By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Let’s be honest, we all have our favorite home makeover shows.
“Fixer Upper.” “Flip or flop.” “Love it or write it.” “Hometown.” “Real Estate Brothers.” The list of choices goes on and on.
For some people, dreaming of the perfect kitchen or spacious en suite is fun. For others, these programs serve as inspiration to pursue an exciting and challenging career.
Like Chip and Joanna Gaines, Erin and Ben Napier and Jonathan and Drew Scott, the University of Nebraska in Kearney’s interior and product design program continues to grow in popularity. With more than 50 students enrolled last semester, it has doubled in size since Dana Vaux joined UNK eight years ago.
“For people who are creative and like the idea of being in a creative industry, this program gives them an opportunity to do so while earning a good life,” said Vaux, an associate professor and program coordinator.
A degree in interior and product design prepares students to work in a variety of environments, from custom furniture and lighting design to full-scale residential and commercial projects. Classes are taught by the expert faculty with a wide range of knowledge and backgrounds, allowing students to learn about art, architecture, business, construction and other related areas.
“We are able to tailor the teaching to meet a student’s interests and strengths. It is very adaptable, ”said assistant professor Ahna Packard, who has professional experience in television, film and theater scenography.
UNK senior Mikayla McFate really enjoys that aspect of the program.
She is interested in housing work, but would like to be exposed to all elements of the design field.
“I’m very grateful I chose UNK,” McFate said. “I feel like I’m having a well-rounded experience here, and I like the practical approach, because that’s how I learn best.”
McFate is a native of Callaway and has always had an eye for design. She helped a local couple design their new home during high school and overshadowed a professional designer in Lincoln who recommended that she attend UNK.
“It was a really good initial learning experience for me, and it strengthened my decision to go into this field,” she said.
Due to the smaller class sizes, UNK students work one-on-one with the faculty and develop close relationships with their classmates, many of whom take the same courses together year after year.
“Our students are a bit like a family,” said assistant professor Rebecca Hermance. “They get to know each other really well and we get to know them.”
Most of these interactions take place in Discovery Hall, a state-of-the-art STEM building that opened in the fall of 2020. This groundbreaking facility is a significant upgrade from Otto Olsen, the former commercial and industrial art building it replaced.
“Of course, the design of Discovery Hall is beautiful, so I feel it’s very appropriate for our major to be in a more modern, relevant building,” McFate said. “I also think the classroom environment is much nicer here.”
With 90,000 square feet of space, Discovery Hall has four interior and product design studios, a lighting and materials lab, a manufacturing lab and an open gallery where students’ projects are displayed.
In the materials lab, students can experiment with different types of tile, paint, flooring, upholstery, and other surface treatments by using adjustable lighting to change the color temperature. The manufacturing laboratory has 3D printers, laser cutters, a CNC router and other tools used to make scale models and prototypes. And every student has access to a computer workstation with the latest design software.
“Experiential learning is such a big concept right now, and we do it every day in everything we do,” Vaux said. “This space and these labs allow students to have these experiences.”
At UNK, interior and product design is closely linked to construction management, where students in both programs take courses such as building materials and methods, mechanical and electrical systems and building codes and inspections. The faculty from each discipline was involved in the development of a minor in construction management that is popular with interior design and product design students.
“It has been a really good opportunity for our students, especially as design-build becomes more common,” Vaux said, referring to a delivery method where the designer and the builder work together under a single contract from the beginning of a project.
The collaboration with the construction management was a noticeable strength during the recent re-accreditation of the interior design and product design education. Previously achieved in 2007 and 2014, this designation from the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA) tells employers that UNK graduates are well prepared for professional positions.
“When you graduate from a CIDA-accredited program, the person hiring you knows that you have met a high standard of knowledge,” Vaux said. “It sets you apart as a professional.”
REAL WORLD EXPERIENCE
Along with their activities on campus, UNK students have the opportunity to work on projects with local partners.
Recently, students partnered with the SAFE Center to generate ideas for expanded housing for people affected by domestic violence, and presented design options to a developer who turned a historic downtown Kearney building into a hotel. They also worked with the Holdrege-based South Central Economic Development District, which purchased a house from the Nebraska Prairie Museum property to relocate and renovate.
“Virtually every class has a project that is related to a real-world scenario,” Vaux said.
Students also complete an internship before graduation, giving them additional on-the-job experience.
“The best way to find out if you’re in the right field or in the right area of your field is just to try it, and I think internships are really good for that,” McFate said. “It’s a great test drive to see what you’re looking for in a career.”
McFate is currently an intern at Studio B Design, a Kearney company that serves customers from idea to completion, whether it is a remodel or a new build.
“I love my internship right now,” she said. “That’s all I was looking for in home design.”
The UNK senior plans to start his career in Kearney, a very achievable goal, as most students in the interior design and product design program land a full-time job before graduating.
“There’s no shortage of demand for interior design specialists, and I do not see it slowing down,” Vaux said.