Students in the O’More School of Design’s Interior Design program may be used to frequent client meetings and conversations surrounding the most effective layouts of homes, but this semester they have found themselves doing different work, entirely. Thanks to a collaboration with the School of Occupational Therapy, students in both programs have joined efforts to work alongside the Trotters, a local family whose 9-year-old daughter Joy has a number of disabilities that limit her mobility and access throughout the home.
Sydni Claunch, a sophomore in Interior Design, said, “As an interior design student, we usually deal with a lot of hypothetical projects. The opportunity to work with Trotters’ house and OT made our project have a heart behind it. It allowed us to connect with an actual family and with an actual story, and it taught me the importance of interaction. Design constantly interacts with people, so I think it was pivotal for our group to be able to interact with a wonderfully bright little girl and design something to comfort and aid her through the help of OT.”
After a series of combined sessions where both groups had the chance to learn from each other’s disciplines and begin their collaboration, designers traveled to the Trotter house and began their work. They spoke with Donna, Joy’s mother, who serves as a physical therapist at Vanderbilt and learned more about Joy’s specific preferences – standing when watching TV, seeing her reflection on shiny surfaces and playing in her room, uninterrupted by the sounds of guests in the home’s living room.
From there, the design teams began dreaming for Joy and her family. Thinking through every detail from the best flooring to accommodate her love for spending playtime on the ground, to the need to eliminate unnecessary hallways but still keep acoustical treatment surrounding Joy’s bedroom, students began thinking through what elements to add and which ones to remove. From ensuring enough space for wheelchair clearance to evaluating the easiest way to unload groceries from the car, essential elements were key.
That’s the beauty of successful design work, at least according to Interior Design Lecturer and the faculty member over this project’s design students Jayme Jacobson. “Design, as a discipline, is inherently collaborative,” she said. “Professional designers work with clients, architects, engineers and other specialists throughout the design process. Good design is a result of considering all details and responding thoughtfully to challenges, constraints and needs specific to a particular project.”
And at their core, interior designers and occupational therapists share inherent goals, making this collaborative experience a perfect fit. “They both seek to meet the client’s needs as they are,” Jacobson said. “To improve the environment to accommodate the person; as opposed to a person needing to adapt to his or her mismatched environment.”
After reviewing the designs, there were a few key pieces that stuck out to Donna as the most significant. One team’s creation of a living room sensory station provided an opportunity for Joy to play in common areas and an accompanying renovation of Donna’s office gave her a door, while providing sight lines through an additional window. Another group re-did the bathroom layout, providing better accessibility and an intentional focus on Joybug’s needs, as Donna lovingly calls her.
“The entire process was wonderful to be part of,” Donna said. “I truly enjoyed sharing with the students about Joy’s abilities and areas where she needs help to be safe and more independent at home. I love sharing my sweet miracle girl with anyone who is interested, and I am always seeking opportunities to educate others about those with different abilities and how to include everyone, regardless of their ability.
Moving forward, this is not the final opportunity for OT students to partner with O’More designers, or other schools across campus. Associate Professor of Occupational Therapy Dr. Teresa Plummer said the opportunity to work with professionals outside your field is essential to student success. “Teaching interdisciplinary collaboration at a university level is paramount, foundational and essential to help students understand the importance of gathering input from all stakeholders. Asking the right questions comes from opportunities to hear multiple answers from a diverse group of people.”
And for interior design student Claunch, this assignment provided new ways for her to pursue her craft with an interdisciplinary approach. “There is a way to mingle aesthetics and creativity with function,” she said. “This experience, specifically getting to meet Joy, made an impression on how I view the impact of design. Collaboration is so important, and I am very excited it is happening in our earlier studios so we will be able to influence more of our projects with what we learn from other departments.”