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AU News

Interior Design Graduates Combine Faith and Learning to Serve Their Communities

January 28, 2021
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Recent Anderson University School of Interior Design graduates are taking different career paths, but both are united in a common purpose

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Ashley Michalak enjoys the challenge of designing small spaces.

“I want to build myself a tiny house someday. I really love them,” said Michalak, a graduate of the Anderson University School of Interior Design. “I like the whole the lifestyle choice of living with less. You have to really connect with nature when you live in a tiny house, because the outdoors become a living space for you.”

While Michalak thinks small, her friend and former classmate, Joye Gaba, goes big. Gaba lights up at the idea of creating large, corporate spaces.

“I feel like there is a bit more creative to commercial design,” Gaba said. “I would always challenge myself in school with different ideas for the ceiling and with lighting. I liked playing with the ceiling features too. I feel like there is more creativity that goes into larger spaces. It’s typically a much larger space to work with so it’s more challenging too.”

Whether space is big or small, the two Anderson University graduates have already proven they have what it takes for a career in interior design. Together, the two women married their passions and strengths to design a winning concept in the 2020 national Interior Design Educator Council’s undergraduate competition.

Michalak and Gaba placed third in the 2020 competition for their concept, “The Connect Basic Needs Facility,” earning them and the Anderson University School of Interior Design national accolades.  

“It’s a very prestigious award because it’s peer-reviewed,” said School of Interior Design Dean Anne Martin. “This is a juried competition and critiqued by scholars and educators. It’s critiqued by people whose standards are to prepare emerging professionals.”

The IDEC competition attracted nearly 100 entries from 38 schools. Gaba was surprised by their final placement. “It was surprising too, because we got third in the regional competition,” she said. We were pleasantly surprised.”

Earning this accolade was quite the accomplishment, Gaba said, after the girls struggled early to form their concept. “In the short amount of time we had to work on this and feeling like we were in a funk in the beginning… the fact that we could get on the same page and produce something that people saw something in, that was awesome.”

The girls didn’t remain stuck for long. The two had become friends over their four years together in the interior design program and worked on several projects together. They knew each other’s strengths and shared a common passion for this work.

“Both of us had a focus on how this impacts the end user. How do they feel coming into this space,” Michalak said.

The IDEC competition called for designers to imagine a budget-friendly, community-based, sustainable, clean facility, where the homeless could shower and do their laundry. The women and their classmates had previously worked with a local nonprofit, The Lot Project, a social services organization in Anderson, South Carolina. This was the starting point for Gaba and Michalak’s design.

They wanted their design to be achievable as well, Michalak said. “We thought about whether someone running a nonprofit looked at this and said there is no way I could do this, or if would they say our organization can do something similar to this facility,” she said.

Anderson University has prepared Gaba and Michalak for their careers in interior design and was the school of choice for each.  

“It’s a fairly intense program,” Michalak said. “The main thing that I came away with a sense of professionalism and good technical sense. We learn a lot of different programs. I came away with a good sense of being confident in being able to use them well.”

Gaba echoes the sentiment, saying that AU prepared her for the profession.   She quickly landed a job as an interior designer with Red Line Design Group in Charlotte. It was the technical skills Gaba gained in AU’s program that best prepared her for her current role.

“Being forced to do hand drafting really helped us. They also stressed we would sketch a lot of ideas. People in the field always said never lose your ability to sketch out your ideas. It’s a quick way to articulate your thoughts with your clients,” Gaba said.

The strength of the Anderson University School of Interior Design program isn’t just the level of technical skills students gain. Both Gaba and Michalak said the exposure they received to different professionals in the field helped them determine their specialty in interior design, which is helpful for those who don’t have a clear path laid out before them, as Gaba did.

“I had figured out what I wanted to be around the third grade,” she said. “In third grade, I told my mom, that’s what I wanted to do. I love being creative and I think at a young age I could see how my environment affects how I feel.”

Less certain of her path at a young age, Michalak also related to how one’s environment affects people. “I have been a creative person and I love problem solving,” Michalak said. “That’s why I chose interior design. It combines those right and left-brain aspects. I like making a good space but creating the best possible space for people…. That’s what drew me to it.”

Martin said most of AU’s interior design students have that servant’s heart. “Our students come in with the attitude of, ‘I want to help someone. I want to impact someone in a positive way (with design.)’”

The idea of using design to help corporations increase productivity and creativity in their spaces is what drives Gaba in her daily work.

“With my faith, I know God gives us all different gifts. I was drawn to find inspiration in nature. I guess I wanted to use that gift that God was giving me to help people,” she said. “I know with all of this research that has been done that our environments affect the way we feel, our productivity levels and creativity. If I can help people be more productive and creative, then I am using my gift for the right reasons.”

For Michalak, her desire to help people in her community may shape her future. Rather than seeking a position with a design firm, she is toying with the idea of working as an independent designer. Michalak currently works with a residential contractor and his clients often seek her design work. “I do some consultations with his clients. I’m considering trying to develop that and go fully independent,” she said. The beauty in running her own firm, Michalak said, is the amount of time she can give back to her community.

“Working on this (IDEC) project and volunteering my time with The Lot Project has really opened my eyes to nonprofits and how rewarding volunteering can be. I would love to create that time to be able to volunteer more if I work independently,” she said.

Michalak sees a beautiful marriage between her passion for interior design and her desire to help people. The IDEC project combined the two ideals for her. “It has opened my eyes to what design can be,” she said. “I would like to be able to focus on this organization and say how can we help them. It’s how I always thought (design) could be.”

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