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  • History

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  • For more than a century, Parsons’ groundbreaking approach to design education and changemaking community have transformed creativity, culture, and commerce. Explore milestones that demonstrate the growing relevance of design — and our graduates — in the world.

  • Parsons Through the Years

    1896 - 2020

    William Merritt Chase establishes the Chase School, intended to foster self-expression and experimentation. Open enrollment courses, offered year ’round, include drawing, painting, composition, illustration, architecture, and design.

    From 1904 to 1910, the school launches the world’s first study programs in fashion design (“Costume Design”), graphic design (“Advertising” or “Commercial Design”), and interior design (“Interior Decoration”). By 1919, Parsons offers summer sessions, classes in textile design, and courses for teachers, youth, and World War I servicemen.

    Educator Frank Alvah Parsons, hired by William Merritt Chase in 1904, is named director of the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (then the name of the school). Parsons champions the democratization of design education. 




    Frank Alvah Parsons and alumnus William Odom initiate a satellite school in Paris — the Paris Ateliers — which becomes the first international branch for an American school. Courses in architecture, decorative arts, and costume design are offered. War closes the Paris Ateliers from fall 1939 until 1948.

    Celebrated interior designer Jean-Michel Frank leads Paris Ateliers students to create what is now known the world over as the Parsons Table, a piece whose equal dimensions make it easy to produce in a range of materials.

    The New York School of Fine and Applied Art is renamed Parsons School of Design in honor of the school’s influential longtime director. The following year, Van Day Truex becomes president of the school. (A decade later, Truex is made president of Tiffany and Co.)

    Parsons holds its first fashion benefit, marking NYC’s ascendance as a fashion capital. The same year, the school partners with NYU to offer Bachelor of Science degrees. 

    Parsons publishes a booklet, A School and the American Way of Life, with text by school president Pierre Bedard, promoting the connection between design education, democracy, and postwar prosperity.

    Celebrated French couturier Christian Dior attends Parsons classes in Paris to critique fashion design projects and share with students his innovative construction techniques. Previously, Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Jean Patou serve as guest critics.

    Parsons moves from its home at 136 E. 57th Street to 410 East 54th Street. By now, the school has shifted to fully engage with the industrializing world and design’s growing place in it.

    Interior design alumni mount A Place to Live, an exhibition proposing alternatives to substandard urban housing. Two years later, students propose designs for a women’s detention center in New York, signaling the program’s embrace of broadened applications of interior design.

    From 1969 to 1990, Parsons launches BFAs in Design Correlations (design problem solving research), Environmental Design, Fine Arts, Arts Education, Photography, Crafts, Computer Art and Design; a BBA in Design Marketing (now Strategic Design and Management); a BA/BFA degree; and Associate in Applied Science degrees.

    Through the efforts of future Parsons dean David C. Levy, Parsons joins the New School for Social Research, allowing for the expansion of degree programs, research, and partnerships and beginning an era in which design is regarded as a means of creating a more just, sustainable world.

    Students throughout the school respond to current events, mounting an antiwar art show, My God! We’re Losing a Great Country, and organizing activities for the first Earth Day, including a teach-in led by Whole Earth Catalog editor Stewart Brand.

    Parsons leaves midtown for Greenwich Village.

    The New School becomes the first home for the New Museum, the only major museum in New York dedicated to contemporary art. One of the museum's first exhibitions features work by Joel Shapiro and other American artists; Jeff Koons’ first show is held there.

    Parsons’ fashion programs move to a building at Seventh Avenue and 40th Street (later named the David Schwartz Fashion Education Center).

    The MA History of Decorative Arts program (today called MA History of Design and Curatorial Studies) is offered for the first time in partnership with the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, giving students access to the largest design object collection in the United States.

    Chinese artist Ai Weiwei enrolls at Parsons. In a 2012 interview in Time magazine, Weiwei discusses how during his time at Parsons, he gained an understanding of the work of contemporary artists like Jasper Johns which changed the way he looked at the world.

     

    An affiliate art and design school is established at Altos de Chavón in the Dominican Republic, offering creative education including associate’s degrees for transfer to Parsons.

    Fashion designer Marc Jacobs graduates from Parsons with the Designer of the Year Award. Just two years later, he launches his eponymous collection, and in 1987 he becomes the youngest designer ever to receive the fashion industry's highest tribute, the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent.

    In honor of its centennial, Parsons establishes the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Archives Center (later renamed the New School Archives).




    Parsons promotes diversity in design education by establishing Parsons Scholars, a three-year program that provides NYC high schoolers with college prep and creative skills.

    The Design Workshop, Parson’s signature design-build program, is launched with a student project to renovate New School interiors. The program, still in operation, partners with organizations on a pro bono basis to develop innovative community facilities.

    In the years from 1998 to 2009, Parsons launches MFA Design and Technology (1998) and its BFA counterpart (2001) in recognition of digital technology’s rising global influence, along with the BFA Integrated Design and MFA Interior Design programs.

    Parsons is renamed Parsons The New School for Design, signaling the full union with its parent university. The year begins a new period of intensive industry engagement, marked by partnerships with organizations including Louis Vuitton, Habitat for Humanity, Godiva, United Nations, Areaware, NYC Mayor’s Office, and NYCxDESIGN.

    The Tishman Environment and Design Center is established at The New School under the leadership of Parsons faculty member Joel Towers. The center addresses environmental issues by integrating innovative research, design, and policy and promotes social justice–focused goals and curricula.

    Parsons’ buildings at Fifth Avenue and 13th Street are combined to create the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (SJDC), named for its donor. SJDC’s community focused programming gives students curatorial opportunities in the Arnold and Sheila Aronson Galleries.

    Parsons organizes its programs into five schools to foster community and the integration of related creative practices.

    First Lady Michelle Obama wears a design by Parsons alum Jason Wu to the first inaugural ball. During her time in office, she goes on to wear many looks by other Parsons alums, including Tracey Reese, Jenna Lyons, Prabal Gurung, Chris Benz, and Isabel Toledo.

    MFA Transdisciplinary Design, MA Fashion Studies, and MFA Fashion Design and Society programs launch, marking Parsons’ leadership in emerging fields. Soon after, the MS Strategic Design and Management program offers, offering a study pathway to merge design, entrepreneurship, and management.




    Parsons and Milano students design a passive solar home that wins the U.S. Department of Energy's 2011 Solar Decathlon award for affordability and lighting. Their design, Empowerhouse, was built in collaboration with Habitat for Humanity, and Habitat adopts features from Empowerhouse for use in other homes.

    Parsons Paris is launched as a reinvigorated university hub, offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

    Parsons launches the first major upgrade to its foundation-year curriculum, established in 1977. The innovative curriculum features paired integrative studios and seminars, uniquely linking studio practice and liberal arts capacities while preparing students for the rest of their four-year educational journey.

    The University Center — the country's largest LEED Gold Certified urban university building — opens on 14th Street and Fifth Avenue, uniting the campus. The building houses resources for fashion students, including studios and apparel-making tools as well as a library with art- and design-related materials.

    During a five-year period, programs are launched in design- and data-led media (BA Journalism + Design and MS Data Visualization, 2014; MPS Communication Design, 2017); master’s study (MFA Industrial Design, 2015; MFA Textiles, 2018; MPS Fashion Management, 2019); and design history (BFA Design History and Practice, 2019).

    Amid a university rebranding, Parsons resumes its former name (“Parsons School of Design”) and is ranked #1 among U.S. art and design colleges and #3 in the world by the Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings. Parsons retains these premier rankings consistently since.

    Parsons’ School of Constructed Environments (SCE) begins an ongoing partnership with the NYC Department of Transportation, resulting in Street Seats — sustainably produced public seating on campus.

     

    Parsons students, faculty, and alumni participate in First Lady Michelle Obama’s fashion education workshop, which aimed to encourage young people to consider careers in design. Parsons students repurposed materials to create an installation in the White House.

    The Healthy Materials Lab (HML) — launched with a $7.5 million grant from The JPB Foundation (partners Green Science Policy Institute GSPI, Healthy Building Network HBN and Health Product Declaration Collaborative HPDC) — begins promoting the use of nontoxic, sustainable, and affordable materials for affordable housing and elevating awareness of material effects on health.

     

    In partnership with Donna Karan, Parsons founds the Design, Organization, Training (DOT) Center, a vocational hub for Haiti’s artisan community.

    Grace Jun, MFA Design and Technology ’16, launches inclusive fashion and tech initiative, Open Style Lab, at Parsons; projects focus on solutions for people with a range of abilities and needs.




    MS Data Visualization students partner with the UN Development Programme on Africa to provide policymakers with data-driven tools for advancing gender-related justice.

    Parsons opens the 26,000-square-foot Making Center, equipped with traditional and cutting-edge tools, including CNC routers, 3D printers, 3D knitting machines, digital jacquard looms, state-of-the art metal milling machinery, printing facilities, and a ceramics lab.

    Parsons students reimagine the design of the hospital gown for Care+Wear, a healthwear company, with support from AARP. They also develop a reusable menstruation garment for displaced persons, in collaboration with the UN Population Fund, clothing manufacturer HELA, and refugees in Kenya.
    Interdisciplinary initiatives are launched at Parsons (Reimagining Justice: NYC Without Rikers; MFA Fashion Design and Society program’s Homeless But Not Hopeless studio), Eugene Lang College (Lang Prison Initiative; Humanities Action Lab), and Schools of Public Engagement (Center for Transformative Mentoring) to address needs related to the prison system.
    New School Board of Trustees Chair Joseph Gromek gives $8.5 million to establish The Joseph and Gail Gromek Institute for Fashion Business, which supports students aiming to become industry leaders. That year, Parsons launches the MPS Fashion Management program, and a year later the online version begins.
    DESIS Lab, the U.S. branch of the international social innovation organization DESIS Network, celebrates its tenth anniversary of mounting collaborative community-building initiatives at Parsons with a day-long event of events, workshops, and speakers including service design pioneer Ezio Manzini.
  • Our Legacy

    William Merritt Chase

    The renowned American Impressionist William Merritt Chase founded Parsons in 1896. It was a rebellious gesture: Chase led a small group of progressives who seceded from the Art Students League of New York in search of more individualistic expression. The Chase School would educate future luminaries of early American modernism, including Marsden Hartley and Edward Hopper.

    Frank Alvah Parsons

    In 1904, arts educator Frank Alvah Parsons joined the school. Six years later, he became its sole director. Predicting art and design's inevitable link to industry, Parsons launched a series of groundbreaking programs, the first of their kind in the United States:

    • Fashion design, 1904 (originally "Costume Design")
    • Interior design, 1906 (originally "Interior Decoration")
    • Graphic design, 1910 (originally "Advertising" and "Commercial Illustration")

    "Art is not for the few, for the talented, for the genius, for the rich, nor the church," Parsons said in 1920. "Industry is the nation's life, art is the quality of beauty in expression, and industrial art is the cornerstone of our national art."

    By pursuing beauty in ordinary things, Frank Alvah Parsons virtually invented the modern concept of design. His faculty cared about the spaces ordinary people lived in, the garments they wore, the advertising they read, the furniture and tableware they used. His principles effectively democratized taste.

    Recognizing his profound impact on American life, the school adopted Parsons' name in 1941.

    Looking Abroad

    Not long after design entered its repertoire, the old Chase school, by that time known as the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, began applying this new doctrine internationally. In 1921, Parsons initiated a satellite school in Paris, becoming the first art and design school in the United States to found a campus abroad.

    It was there, in the 1930s, that the famous Parsons Table was born. The table came into being as a drafting exercise in a class taught by interior designer Jean-Michel Frank, and to this day it is widely regarded as an example of good modern design. With legs as thick as its top, the Parsons Table is synonymous with design that emphasizes an economy of means.

    Parsons students today expand their horizons by studying at art and design partner schools in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and around the world. Additionally, many academic programs organize short-term classes, external partnerships, and research-based projects that take students abroad. 

    The Birth of Socially Active Design

    Parsons has long regarded its artists and designers as actively engaged citizens. "Materially the American is better off because of his great industrial society. But what is happening to him spiritually?" wrote president Pierre Bedard in 1954, 13 years after the school changed its name to Parsons School of Design. "This School is conscious of its great responsibility in forming characters and minds of those who will help shape our civilization."

    Political upheaval and new social history in the late 1960s would challenge several Parsons departments, especially Interior Design. Whereas that curriculum had emphasized middle-class and upscale homes, the program now directed students to work on projects such as prisons, hospitals, and public housing.

    In keeping with this new outlook, 1965's Interior Design graduates mounted A Place to Live, an exhibition that proposed alternatives to substandard urban housing. Since this formative era, every Parsons program has emphatically championed art and design as both intellectual practice and social responsibility.

    Aligning with The New School

    In 1970, Parsons joined The New School (then called The New School for Social Research), a renowned institution of progressive thinking.

    The New School had been founded in 1919 by a group of prominent progressive scholars including Charles Beard, John Dewey, James Harvey Robinson, and Thorstein Veblen. In planning their school, these distinguished intellectuals envisioned a center for instruction and counseling for mature men and women. They planned it as an alternative to traditional universities, with an open curriculum, minimal hierarchy, and free discussion of controversial ideas. In 1933, The New School for Social Research gave a home to the University in Exile, a refuge for scholars forced from Europe by the Nazis. In 1934, the University in Exile was incorporated into The New School for Social Research as the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science.

    The merger with The New School provided Parsons with new resources to expand its education offerings. The move also strengthened the connection between academic knowledge and social activism. In 1977, for example, the establishment-defying New Museum of Contemporary Art showed its first exhibition, Early Works by Five Contemporary Artists, at The New School.

    Emphasis on Design Thinking

    Today, Parsons and The New School are committed to employing design thinking as a way to help solve complex global problems. At the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, for example, scholars are joining forces with designers to explore solutions to climate-driven change, including migration. Other university research centers, such as the Tishman Environment and Design Center and Healthy Materials Lab, produce knowledge and practice that bears witness to the transformative potential of design to foster contemporary thinking on sustainability and wellness. 

    Projects with community, industry, educational, and government partners often emphasize tangible outcomes. Since 1998, The Design Workshop has provided pro bono design-build services to nonprofit clients. More recently, Parsons partnered with Habitat for Humanity and developed a new building typology using passive solar technologies. The initiative, called Empowerhouse, resulted in Parsons’ entry for the US Department of Energy’s solar decathlon competition, in which Parsons brought home awards for its innovative approach to a solar home.

    Scaling Up Collaboration

    In the last decade, Parsons has turned increasingly toward collaborative research and practice, forging new partnerships within disciplines throughout the university and with key industry and government players. This era has seen an increased focus on sustainability and equity as connected to design, leading to new and inclusive design projects. Among these initiatives are Parsons alumna Grace Jun’s Open Style Lab, which develops wearable solutions for people of all abilities, and Michelle Obama’s White House Fashion Education Workshop that brought students to Washington and explored creative opportunities and careers in sustainable design. 

    The establishment of the Making Center in 2016, a spacious 26,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art facility, furthers Parsons’ mission to foster transdisciplinary creativity by bringing together students from across the school in a single making space. This spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration is also expressed by Parsons’ growing list of new master’s programs that emphasise learning in hybrid emerging fields, including data visualization, digital products, design in business, and fashion management.


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