Kendall College of Art and Design marks 90 years


The college’s downtown Grand Rapids campus took on its present form when two buildings were connected by a three-story atrium in 1998. Courtesy Kendall College of Art and Design

True to its name, the Kendall College of Art and Design has trained generations of art and design professionals, playing a major role in shaping those sectors in the region.

Furniture design was one of the first three areas of courses offered when the school opened its doors to 43 students March 16, 1931.

A focus on design has continued, and now students work on projects in many fields, sometimes with advice from collaborating companies such as Grand Rapids Ophthalmology, Bissell, Whirlpool and Tiara Yachts.

The school was born in 1928 as a provision of Helen Kendall’s will, honoring her late husband, David Kendall, who came to Grand Rapids in 1879 to work for Phoenix Furniture Company.

Kendall’s accomplishments, including pioneering furniture wood finish and creating the McKinley Chair, earned him the moniker “Dean of American Furniture Designers.”

Celebrating 90 years, the school has a hand in promoting culture in the region, said Leslie Bellavance, president of the college that merged with Ferris State University in 2000.

Art and design are both important aspects of what the college does, she said, and KCAD always has had a balance between the two.

She said the popular notion of art is purely self-expression, but KCAD always has worked to provide a stronger foundation beyond that idea. When students walk across the commencement stage, she said they are ready to be hired.

Throughout the school’s history, Bellavance said there has been a strong focus on training the next generation of designers. While the furniture industry historically has been a large piece of this, that focus has grown with the times.

Design students learn about many areas of design, including furniture, but also new fields, such as digital design.

Angie Dow has been a graphic design professor at KCAD since 2000. She specializes in advertising, including strategy, messaging and writing.

She said a major aspect of what she teaches is how designers should connect to their audience and incorporate that into their work.

“You can communicate anything with type on a page. It’s how do you connect with people, how are you compelling, how you tell the story,” Dow said.

She said one of her favorite aspects of working in the program is collaborations with other programs and community partners to give students real-life experiences.

Dow has worked with interior design students, for example, to create a fictitious company’s communications and interior spaces, which they presented to Herman Miller for feedback.

The variety of opportunities has allowed former design students to now work in a number of fields.

Former student Wes Keely graduated from KCAD in 2015 with a focus in product and industrial design.

While a student, he launched his first product, a drum-stabilizing device called KBrakes, for which he received $5,000 in seed funding from Start Garden.

Major retailers around the world carry the product, and Keely has since created an entire line of drum stabilization products.

He now works as an innovation designer for Mercy Health, designing products, processes and business solutions meant to move health care forward.

Whether working in design, fine art or any other field, Bellavance said the skills acquired in art school are useful anywhere one goes.

“Every day, I use the skills that I learned in art school and that I’ve developed as a studio artist,” she said. “Creativity is something everybody is involved in, certainly in business.”

She said perhaps the most important skills that can be taken away from arts training are how to approach an issue with an open mind and be able to ask questions to find the best solutions.

Many do not realize, she said, that collaboration is an important skill in design, and school leadership is working to encourage teamwork as much as possible.

She said school leadership is considering ways to promote collaboration, both in teaching and in possible changes to facilities.

Bellavance noted KCAD has been a cultural pillar in Grand Rapids, playing a major role in the rise of arts in the area.

Through collaborations with other arts organizations, including ArtPrize and a 2013 merger with the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, she said she foresees the school continuing to influence and promote that sector going forward.

“I think it adds to quality of life and it also adds to the economy,” Bellavance said. “To move culture forward as a key aspect of society, a key aspect of the region.”

KCAD timeline

1928: As a provision in her will, Helen Miller Kendall establishes David Wolcott Kendall Memorial School in memory of her late husband

1930: Designer Edgar Somes elected as school’s educational director; Kendall residence, at 145 Fountain St. NE, renovated to house the school

1931: School opens March 16, 1931, with 43 students, offering courses in figure drawing, furniture design and color theory

1937: Name changes to Kendall School of Art; reputation for training furniture designers grows and students are granted access to Grand Rapids Furniture Museum

1945: Two new wings built, including library containing David Kendall’s personal collection; school adds psychology and English courses in cooperation with Grand Rapids Junior College

1947: Name changes to Kendall School of Design; school approved to train teachers and receive foreign students

1952: Design departments in furniture, interior and advertising established

1953: School opens art gallery

1961: School moves to 1110 College Ave NE; two additional buildings added during 1960s and 1970s

1963: Base curriculum established, standardizing first-year courses

1964: Fine arts illustration program established

1977: Advertising design and illustration departments combined into new visual communications department; English and art history courses added to required base curriculum

1977: Kendall Alumni Association formed

1978: Kendall and Aquinas College begin first reciprocal BFA program

1979: School authorized to offer AFA and BFA degrees

1980: Interior design major granted professional accreditation by Council for Interior Design Accreditation

1981: School receives accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Universities

1982: School receives accreditation by National Association of School of Art and Design

1984: School moves back downtown after purchasing the Manufacturers Building in 1981

1987: Name changes to Kendall College of Art and Design, reflecting equal importance of art and design in its curriculum

1998: KCAD purchases Interstate Building and connects it to Manufacturers Building via three-story atrium, forming current facility at 17 Fountain St. NW

2000: KCAD merges with Ferris State University

Mid-2000s: Renovations include new student commons areas, display galleries, multiple dedicated labs with equipment

2007: Master of Art Education program established; certificate in design and innovation management launched

2009: KCAD begins ongoing collaboration with ArtPrize

2010: KCAD receives $2-million grant from Herbert H. & Grace A. Dow Foundation to establish The Dow Center FlexLab

2010: KCAD Pamella Roland DeVos School of Fashion’s fashion studies program launched

2012: KCAD reveals newly remodeled former Historic Federal Building, now the LEED-certified Woodbridge N. Ferris Building at 17 Pearl St. NW, after over a decade of acquisition processes and renovation

2012: Collaborative design and medical illustration programs launched

2013: Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts merges with KCAD

2013: KCAD launches Wege Prize student design competition in collaboration with The Wege Foundation

2013: KCAD, GRPS and other partners launch Grand Rapids Public Museum School

2014: Master of Architecture program established

2015: MA in visual and critical studies program established

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