A Noble Purpose

FIT students renovate the soup kitchen hall at St. Paul’s House in New York City
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Posted November 16, 2017

As retailers industrywide navigate through an ever-evolving labyrinth of digital highways in search of a pathway to success, perhaps they can turn to the halls of education for a roadmap to the future. While stores of every classification accelerate onto technology’s fast lane, they’ll never reach their destination if they think that’s all there is.

Retailers must strive toward a noble purpose. They must ask themselves, “What would the world miss if we didn't exist? The creative aspect of retail is difficult to measure, however when pairing creativity with making a difference in people’s lives, the effort is clearly quantifiable. Profit without purpose is meaningless. Profit with purpose is aspirational.

While a curated strategy to deploy technology in a retail environment is vital going forward, it’s only part of the formula. The fundamental concept of a store has to be reconsidered. A store is no longer merely a place to get customers in to sell them something; rather it’s a place of social engagement. A store has to be part of the community it serves. The successful retailer should not simply think of transaction, but rather, interaction.

Empathy isn't a luxury, it’s a necessity. Caring about your community isn't just good for business, it’s good for society. It’s not enough to have the best merchandise at the best prices – retailers must work toward a noble purpose. And if they don't understand that concept, they should look to the Interior Design Department at Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), whose students take their work beyond the classroom and into the community.

The Integrated Service Learning Project (ISLP), run by Carmita Sanchez-Fong, professor and chair of FIT’s Interior Design Department, is redefining the impact design has on the community. St. Paul’s House on 51st Street in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York has been helping to feed the city’s homeless population since 1945. For more than 70 years, St. Paul’s House provided meals to those in need, but today they offer even more: a sense of home, a sense of place and a sense of comfort.

The goal of the Integrated Service Learning Project is for students to apply their studied skills to redesign spaces that serve the marginalized population of New York’s hungry, homeless and in-crisis. Sanchez-Fong says, “An institution of higher education should be an engine for social change.”

The ISLP first shared its creativity after Hurricane Sandy in 2013 when students used their design skills and sensibilities to help 17 families in Long Beach, N.Y., reshape their future by reconstructing their destroyed homes. The project won the 2013 School of Art & Design Interdisciplinary Grant.

In 2015, students working in the ISLP refurnished the Bowery Misson Women’s Center bedrooms and also submitted proposals for the renovation of the communal kitchen at the Hephzibah House Ministries on the upper west side..

The tradition of giving continued in 2016, as three teams of interior design students, along with alumni and volunteers, began the process for the redesign of the soup kitchen hall at St. Paul’s House.Students met with the clients at St. Paul’s to better understand their needs. Once the information was gathered, three design proposals were developed and presented to St. Paul’s in January 2017.  According to Sanchez-Fong, “The proposals left the people at St. Paul’s in tears; they couldn't believe the space could change so dramatically.” One design solution was selected, and then under the watchful eye of three faculty advisors, Nicole Migeon, Grazyna Pilatowicz and Eric Daniels, the pro-bono renovation began.

One of the issues facing Saint Paul’s was the lack of air conditioning, they couldn't hold events in the summer. The students examined the costs associated with installing an air conditioning system, and got bids of $12,000 to $14,000. There was no budget for this. Where would they get the funds? Hope for New York supported the project, donating $5000 for air conditioning. Additionally, Sanchez-Fong reached out to the community in search of a mechanical engineer who could help. Through this effort, volunteer services got the costs reduced even further.

Once the air conditioning was installed, a general contractor was hired, and the students began the installation of the final project, doing all of the construction by themselves. Students sourced needs by reaching out to industry, receiving donations of materials, wall and floor coverings, lighting and some furniture. The installation took two and a half weeks, working day and night.

Important lessons were learned in the real-world environment, most notably, lessons in yield of material. The herringbone floor pattern the students designed lead to more waste of material than anticipated, so students called the donor (a manufacturer in the industry) who was happy to send extra material. This was a true learning experience. With sleeves rolled up, students got an understanding of subflooring, placing nails in the proper position, how to perfectly lay plywood, and how to apply and spread glue. To value engineer the project, students removed and fixed all existing doors because there wasn't a budget for new doors.

One of the visions that Saint Paul’s had was for a barn door in the space, so one was designed and fabricated in the FIT wood shop. The finishing touch was a textured wallpaper, also generously donated, which will be installed by the staff of the FIT Museum.

In July of 2017, the doors to St. Paul’s newly renovated soup kitchen hall were opened. All eyes were sparkling wide as the diners filed in. They loved the new space and felt an exhilarating sense of pride. Emily Villa, a senior in the Interior Design program said, “Having the opportunity to be a part of such an impactful and meaningful renovation was truly honoring. Being able to get down and dirty in the actual construction site makes it that much more of an experience for me, not only as a student, but as a person. The outcome of the renovation exceeded all of our expectations and it really solidified the bond I have with the members of ISLP. "

As today’s colleges and universities teach principles of store design and visual merchandising, they can also provide lessons in working toward the greater good. Leadership isn't only taught in the classroom or the retailer’s executive training program; it’s taught in the real world communities in which we serve. The students in FIT’s Interior Design Department made a difference, and they've uplifted their community.

Like retailers should, they worked toward a noble purpose.

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience.  He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.