William Merritt Chase
The renowned American Impressionist William Merritt Chase founded Parsons in 1896. It was a rebellious gesture: Chase led a small group of progressives who seceded from the Art Students League of New York in search of more individualistic expression.
The Chase School would educate future luminaries of early American modernism, including Marsden Hartley and Edward Hopper.
Frank Alvah Parsons
In 1904, arts educator Frank Alvah Parsons joined the school. Six years later, he became its sole director. Predicting art and design's inevitable link to industry, Parsons launched a series of groundbreaking programs, the first of their kind in the United
- Fashion design, 1904 (originally Costume Design)
- Interior design, 1906 (originally Interior Decoration)
- Graphic design, 1910 (originally Advertising and Commercial Illustration)
"Art is not for the few, for the talented, for the genius, for the rich, nor the church," Parsons said in 1920. "Industry is the nation's life, art is the quality of beauty in expression, and industrial art is the cornerstone of our national art."
By pursuing beauty in ordinary things, Frank Alvah Parsons virtually invented the modern concept of design. His faculty cared about the spaces ordinary people lived in, the garments they wore, the advertising they read, the furniture and tableware they
used. His principles effectively democratized taste.
Recognizing his profound impact on American life, the school adopted Parsons' name in 1941.
Not long after design entered its repertoire, the old Chase school, by that time known as the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, began applying this new doctrine internationally. In 1921, Parsons initiated a satellite school in Paris, becoming the
first art and design school in the United States to found a campus abroad.
It was there, in the 1930s, that the famous Parsons Table was born. The table came into being as a drafting exercise in a class taught by interior designer Jean-Michel Frank, and to this day it is widely regarded as an example of good modern
design. With legs as thick as its top, the Parsons Table is synonymous with design that emphasizes an economy of means.
Parsons students today expand their horizons by studying at art and design partner schools in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and around the world. Additionally, many academic programs organize short-term classes, external partnerships, and research-based
projects that take students abroad.
The Birth of Socially Active Design
Parsons has long regarded its artists and designers as actively engaged citizens. "Materially the American is better off because of his great industrial society. But what is happening to him spiritually?" wrote President Pierre Bedard in 1954, 13 years
after the school changed its name to Parsons School of Design. "This school is conscious of its great responsibility in forming characters and minds of those who will help shape our civilization."
Political upheaval and new social conditions in the late 1960s would challenge several Parsons departments, especially Interior Design. Whereas that curriculum had emphasized middle-class and upscale homes, the program now directed students to work on projects
such as prisons, hospitals, and public housing.
In keeping with this new outlook, 1965's Interior Design graduates mounted A Place to Live, an exhibition that proposed alternatives to substandard urban housing. Since this formative era, every Parsons program has emphatically championed art
and design as both intellectual practice and social responsibility.
Aligning with The New School
In 1970, Parsons joined The New School (then called The New School for Social Research), a renowned institution of progressive thinking.
The New School had been founded in 1919 by a group of prominent progressive scholars including Charles Beard, John Dewey, James Harvey Robinson, and Thorstein Veblen. In planning their school, these distinguished
intellectuals envisioned a center for instruction and counseling for mature men and women. They planned it as an alternative to traditional universities, with an open curriculum, minimal hierarchy, and free discussion of controversial ideas. In 1933,
The New School for Social Research gave a home to the University in Exile, a refuge for scholars forced from Europe by the Nazis. In 1934, the University in Exile was incorporated into The New School for Social Research as the Graduate Faculty of
Political and Social Science.
The merger with The New School provided Parsons with new resources to expand its education offerings. The move also strengthened the connection between academic knowledge and social activism. In 1977, for example, the establishment-defying New Museum
of Contemporary Art showed its first exhibition, Early Works by Five Contemporary Artists, at The New School.
Emphasis on Design Thinking
Today Parsons and The New School are committed to employing design thinking as a way to solve complex global problems. At the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, for example, scholars are joining
forces with designers to explore solutions to climate-driven change, including migration. Other university research centers, such as the Tishman Environment and Design Center and the Healthy Materials Lab,
produce knowledge and practice that bears witness to the transformative potential of design to foster contemporary thinking on sustainability and wellness.
Projects with community, industry, educational, and government partners often emphasize tangible outcomes. Since 1998, the Design Workshop has provided pro bono design-build services
to nonprofit clients. More recently, Parsons partnered with Habitat for Humanity and developed a new building typology using passive solar technologies. The initiative, called Empowerhouse, developed into Parsons’ entry in the U.S. Department of Energy’s
solar decathlon competition, in which Parsons brought home awards for its innovative approach to constructing a solar home.
Scaling Up Collaboration
In the last decade, Parsons has increasingly turned to collaborative research and practice, forging new partnerships between disciplines throughout the university and with key industry and government players. This era has seen an increased focus on
sustainability and equity in connection witg design, leading to new and inclusive design projects. Among these initiatives are Parsons alumna Grace Jun’s Open Style Lab, which develops wearable solutions for people of all abilities, and Michelle Obama’s
White House Fashion Education Workshop, which brought students to Washington to explore creative opportunities and careers in sustainable design.
The establishment in 2016 of the Making Center, a 26,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility, furthers Parsons’ mission to foster transdisciplinary creativity by bringing together students from across the school
in a single making space. The spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration is also reflected in Parsons’ growing list of new master’s programs that emphasize learning in hybrid emerging fields, including data visualization, digital products, design
in business, and fashion management.