An Interview With Beverly Kissinger, Allied Retired ASID

As interviewed by: Kelly Martin, Ph.D., RID, ASID

Beverly Kissinger is a long-standing ASID Alabama member, leader and volunteer. She is a respected educator who taught for decades in the Interior Design program at the University of Alabama. She has also completed several interior design projects and is known for her skill as an illustrator. Read below for her reflection on “twists and turns” in her career and her advice on success.

Q. Can you tell us where you are originally from and how your early life experiences may have shaped your path to interior design as a profession?

A. It is interesting you should ask, as I began to reflect on how I got to where I am several years ago and decided it was a good exercise for anyone to do, including my students the last year I taught Applied Design.

I came from a military family, so we moved around, but my dad gravitated back to the Washington DC area when he could, where I was born. We had a 4-year stint in England and traveled to European countries for several weeks in the summer. Coming back to the States we lived in Camp Springs, MD near Andrews AFB. The area was growing so I went to two newly built schools and, being near an air base, the government supplemented local schools. Many of the teachers had been teaching in colleges and universities but, perhaps, were lured by better salaries. All I know is that art, music and theater plus home economics were available, and the teaching top notch, college level science (double period in Chemistry for those who wanted it). In England, they only hired the best teachers for the children of servicemen.

In England, my mother tried to steer me towards art. I had local lessons for one year but I wasn’t ready. I took art 8th through 12th grade and started math sequence early. Later in life, I learned I am equally left brain/right brain so switch easily from analysis and planning to my creative side. So, you could say my skills and abilities come from my family genetics but they were also nurtured and encouraged.

My mother said, “I always had a project” and some succeeded and some didn’t. I ended up learning by doing, including calligraphy, manuscript illumination and watercolor. These last three carried forward into my interest in alphabet or font styles, graphics and rendering. It is interesting that my mother said I would be good at interior design. I went to hear a speaker at school career day and saw the interior renderings and thought I could never do that—but it ended up I could.
Another family trait is an interest in history and, for me, led to taking all the art history in college that I could, thus making my love of design history even stronger. To further explain, I started to become an art teacher but took a class for non-majors in Interior Design. Then the “lightbulb went off.” I designed and built a model of a living room and loved every moment of it so I changed my major to a BFA in art and interior design.

All artwork by Beverly Kissinger

Q. What professional areas have you worked in over the course of your career? Was teaching at a university something you always wanted to do?

A. While I was working on my MFA in Art and Interior Design at the University of Georgia, I started working full-time one summer for a local design firm with a gift store downstairs. So, I not only did design work but also store display and worked sales. For them, I set up their client accounts system, designed a kitchen for a large home being built, took samples to clients’ homes for a personal consultation and whatever was needed. I learned I wanted to be a designer. Foremost to me, I also learned that a client’s money should not be wasted. If you don’t need the whole budget, then don’t spend it all. If the client has issues with an installation or product you don’t try to force it on them. I did not like some of what I saw and heard at work and I also heard what clients had to say.

Even though I mainly did design work when I could or when asked by my school, I learned through these projects how I thought as a designer and approached design through my point of view. You must realize that interior design was in its infancy or young adult phase when I was in school so some things I pushed myself to learn or experience while teaching. I went on a job with an adult student to install an office panel system and talked to her often. In Memphis, I attended professional lighting seminars & fire safety seminars by nationally known figures. I knew that codes were important and, at IDEC sessions, began to be available to speak on that topic. I read the code books. I came to UA in 1990 and, when the first textbook on codes became available, I taught it in sophomore level classes. Because of the time-consuming nature of teaching, I usually did not specify products but kept to space planning, kitchen layouts and color work–another talent I inherited from my mother is a deep “color eye”.

Q. What “twists and turns” have occurred in your career that you did not expect and how did you adapt? Did you resist change or go with the flow?

A. I think changing jobs and states is always difficult to some extent and I went from going to school in North Carolina then Georgia, then teaching in Mississippi, Tennessee and finally here. Here I found a home and job with like-minded people. My first two jobs were in art schools while of course UA is in Human Environmental Sciences—people come first here as they do with me. You need empathy to be a good designer and the majors in the college all need that quality. I did leave one school on difficult terms and, in the process, had to evaluate who I was and what I brought to the job. Why didn’t they understand how I had elevated the program from when I first arrived? For them to understand, it took an expert to say, “she is the reason you have the fine program and graduates that you do”. During my own personal evaluation, I found I was a double-edged sword—I could teach space planning and other technical areas such as panel systems as well as rendering and presentation. On my job search, I received queries from eleven schools that wanted me to visit and interview based upon a portfolio of student work as well as my own work. But, to me, the most important point is the evaluation of who I am and what my skills and talents are.

I think, in terms of being an educator, that things will change and you must keep yourself educated. However, I do resist the notion of eliminating hand drawn work and going straight to computer drafting. In one firm I heard directly from the person spearheading the first arrival of computers, who said that operators had to be able to draft and understand what they saw otherwise they could not do the job needed. They had to be designers and not computer operators. I also observed in the classroom the necessity of developing a hand-eye-brain spatial connection.

Q. What is your perspective on “twists and turns,” (good or bad? both?) and what advice would you give interior designers early in their career?

A. When things go wrong, it can be a good learning experience. Sometimes you must think on your feet to make it work. Early in your career, learn all you can. Listen and think about why it was done that way. We all have personal favorite fabrics or chairs we want to use somewhere but, remember, the space should speak to you and tell you what it needs. Be open to that. I did a complex color palette in a campus advising area with 16–20-foot ceilings in the central space. I put together index cards of five final, similar but different, color schemes after spending 30 hours in the space at different times of day. I observed how the palette was changed by the existing light. I remember a conference room with non-descript furniture displaying dull red orange leatherette and warm wood tones. I found the right color of soft green wall paint and a stone white trim that made that furniture look better than it ever had.

Q. You are a published book illustrator. How did you get started with that? How did you balance that with teaching, or did it help your teaching?

A. My book is not yet published but I am working towards its completion. I have always done some graphic work for special events and community theater (Columbus MS). Also, I enjoy giving special graphic retirement gifts for colleagues. BUT, OVERALL, I HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOR THAT WANTS EXPRESSION. Now, I am requested or hired by friends to develop invitations or holiday cards (CHES Dean Boschung, 15 years) and I have created my own Christmas card for the last 30 years. I started doing these things in high school so, at heart, there is a graphic artist in me.

In Alabama, since 2002, I have created art for note cards (fundraising), awards and District Governor Logos, which lead to Pilot International asking me to be their artist (donate time) for their BrainMinders™ project that teaches young children about safety and “protecting their brain for life”. They wanted me to revamp their coloring book & logo, add three new animal characters and work on bookmarks in 3 languages, all of this took 150 hours of work in the first six months so it would be ready for presentation at PI Convention that summer. Since then, the pace has been slower. The BrainMinders™ committee I have been on since 2016 writes the puppet show scripts that Pilot clubs can use for school performances. In the intervening years, I developed safety posters (36 plus) in color for each character using several languages, added Halloween relevant coloring pages and a new character Tiana Tiger with another one Ricardo Rabbit to do this Spring. Along the way the book idea, BrainMinder Buddies Go to School, has been postponed with rewrites and priorities on this other work. I have also been pondering all the ins and outs of doing it and keeping the continuity.

Note: The Pilot International officers, many who became President, got to know my artwork over the years through note card gifts and their visit to our District. So, when they needed an artist, my name came up and I was asked. There is no greater honor than to be asked and recognized, to give worth to an artist. Milla Boshung was the first Dean who ever asked me to do a personal piece of artwork. Subsequently, she has asked me to begin doing the college holiday card. A Pilot Governor of Alabama District asked me to design their individual logo and many others followed from which I developed my skills in Photoshop where I have integrated my drawings. The artwork for BrainMinders is a continuation of that learning.

It has let me be creative in a different way from interior design but using a side of me that has always been there.

Q. What advice would you give interior designers who have a passion for something else in addition to interior design, such as illustration, writing, music, art, etc.?

A. These alternate activities can relieve stress by taking your mind off things. If it is important to you, it will find a way to be expressed. Go for it. It may change your life.

Q. How has retirement been, and what advice would you give other designers nearing it?

A. My plan for slowing down was that I knew I would need to get out of the house at least two days a week actively doing something. I was allowed to part-time teach (3X a week schedule) one class which helped. But now, I am fully retired from teaching for two years. The first year away from teaching was hard because, at heart, I am a teacher. Other things have gotten more complex though. I work with Safe Kids Tuscaloosa representing my Pilot Club, Alabama ASID as Finance Director, fundraising for my club of which my graphic art becomes important, and I am treasurer too. And, of course, I’m still involved in the BrainMinders Committee work. I still wonder if I should volunteer somewhere that gets me out of the house but I don’t see it right now. After all, dinner and movies with friends needs to fit in there somewhere.