Touring Parsons School With Student Guide
By Jan Aaron
And we’re off. A group of about 20, we are on a tour of Parsons School of Design. Our student guide, Javeen Kaur, is attractively attired in an earth-toned ensemble. Her pace is brisk and we cover a lot of territory. Ms Kaur’s major is fashion design. Fashion Design is just one subject here. Parsons is one of five New School colleges. Widely regarded as one of the most prestigious art design schools in the world, it’s consistently the top art and design school in the United States. Before we set off, I ask if any one in the group was planning to enroll. None were. Tips to potential tour-goers: Be prepared to move fast and with few stops. We whizzed through gardens and galleries that became a kaleidoscopic jumble of overlapping images: There were students’ laptops open on stairs; there were students in huge chairs with their laptops; elsewhere were bulletin boards with announcements, and when we paused, a disgruntled student told us there was going to be a strike. We glimpsed a show rehearsal in the majestic Kimball Hall and when we were done touring, we’d seen the premises, learned some facts, but little of Parsons history.
The school, a stone’s throw from Greenwich Village, was founded in 1896 by William Meritt Chase, who yearned for individualistic artistic expression. It was the first school in the country to offer programs in fashion design, advertising, interior design, and graphic design. Parsons now offers undergraduate and graduate programs ranging from architecture and curatorial studies as well as textile design and urban ecology. Famous fashion designer graduates include Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang, Tom Ford, Prabal Gurung, Jenna Lyons and Anna Sui. Parsons notable artists alumni include Jasper Johns, Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein, Norman Rockwell, Ai Weiwei, and Jasper Conran.
Originally called The Chase School, Parsons was founded in 1896 by the American expressionist painter William Merritt Chase (1849–1916). He played the Pied Piper leading a small group of Progressives who fled the Art Students League of New York in search of a more relaxed, dramatic, and individualistic expression of art. In 1898, The Chase School became The New York School of Art, and Frank Alva Parsons joined Robert Henri (who founded “the Ashcan School”* of painting) to teach at the school as did avant-garde artist-educator Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia. Parsons went on to study, graduating in 1905 with a Fine Arts degree. A few years later, he became president of The New York School of Art. Forecasting a new wave change tied to the Industrial Revolution, he predicted that art and design would become closely tied to industry. His foresight led to a series of firsts for the school, establishing the first programs in fashion design, interior design, advertising, and graphic design in the United States. In 1909, the school was renamed The New York School of Fine and Applied Art with Parsons as director, a position he held until he died in 1930. William Macdougal Odom who established the school’s Paris ateliers in 1921, succeeded Parsons as President. To honor Parsons enormous contributions in shaping visual arts education throughout the world, the institution became Parsons School of Design in 1936.
(*Group of artists dedicated to “art for life’s sake, not art for art’s sake”). #