Student teams compete in showroom design contest

East Carolina University interior design students are competing to create a new showroom design in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart.

The showroom design contest is sponsored by furniture manufacturer Knoll, where alumna Scarlett Salter is an account manager in Raleigh. She recently visited the student teams in ECU’s design studio to provide feedback on their work before the contest ends April 12.

Salter came up with the idea to give ECU students the opportunity to redesign a Knoll showroom at NeoCon, a 50-year-old show that connects 500 companies with an estimated 50,000 design professionals each June in Chicago.

“I really wanted to bring Knoll to ECU,” Salter said. “I wanted something really interactive. I’m so excited to see the phenomenal ideas that have come out of this contest.”

Once all student work is submitted, Salter and colleagues will pick the top two or three teams to present final designs. While the winning team will not actually have its design at NeoCon, the work will be shared with Knoll, which is celebrating its 80th year in the business.

“We will see how close they are and what elements they may use that are actually there,” Salter said. “To have this insight from the next crop of designers is invaluable. They’re definitely making a great go at it.”

An interior design student hangs drawings by her team for a hypothetical showroom in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart.

Charles Gustina, associate professor of interior design and merchandising, said the contest puts students in touch with a strong ECU graduate in the field. “Interior design is really about leadership,” he said. “You have to lead an entire team. They need all kinds of technical skills but also leadership skills – both from naturals and those who learn it over time.”

The class was divided into seven teams of three. For student Hannah Wiser of Goldsboro, it was the first time she worked on a team project of this size. “We could bounce ideas off each other and we built off each other,” she said.

Each project has resulted in weeks of research leading to a theme, concept drawings and a detailed floor plan down to the size of tables, the number of chairs, type of flooring and interior accents.

Salter gave suggestions incorporating current design trends, palettes, materials and finishes. “Make sure it looks modern and clean – always go back to that,” Salter said. “There’s no office of the future – only change. That’s a corporate belief we have.”

Interior design is much more than picking pillows or colors – a common misconception, said Katie Warren of Williamston.

“We can’t just think of colors. We have to look at how lights interact with surfaces, how someone might walk in a space and if it makes sense,” Warren said. “How do you tell people where to go without a sign?”

The students have researched WELL building standards, a complement to LEED which is a widely used green building rating system. WELL focuses on the health and wellness of people in buildings.

“Our professor says it’s creating an experience, not just an environment. It’s every single aspect of the space,” Wiser said.

Based on the successful pilot at ECU, Salter plans for the Knoll competition to expand nationally in a couple of years.

Interior design students in another Gustina class have been working with alumna Jennifer Turner, who is the director of interior design for MHAworks Architecture. Turner also created a hypothetical project for ECU students using a building that MHAworks is renovating in Durham.

ECU alumna Scarlett Salter talks with interior design students in the Rivers building studio.