By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Let’s be honest, we all have our favorite home-makeover shows.
“Fixer Upper.” “Flip or Flop.” “Love It or List It.” “Home Town.” “Property Brothers.” The list of choices goes on and on.
For some people, it’s fun to dream about that perfect kitchen or spacious en suite. For others, these programs serve as inspiration to pursue an exciting and challenging career.
Much like Chip and Joanna Gaines, Erin and Ben Napier and Jonathan and Drew Scott, the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s interior and product design program continues to grow in popularity. With more than 50 students enrolled last semester, it’s 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 that while making a good living,” said Vaux, an associate professor and program coordinator.
A degree in interior and product design prepares students to work in a variety of settings, from custom furniture and lighting design to full-scale residential and commercial projects. Classes are taught by expert faculty with a wide range of knowledge and backgrounds, allowing students to learn about art, architecture, business, construction and other related areas.
“We’re able to tailor the instruction to meet a student’s interests and strengths. It’s very customizable,” said assistant professor Ahna Packard, who has professional experience in TV, movie and theater set design.
UNK senior Mikayla McFate really enjoys that aspect of the program.
She’s interested in residential work, but wants to be exposed to all elements of the design field.
“I’m very thankful I chose UNK,” McFate said. “I feel like I’m getting a well-rounded experience here and I like the hands-on approach, because that’s how I learn best.”
A Callaway native, McFate has always had an eye for design. She helped a local couple design their new home during high school and shadowed a professional designer in Lincoln who recommended she attend UNK.
“That was a really good initial learning experience for me and it solidified my decision to enter this field,” she said.
Because of the smaller class sizes, UNK students work one-on-one with faculty and develop close relationships with their classmates, many of whom take the same courses together year after year.
“Our students are kind of 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 occur in Discovery Hall, a state-of-the-art STEM building that opened in fall 2020. This cutting-edge facility is a significant upgrade from Otto Olsen, the former vocational and industrial arts building it replaced.
“Obviously the design of Discovery Hall is beautiful, so I feel like it’s very fitting for our major to be in a more modern, relevant building,” McFate said. “I also think the classroom environment is a lot nicer here.”
With 90,000 square feet of space, Discovery Hall features four interior and product design studios, a lighting and materials lab, fabrication lab and open gallery where student projects are displayed.
In the materials lab, students can experiment with different types of tile, paint, flooring, upholstery and other finishes, using adjustable lighting to change the color temperature. The fabrication lab 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 term right now, and we do it every day in everything we do,” Vaux said. “This space and these labs allow students to have those experiences.”
At UNK, interior and product design is closely tied to construction management, with students in both programs taking courses such as construction materials and methods, mechanical and electrical systems and building codes and inspections. Faculty from each discipline were involved in the development of a construction management minor that’s popular with interior and product design majors.
“That’s been a really great option for our students, especially as design-build becomes more common,” said Vaux, referencing a delivery method where the designer and builder work together under a single contract from the beginning stages of a project.
The collaboration with construction management was a noted strength during the interior and product design program’s recent reaccreditation. Previously achieved in 2007 and 2014, this designation from the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA) tells employers UNK graduates are well-prepared for professional positions.
“When you graduate from a CIDA-accredited program, the person who hires you knows you’ve met a high standard of knowledge,” Vaux said. “It separates you as a professional.”
Along with their on-campus activities, UNK students have the opportunity to work on projects with community partners.
Recently, students collaborated with the S.A.F.E. Center to generate ideas for expanded housing for people impacted by domestic violence and presented design options to a developer turning a historic downtown Kearney building into a hotel. They also worked with the Holdrege-based South Central Economic Development District, which acquired a house from the Nebraska Prairie Museum property to relocate and renovate.
“Pretty much every class has a project that’s related to a real-world scenario,” Vaux said.
Students also complete an internship prior to graduation, giving them additional on-the-job experience.
“The best way to figure out if you’re in the right field or in the right area of your field is to just give it a try, and I think internships are really great for that,” McFate said. “It’s a great trial run to see what you’re looking for in a career.”
McFate is currently interning with Studio B Design, a Kearney business that serves customers from concept to completion, whether it’s a remodel or new construction.
“I’m loving my internship right now,” she said. “It’s everything I was looking for in residential design.”
The UNK senior plans to start her career in Kearney, a very achievable goal since most students in the interior and product design program land a full-time job before they graduate.
“There’s no shortage of demand for interior design specialists, and I don’t see it slowing down,” Vaux said.