. Called the Integrated Service-Learning Project (ISLP), the program puts students and volunteers to work redesigning various underserved spaces throughout the city, at no cost to the beneficiary organizations like St. Paul’s House.
Most of the students who participate in the program sign up through Sanchez-Fong’s interior design classes, but the program accepts volunteers from other schools, as well as locals with a passion for furthering ISLP’s work; they can register interest through a form on the ISLP website. The students and volunteers oversee and carry out the implementation of their own visions, and are tasked with forging relationships with vendors around the city to source supplies and materials at little or no cost.
To make the overhauls happen without disrupting the daily work of the organization for longer than a week, the FIT students have to work fast. On a hot Wednesday at the end of July, Lisbeth Jimenez, an FIT alumna and junior designer at a New York-based architecture firm (many graduates return to volunteer on ISLP projects), is meticulously laying out a herringbone wood floor pattern with the help of Sam Williams, a regular volunteer at St. Paul’s House since 2001. They’re struggling to cut the wood panels to line up with the tiles already installed in the vestibule.
“We could have gone with a regular staggered pattern for the floor, but we decided to take it a step further with the herringbone–having a patterned floor makes it unique, makes it feel like a home,” Jimenez tells Fast Company. She and Williams realign the ruler to sliver a little more off a panel. It’s meticulous work, and they remain focused: They’ve already been working on the space for six days, ripping up the old floor, prepping the walls for new paint, and building the much-needed wall between the dining area and the bathroom–and they only have three more to finish so St. Paul’s can open the dining room to visitors the following week.
“There are many limitations, but they force us to be more creative,” Sanchez-Fong says. The St. Paul’s dining room is just 16 by 34 feet; the budget the ISLP team had to complete the overhaul was just around $3,000, granted by the nonprofit Hope for New York and FIT. But their goals were clear: To make the room feel like a home, and to equip the staff of St. Paul’s with a design that would allow them to better serve the people coming in.
In the face of issues like homelessness and access to meals in a city as inhospitable as New York can be for those living on its streets, interior design factors in as an afterthought, if at all; beautifying spaces is often seen as an unnecessary luxury. Sanchez-Fong thinks otherwise. “What I say to my students is that we have to see interior design as an engine of social change,” she says. “How can we use our skills to begin to tilt the balance of inequality in our city? How can we have a positive impact on people?”
Understanding at how Sanchez-Fong consolidated her belief into a program necessitates going back to 2012, when New York was still reeling in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. One of Sanchez-Fong’s Materials and Methods for Construction students at the time lived in Long Beach, an area particularly devastated by the storm. She asked Sanchez-Fong how their class might be able to help, and by the following year, the Interior Design Relief Project, made up of Sanchez-Fong’s students, was organizing to equip 17 Long Beach families with design proposals to implement in the reconstruction of their homes (a handful of the families worked with their contractors to incorporate aspects of the students’ designs into their new homes). With their work in Long Beach wrapped, the students looked to Sanchez-Fong and asked: What’s next?
She didn’t have an answer, so she asked her church, which in turn directed her to Hope for New York (HFNY), an organization that partners with over 40 local nonprofits that serve marginalized populations throughout the city. Through HFNY, which makes grants of several thousand dollars to FIT to carry out their work, Sanchez-Fong’s program, now known as ISLP, became connected with the Bowery Mission Women’s Center, a supportive home for women who have experienced homelessness due to abuse or violence. The ISLP students drew up proposals for the building’s laundry room. The small, cramped room, with exposed pipes, cracked concrete floors, and no place to sit, received a patterned tile floor, a white park bench, and warm tangerine walls to cover the plumbing. Unlike their work in Long Beach, the ISLP volunteers didn’t stop at design proposals–Bowery Mission provided the team with a contractor, and they carried out the renovation themselves.
Since then, ISLP has completed around two projects per year; earlier this year, a team of students revamped the offices of Restore NYC, a nonprofit that works with victims of sex trafficking. The project was the first in two years that did not come to Sanchez-Fong’s attention through HFNY; the organization had reached out to FIT directly.
When Sanchez-Fong saw the need, she agreed to bring the ISLP team in to redo the space. “When I met with them in that 800-square-foot room, I saw 28 people sitting all over the place–on the floor, on chairs, just focused on their work,” Sanchez-Fong says. But there was no private room in which law enforcement could meet with the victims seeking help from Restore; when a victim would arrive at the office, the nonprofit’s employees would have to scatter to nearby coffee shops to ensure privacy. “It was unimaginable,” Sanchez-Fong says. “I told them we would build them a conference room and a private consult room; we were able to give them the kind of space to really help them function.”
The St. Paul’s House renovation, Williams says, “will make this place much more beautiful; as people walk in, they’ll be able to feel the love, and feel that it’s their home, not just a soup kitchen.” As Jimenez and Vila work on the floor, Emily Vila, a current FIT student, has been hard at work spackling the walls and sanding and painting the room’s various doors. Where the walls were once painted a clinical blue, with a wooden panel running along the bottom at chair-level, they’re now soft teal–per the request of the St. Paul’s staff, with whom the ISLP consulted through the redesign process–and the lower half of the wall will be covered in patterned wallpaper.
A metal serving table, donated by Benjamin Moore, will rest at the back of the room, Sanchez-Fong says, to allow the staff to serve people and easily access the kitchen, which leads out into the backyard. The harsh ceiling lights are being swapped out for smaller fixtures, sourced from the industrial lighting company Coronet–like Interface and Medusa, the companies which provided the flooring for the St. Paul’s space, Coronet has become a longstanding partner of FIT’s in their work. “The industry has been incredibly supportive from the beginning,” Sanchez-Fong says. “If we didn’t have their support, we couldn’t do these projects.”
For the students, the opportunity to translate their classroom learning into tangible work keeps them engaged–and in the case of alums like Jimenez, coming back. “This is firsthand experience,” Vila says. “I’m learning a lot about materials, a lot about resilient floors, a lot about what needs to go into commercial spaces and why. Every single aspect of this project fits into interior design fully.”
Sanchez-Fong, though, is thinking even bigger. In the fall of 2015, the AIA New York Center for Architecture invited Sanchez-Fong and her students to present a panel on how the program is creating partnerships to bring about social change; after the discussion, Sanchez-Fong says she had representatives from other local universities and companies coming up to her asking how they could get involved. FIT’s position as an academic institution in the city, forging connections between the nonprofit sector and the materials industry, could, she says, signal a new direction for public-private partnerships in the design space. “It’s my hope that just like we have Doctors Without Borders, we will one day have Interiors Without Borders, and this is where it’s being born,” Sanchez-Fong says. “Higher education could be a combustion of creativity, ethics, sustainability, and social justice.”