Andrew Stone | February 12, 2013
As heart and soul of Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), the largest nonprofit arts university in the U.S., Paula Wallace, president and co founder, rarely experiences a dull moment—just as she prefers. She is the creator of numerous cultural events and educational programs, a children’s book author, founder of the Savannah Film Festival, and interior designer for all of SCAD’s facilities, including significant restoration projects in Savannah’s historic district, Atlanta, Hong Kong’s Sham Shui Po district, and—most recently—Lacoste, France. Here, Wallace shares her take on restoration, inspiration, and the marriage of past and future at SCAD in Provence.
Interior Design: How has the Lacoste campus of SCAD become a part of its surroundings in Provence?
Paula Wallace: We’re dedicated to preserving the classic Provencal aesthetic, from ironwork to masonry to the perched gardens along cobblestone streets. SCAD spaces exist in perfect harmony with the homes and shops in the village of Lacoste—wall touching wall, stone against stone. One SCAD Lacoste lecture and performance space, chapel-like and high upon the hill, is believed to be the oldest structure in the village.
ID: What were your greatest design challenges in Lacoste, and how did you overcome them?
PW: The Maison Basse site was essentially a ruin. No roof, no foundation, a central stairwell without stairs. Fortunately, the structure itself formed a classic armature with aristocratic character, so we were able to identify, then gently modify the original floor plan. We wanted to preserve the key features and intentions of Maison Basse’s 13th-century architecture, while accommodating the residential and academic needs of the student population. We constructed a commercial kitchen, created student and faculty residences, laundry facilities, a large studio space, and a Mac computer lab. Maison Basse’s former horse trough is now a lit feature of the dining room.
ID: What’s the crux of SCAD’s approach to design and architecture, and how do you try to steer the vision?
PW: As preservationists, we see ourselves as stewards of a linked historical landscape, and demonstrate utmost respect for each structure’s native function, design, and intention. I’m incredibly proud of SCAD’s commitment to architectural integrity. Personally, everything starts with art… I’m always interested in building a lively atmosphere and creating spaces around art to elevate an environment beyond its functional necessity.
ID: How did you become devoted to historic restorations?
PW: Every structure bears witness. By living and learning in these reinvigorated historic spaces, our students engage in the manifest ideas of their forebears in art and design. We see them as valuable strongholds for our community.
ID: As an educational institution, how crucial would you say mentorship is in the architecture and design field?
PW: Our entire curriculum is centered on critique-based learning, and SCAD makes sure that students experience a well-considered frame of reference—faculty, guest speakers, impactful events. In my own life, one of my dearest mentors was my piano teacher, Peggy Mayfield. She was very, very kind. As a lifelong teacher, I’m a mentor, especially to SCAD alumni.
ID: What are the new big projects on your plate?
PW: The applications of design are truly rimless—from academic curricula to large-scale events. Right now, I’m working with a team at SCAD Atlanta to design programming for the inaugural aTVfest, a three-day television festival that’s taking place in February.
ID: What do you feel is the best way to instigate creative exploration among a design or architecture team?
PW: I believe strict parameters can produce the best design discoveries. With historic preservation, our designers and architects are not only designing within the bounds of conservation law, but literally within the confines of a physical structure. Working in this environment requires them to be even more inventive than if they were designing anew.
ID: What are the locales or structures that inspire you?
PW: I’ve always been intrigued by attic spaces… their low, slanted ceilings and mysterious air. The fascination began with my grandmother’s attic in Atlanta. She built a permanent stair up to it, and when my parents got married that’s where they first lived. The room’s major feature was a massive vintage radio that stood taller than a five-year-old; a silent, imposing sentinel. I can’t recall the radio ever being used. In my own design work, I always incorporate one unexpectedly out-of-scale or quizzical design element.
ID: Are there early instances when you found yourself captivated by design?
PW: My earliest design memory transports me back in time to a family trip, when we worshiped at a white clapboard Baptist church in Mississippi. I remember the smell of starch from Sunday dresses and handkerchief lace, and the repetition of the church-pew rows. The simple wood floors, the parishioners in song, peppermints from my mother’s purse… All the senses were engaged in harmonious discourse.