Students coin 'unroom' for interior design lexicon

unroom designs
The Unroom concept will become the 86th entry in the Intypes (Interior Archetypes) Research and Teaching Project.

Their “unroom” – spaces in homes and commercial buildings that have no furniture but attract people – will become the 86th entry in the Intypes (Interior Archetypes) Research and Teaching Project, a typology of contemporary interior design practices used throughout history and across cultures that was developed by College of Human Ecology researchers.

In the past year, design and environmental analysis students Arielle Levy ’13 and Emily Mitchell ’13 have scoured Cornell’s campus and design magazines for examples of “unrooms.”

In archived issues of Interior Design, the students found more than 50 photographs from as far back as 1960 that showed these pockets of space beneath staircases, next to columns or enclosed by balconies. In the crevices of Cornell’s architecture, they found more unrooms in such buildings as the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Milstein Hall and Uris Library.

Examples of terms used to describe elements of interior design in the Intypes Research and Teaching Project.

Based on the research, the unroom will become part of the Intypes lexicon this summer.

Jan Jennings, professor emerita of design and environmental analysis (DEA), launched Intypes in 1997 as a way to develop a vocabulary that would explain recurring design patterns to her students. She had no words, for example, to describe the furniture arrangement of two chairs facing a couch, often with a table or area rug between them, commonly found in living rooms or offices. (It’s now classified as “Face to Face” in the Intypes lexicon, thanks to research by Sue Yin ’09, M.A. ’10).

It’s a common arrangement “in corporate reception areas in the workplace and in hospital waiting rooms, but there was no name for it,” Jennings said.

Though Jennings retired last year, the Intypes project continues to shape teaching of design at Cornell and is affecting practices in architectural and design firms throughout the country. Jennings directs the Intypes project, while DEA associate professor Kathleen Gibson supervises its students.

Most new intype entries are defined primarily by DEA graduate students, who explore them in their masters’ theses. They follow a seven-step process that involves analyzing roughly 1,000 issues of design journals to identify a new interior archetype and presenting their findings to a cross-disciplinary faculty committee of more than a dozen scholars in fields ranging from theater arts to landscape architecture that deems whether a new intype will be accepted. If it is, the faculty group selects a name for it.

Jan Jennings

The process is research-based and derives from images seen in the periodicals, along with field studies by students, said Gibson: “It’s what they’re finding through the evidence.”

The Intypes website is accessible to design professionals. Jennings has also promoted the project at national conferences and in presentations to architectural firms across the country, including an Intypes symposium by Jennings; Paula Horrigan, MLA ’87, associate professor of landscape architecture; and doctoral student Leah Scolere ’03, M.A. ’04, at the Environmental Design Research Association Conference May 30.

“The value of the project to me is the development of a vocabulary for our discipline,” Jennings said, “that is, to add to the language we know and borrow from the fields of architecture and the decorative arts and art, architectural and design history.”

Sherrie Negrea is a freelance writer.

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