Design Without Boundaries

Senior Madison Kim BRDD 17 IA

When Madison Kim BRDD 17 IA arrived in Vancouver, Canada as a 10-year-old immigrant from Korea, she turned to home-improvement shows on TV as a way to fast-track her English speaking skills. But something about those shows made a lasting impression.

“I was drawn to how people reacted when their spaces were transformed,” recalls the designer, who at that young age visualized making a similar impact on people’s everyday environments. Today, she’s driven by that same spark, eager to develop a design practice informed by the Interior Architecture department’s emphasis on sustainability and adaptive reuse.

“The concept of adaptive reuse—of taking preexisting buildings and completely transforming their interior—is such a wonderful one,” says Kim, the first person from RISD to win a Student Scholarship in Interior Design from the Angelo Donghia Foundation. Established by the late interior design icon, the Foundation invites rising seniors from accredited interior design programs to participate in a juried competition for a limited number of merit scholarships. Kim’s $30,000 award will provide support as she completes her final year in Interior Architecture at RISD and—as a Brown|RISD Dual Degree candidate—Urban Studies at Brown University. It also solidly affirms her belief that “this is what I was meant to do and what I love doing.”

“Madison is a really amazing student on every level,” says Interior Architecture Department Head Liliane Wong. “She is talented in design and endowed with an equally amazing intellect and writing skills—and she’s really nice! What more can you ask for?”

Concept sketches by Madison Kim BRDD 17 IA
Kim’s concept sketches for the design-exhibition nonprofit Design Museum Foundation

When Kim describes the project she submitted for the Donghia application – an exhibition and commercial space for the Boston “location” of the “nomadic” design-exhibition nonprofit Design Museum Foundation—she exudes professional savvy. Embracing the paradoxical nature of the assignment, she transformed the foundation’s “museum without boundaries” ethos into the guiding principle of her plan, which employs furniture, light and color to enable exhibition-specific manipulation of the museum space.

But despite her confidence in the project, Kim was understandably anxious about the Donghia competition—anxious enough that she kept it under wraps while she interned at the Seattle offices of the design firm NBBJ over the summer. So when a letter announcing her win arrived at her family home near Toronto, Kim’s mother sent her a text message of congratulations, not knowing the magnitude of the award. “I ran out of the office and called home out of breath to tell her, ‘Mom, that’s a $30,000 scholarship!’” says Kim. The award also helped her to participate in a recent adaptive reuse project in Seoul, South Korea as part of an Interior Design studio led by faculty member Rafael Luna.

Digital rendering of people and furniture in an indoor space, Senior Madison Kim BRDD 17 IA

During her internship at NBBJ, Kim gained valuable insight into the professional world of interior architecture. Working primarily on the project group assigned to the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, she was thrilled to find something similar to RISD’s critique culture and inclusive approach to design in place at the international firm. “NBBJ intentionally resists standardizing their process and aims to get the best result by incorporating the opinions of everyone involved in a project,” she says, while also observing how careful the firm’s designers are in balancing their expertise with the wishes of their clients.

Though the internship has left Kim conflicted about whether to pursue her career on the east or west coast, she’s feeling confident in her decision to focus on retail design. “Retail companies want to create memorable experiences for customers, so designers working on those spaces have more room to experiment,” says the senior, who loves the Interior Architecture faculty’s concept-driven approach. “Here, designers learn to make sure there’s sound logic behind what they express in a design—that there is a reason for every design decision,” she says.

Ironically, Kim is now very outspoken about the field of interior architecture being much more complex than the “as-seen-on-TV” practice of interior design that first caught her eye as a child. “What I love about Interior Architecture at RISD is the amount of pride everyone has in what we do—in saving buildings. Whereas architecture gives birth to buildings, interior architecture gives them life.”

Robert Albanese / top photo by Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH