By  on February 21, 2008

In what looks like an exemplary example of showcasing design to heighten public awareness, The New School dedicated the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center Wednesday.

Designed by Lyn Rice Architects, the 32,800-square-foot "urban quad" for Parsons The New School for Design provides a base for its four historic buildings on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 13th Street. Lyn Rice, who was part of the team behind the popular art destination Dia:Beacon, used skylight-covered public program spaces, exhibition galleries, learning centers, a futuristic, compact auditorium and chartreuse-accented offices in his design for The New School to assure students and faculty will cross paths frequently, with the hope that spontaneity will help trigger all sorts of creative ideas and exchanges.

The building's namesake, a trustee and chair of the school's board of governors, provided a $7 million gift, which helped make the project possible. Longtime New School supporters Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen and Arnold and Sheila Aronson also pitched in. Johnson, a founding partner of BET (Black Entertainment Television) and the first woman to have a stake in three professional sports teams, marveled at the finished product after four years of construction rooted out an old vaudeville theater, among other relics.

"Where we are standing used to be the garbage dump for the trash. All the rats were here," she said, shaking her head slightly with a smile.

"I loved the energy of Parsons but I felt the physical learning environment felt subservient and that made me angry," she said. "As a new trustee, I wanted to be a catalyst to get other people on board. Hopefully, the new physical space will not only attract great students but great faculty, too."

The new setup's aim is for the school's 4,000 students to collaborate regardless of their respective disciplines. Photography, product design, fashion, architecture and critical theory are among those offered. In this ever-shrinking global economy, design requires tackling some of the world's most complex issues — from sustainability to globalization, according to Tim Marshall, dean of Parsons The New School for Design.

Reminders of such weighty topics are on display in the galleries. Images of women who have overcome servitude and other serious setbacks are up in "Women Empowered: Photographic Portraiture by Phil Borges," an exhibition created with the nonprofit organization CARE. Another gallery features Andy Warhol's "Mao," two Chuck Close portraits of Bill Clinton and Karen Walker's "A Means to an End...A Shadow Drama in Five Acts" in "Soft Parade: Selected Works from The New School Collection."Beyond the reception desk at the Fifth Avenue entrance, there is an example of how a former product design student's creation was well-received. Next to Philip O'Sullivan's bright green OverVue digital print wallpaper, a design that consists of graphic overlays and perforated-cutout patterns, is a small placard highlighting how it was featured in the competitive Salone del Mobile in Milan as well as the International Contemporary Furniture Fair.

Students and faculty at work in the Johnson Design Center will probably have their share of curious onlookers, due to full-length windows that face Fifth Avenue and East 13th Street. Passersby on Fifth can see a wall-size digital photo, a wooden model, video footage and color photos of the park pavilion built near the Catskill Mountains by 11 New School students over a 10-week stretch last year as part of a design workshop. The school's president, Bob Kerrey, noted how outside a nearby 14th Street building, pedestrians tend to stop and stare at New School students building replica boats from the 1820s that were common on the Hudson River.

"There are lots of things going on here. My hope is that this voyeuristic aspect will be a great benefit for the university," Kerrey said.

But the building is not all bells and whistles. Visitors entering on Fifth Avenue are greeted by a TV monitor that lists the time and location of all the upcoming classes that day.

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