This interior design professor challenges students
to create living spaces good for people and the planet.
By Spaine Stephens
ebecca Sweet’s eyes sparkle when she talks about her zeal for teaching interior design and they truly shine when she mentions her students. Her goal is to channel the energy and enthusiasm they bring to the classroom into creating a sense of place while celebrating cultural diversity and community service. “I define myself as an educator, designer and a servant leader,” Sweet says. “I’m modeling what I think is important and hoping students will consider it to be important.”
Sweet, an associate professor in the Department of Interior Design and Merchandising within the College of Human Ecology, engages her students in projects and assignments with real-world impact. One such project was designing the exhibit spaces inside the Haliwa-Saponi tribe’s First People Heritage Center planned for Wayne County. Now in the fundraising stage, the heritage center will showcase artifacts and demonstrations of Woodland Indians’ ways of life. The project was a chance for her students to see their efforts become a tangible space for people to enjoy. “I really love it when students’ work is recognized as both creative and scholarly,” she says.
Many of her students volunteer at Rebuilding Together Pitt County, the Sweet-founded local affiliate of a national nonprofit organization. Sweet’s students develop modifications and repairs to homes and service centers like the Little Willie Center and the Lucille Gorham Intergenerational Center in west Greenville. Sweet “has worked to bring students out into the community of eastern North Carolina to effect change through the built environment,” says Charles Gustina, an assistant professor of interior design.
“I define myself as an educator, designer and a servant leader. I’m modeling what I think is important and hoping students will consider it to be important.”
Sweet pushes her students to bring a fresh energy to work sites and to use their skills to make life more comfortable for others. In September, Sweet and other volunteers, including students, installed baseboard heating and painted the interior and exterior of a home that desperately needed upgrades. Hands-on efforts like these help bridge classroom learning and service. “That makes it the best job in the world,” she says. “There are not many jobs where you can combine those kinds of things.”
Sustainable design explores ways to reduce consumption of nonrenewable resources, reduce waste and create healthy environments. Sweet wants to teach the next generation of interior designers the importance of thinking in terms of sustainability and seeing the earth improve as a result. “Becky brings to the classroom a passion for good design,” says Dr. Katherine Swank, chair of the Department of Interior Design and Merchandising, “and a belief that interior design done really well can benefit all types of people and provide good stewardship of the planet.”
The students are listening. “The study of how the population’s everyday actions affect our planet—even when we think we’re being ‘eco-efficient’—has really ignited a passion in me to change the way interiors are designed and utilized,” says current student Gray Wharton. One way Sweet makes sure students understand is through collaboration—which, she says, comes naturally to designers. These partnerships with other institutions and other departments add dimension to an already imaginative and dynamic classroom experience.
To Sweet, who earned BFA and MFA degrees in interior design from Virginia Commonwealth University and an MEd from the University of Virginia, interior design is about the human spirit. In a way, each class session with her is a celebration of the human spirit and how it lends itself to distinctive and creative interior design. That spirit is evident in Sweet’s unique “Chambers of a Memory Palace” project, in which students sketched settings illustrating ways in which architecture and design fuse with memory to enhance what a person experiences. “She inspired me to focus on human aspects of design and to be able to see and show beauty to others through my design,” says past student Irina Skalova. “She taught me how to form my ideas, how to see structures and individual elements in nature, and how to get inspiration from my surroundings.”
Transitioning from the professional practice of interior design to the classroom taught Sweet lessons as well. Interacting with students was a refreshing change, and one in which she had to be forthright about her expectations of them. She also learned to derive inspiration from them. “I enjoy going in the studio with students and having them be themselves,” she says. “They ask questions and just give you a lot of energy.”
Now in her eighth year at East Carolina, Sweet feels a natural connection with her surroundings, much like she hopes her students can create for others. “This really feels like where I want to be for the rest of my teaching days.” Although she is comfortable where she is, Sweet doesn’t hesitate to encourage students to see the world through the eyes of a designer. She accompanies students on study abroad trips, where they see and experience different settings and design elements. The key is for them to be motivated to go beyond what they see, and create new elements.
“She really is changing the program to help guide our program to be a pioneer in the industry,” says Chi Yiu, one of Sweet’s past students. “Being unique in our field is crucial.” Sweet poses the challenge to students to uncover the next ground-breaking innovation in interior design. By constantly searching for solutions, they consider the question, “How can you bring something to a client’s life that they would not have thought of?”
It’s a triumph for Sweet when her students come to successful conclusions. “I don’t give answers,” she says. “I ask them to find the answers.”
East Carolina University
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