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School Will Try to Put Its Own Stamp on Design : Education: Santa Monica College is beginning an ambitious design program. The Westside's growing importance as an arts center is cited.


Santa Monica College is launching an ambitious design program that will bring students admitted by portfolio into contact with working architects, graphic designers and other artists in an atmosphere the college hopes will rival the world-renowned Bauhaus.

Joan Abrahamson, who will direct the new Santa Monica College of Design, Art and Architecture, said the new college-within-a-college will expose students to an innovative, interdisciplinary curriculum in design theory, visual thinking and problem solving. Students will also have hands-on experience in a major area of study such as product and furniture design, graphic design or the visual arts.

Moreover, Abrahamson and the other creators of the program hope to make it much more than just another school of design. "We hope to build a sense of community," she said.

The director said the design college will strive to be as exciting and important an institution in its own time and place as the legendary Bauhaus School of Design in Weimar, Germany, and its philosophical successor in the United States, Black Mountain College.

"We feel there are times in history when a certain critical mass of talented individuals come together and can have a profound impact," Abrahamson said. "We think Southern California at this point in its history has a conflux of artists who are very strong individually who, if given the opportunity to come together, can create an extraordinary environment."

The two-year program, which will begin in September with 10 faculty and 60 students, will lead to an associate of arts degree. Students will be helped to transfer to four-year programs in design, and a certificate program requiring an additional year of study will also be offered, Abrahamson said.

An artist herself, Abrahamson is a painter, with a doctorate in education from Harvard University and a law degree from UC Berkeley. A founder of the Fort Mason Project, a community college and arts program in the pier district of San Francisco, she has been working on the Santa Monica design project since the spring.

"Affordable excellence" is one of the themes of the new program, she said. "We think we'll only have to charge $100 a year per student."

Santa Monica College President Richard Moore said he has wanted to see a design program on the campus ever since he visited and fell in love with Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Moore, who called the new program "my dream baby," said the Westside is an ideal place for such a program because of its burgeoning importance as a center of the arts. The program's low cost to students will be part of its uniqueness, he said, and reflects the community college's view that "you don't have to have money to make it in America."

The program will have a start-up budget of about $250,000, he said.

Names of the faculty will be announced early in January, Abrahamson said, and all will be distinguished working professionals. Artists from around the world will be invited to visit the campus, she said.

Recruitment of students will get under way in January. Abrahamson said she hopes the program will attract a mix of students, diverse in age, experience and ethnicity. Mid-career students will be sought, as well as students graduating from arts-oriented high schools. "It won't simply be your traditional college freshmen," she said.

Abrahamson said the decision to have prospective students submit portfolios for admission is unusual for a community college, "but we think it's essential. If we are going to have such talented faculty giving their time, we've got to attract an extremely talented group of students."

Students will be recruited internationally, she said.

Moore said the design school was planned over the last year with Paul Leaf, chairman of the Santa Monica Arts Commission, as consultant. Leaf put together a board of advisers for the program that includes, in addition to Abrahamson, architect Frank Gehry and Weston Naef, curator of photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Moore said the board is his insurance policy that the program will be of the highest quality and will be "professionally-driven, not education-driven."

In addition to design, art and architecture courses, the students will take general education courses that have relevance to art and design--for example, a biology course on the patterns in nature.

"We are also going to teach Italian," she said. "We think that's the language of design."

A semester in the Italian design center of Milan will also be part of the program, she said.

At Black Mountain College, artists and students built their community in the hills of North Carolina. Artists and students at Santa Monica College of Design, Art and Architecture will forge their community in a huge converted garage at Santa Monica Airport that is part of the college's Humanities Center.

"We hope to do some nice landscaping between the buildings . . . with perhaps an outdoor cafe to make them more habitable but we like the industrial feel of those buildings," Abrahamson said. The airport's open spaces and the proximity of so many machines "seems to lend itself to making art," she said.

The creators of the program will try "to generate a charged atmosphere," she said. "We want students to have a sense that this is a special place and a special time in history, and this is a unique opportunity to be in close contact with many of the gifted artists of our time."

Moore said he believes the program will eventually justify comparison to the Bauhaus.

In time, he predicted, "we'll put our own stamp on design."

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