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School of Interior Architecture & Design Student Wins Prestigious Competition in Chicago

Chia Chi “Nicole” Chang put her space planning and sketching skills to use at the IIDA Student Design Charette, as part of a team applauded for their uncluttered design layout and innovative thinking

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Nicole Chang poses next to her team’s IIDA Student Design Charette winning design. Photo courtesy of the School of Interior Architecture & Design.

In 2011, Chia Chi “Nicole” Chang was a shy 19-year-old studying English in Seattle, far from her native Taiwan. But beneath that timid exterior, Chang is undeniably motivated, and during her time as a student at Academy of Art University, the interior architecture and design senior has developed a sense of confidence and professionalism that helped her team clinch the top prize at the International Interior Design Association’s Student Design Charette—a prestigious competition held in Chicago each year during NeoCon, the interior design industry’s preeminent U.S. exposition.

“It’s incredible to see how much Nicole has grown as a person and as a designer here at the Academy,” said IAD instructor Agustin Sanders. “Her success at the IIDA Student Design Charette will open many possibilities for her career as an interior designer. We’re so proud of her.”

After her success at the regional charettes in San Francisco and Seattle earlier this year, Chang joined the nation’s top interior design students in Chicago for the final competition. There, she was placed on a team with four other students she had never met before. Each team was given the same design challenge—to develop an 8,500 square-foot mixed-use office, retail and event space on the second floor of the Merchandise Mart—the actual space the students were standing in at that very moment. They had five hours to design it, followed by five minutes to present it to the judges. 

“I was really proud of what we accomplished in five hours,” Chang said. “We completed the design of a functional space. I was surprised. I didn’t really know what I could do until I went to the charette. Before this I thought I wasn’t very good at hand sketching, my sketching is just OK. But I was able to test myself and found out I could actually do things I didn’t think I could do before, and I wasn’t just able to do it, but I realized I’m kind of good at it too.”

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Nicole Chang and her team presenting their winning design at the IIDA Student Design Charette. Photo courtesy of the School of Interior Architecture & Design.

Stating their individual skills was one of the first things each of the five teammates did at the beginning of the design process. This gave each member an aspect of the project to focus on and allowed the team to maximize its time. One teammate said she was good at sketching, while another was better at concept design. Chang volunteered to do space planning and draw the floor plans—skills she developed in her foundations courses at the Academy.

“When I first came to the Academy I had to do all the foundation stuff, sketching and hand drafting,” she explained. “I was thinking, ‘This is not helpful at all, why are we drawing by hand?’ When I went to the charette I realized there is a reason they are teaching us this—it is the fastest way to show people your ideas. The cool thing about a charette is that you cannot use any phones or computers. Everything you do has to be by hand.”

To come up with their concept The Point @ The Market, the team walked around the space and looked out the windows at the city.

Noticing three parts of a river coming together at a point, they took this as their main design inspiration, and quickly drew a parallel between that topography and the concept of all the different designers coming together from various points of the continent for the NeoCon event.

What set her team’s design apart from the others, Chang said, was a presentation board with a clean, uncluttered layout, which the judges applauded, but also their innovative thinking. They weren’t afraid to eliminate excess items or combine elements, like merging the two kitchens into one.

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Nicole Chang’s team’s winning design, The Point @ The Market. Photo courtesy of the School of Interior Architecture & Design.

When Chang found out her team won, she was thrilled, but she already felt like a winner. “I didn’t know that I would go to a competition like this,” she said. “I was really shy before I came to the Academy. But after I came here and joined the IAD club, I felt like I could go to this kind of event. I force myself to go to this kind of event more than I did before because I want to know people and I want to know what’s going on in the industry.”

Chang has one more year at the Academy before graduating with a B.F.A. from the School of Interior Architecture and Design. After graduation, she hopes to work for an interior design firm in the United States for a few years before going back to Taiwan. She is particularly interested in hospital and senior housing design. 

“I want to do something that can give back to the environment and the people who are living in the space,” she said. “One of my friends just got cancer and she has to go to the hospital every week and she told me the hospital she went to is not like old hospitals. This hospital gives her power and positive energy. I think this is a designer’s job, to empower people by designing a better environment. People go to the hospital because they are sick, they don’t want to go there. I think a good environment can give them power and it’s really something we can give back to people.”