Primo on Teaching “What is the Why?” 

With Primo traveling back and forth to Texas over the next few months to teach a graduate class in Interior Design at UT, Austin, we thought it a good time to sit down and get his views on teaching generally. Primo has been lecturing and working on projects with students for over six years. Having taught courses at his alma mater San Jose State; at CEDIM in Monterrey, Mexico; at IE University in Madrid (and online through the Royal College of Art in London) and most recently at Kent State in Ohio, his approach to design education (and opinions on same) are well-formed:

Q: What do you like about teaching? Assuming you do.

P: I like it. I think the most interesting thing for me is looking at how you need to structure your point of view so you can critically look at a design problem . I think what students often do is see a project and solve the problem right away. My job is to make them think before they begin answering all the questions, think about what the problem is. What is the why? It seems very simple, but my goal as a designer is not to always assume the first thought is the best thought.

Q: In a way, your job is to slow them down.

P: Slow them down, make them think. The tendency among students today is to depend really largely on search. And when you’re using an algorithm to find photos of what’s the best kitchen, what’s the best office, that algorithm is developed by somebody else. You’re not building your own filters and your own way of culling and cultivating information. So where does the “you” end up in it? It doesn’t. To me that’s the hard part of design these days. Information is so easily accessible that the way we synthesize it and are critical of it—well, that’s the point. I don’t think we’re as critical as we need to be. I want designers to do the work themselves, to take the pictures and go to the library themselves. I want them to read about and source the information through their own search engine. Not somebody else’s.

Q: O+A is really popular with students. We’re known by students all over the world. Why do you think that is?

P: The projects we work on tend to be names you’ve heard of. So I think there’s an immediate attachment to—well, this generation doesn’t really care who did the General Electric offices, but everybody cares who did Yelp. So some of it is guilt by association. And some of it is that 10 years ago interiors were sort of these vanilla spaces and maybe there were some color hits, but there was no real emotion in any of these spaces. They were pretty much worker bee spaces and I think what O+A is known for is exactly the opposite. Which is always about telling the story of the space, telling the story of the customer. We call it creating place, yes, but maybe we were early adopters of this idea that people spend a lot of time in these spaces so let’s make it fun to be there. I think students everywhere respond to that.

Q: Teaching is a two-way street. You teach something to the students. Are they teaching you something?

P: Oh yeah. All the time. For me it’s the way they answer the question. It’s the way they can look at what I’m presenting in a completely different way. And that’s good because we want those different points of view. They come in with their own points of view and that illuminates something maybe I’m not thinking about. When you teach you’re working with minds that are not jaded. They’re not stressed out by it. They’re just doing. They’re learning what good research and good critical thinking can yield. That’s always exciting.

Q: Your focus at IIDA now is design education.

P: I’m the Ambassador to Design Education.

Q: What is that exactly?

P: Good question. (Laughs)

Q: You’re defining your role.

P: I’m defining my role. What’s clear to me—and this is because I get to go to different parts of the country and see how design is either taught or how it’s perceived—is that it varies greatly. In fact, some people who go into this degree have a hard time telling their parents what the degree is. You know you try to tell your parents, “Well, I’m picking chairs and doing this and doing that” and they go, “That’s a degree? You can get paid for that?” I’m trying to show the importance of what we do. To me interior design is where the architecture really touches you, where people really experience it. So that’s the message we’re trying to spread.

Q: O+A has always gotten its interns from your interactions with students. How do you recognize talent in a student that you would want to bring into the firm?

P: We’re looking for a certain type of curiosity. This is not an easy place to work if you’re not a good manager of your own time. And self-motivated. This is very much a learn-by-observing place. And if you spend time working on yourself to make yourself better, it’ll get rewarded at O+A because we will let you do anything you want.

Q: Figuratively speaking.

P: Yeah.

Q: What are you looking forward to about Austin?

P: I’m looking forward to the program there—it’s pretty amazing. Tamie Glass does a really good job with her curriculum. So they learn a lot about—not just design skills, but they learn anthropology, they learn the sciences that actually are related to the field. In a way designers are cultural anthropologists. I’m looking forward to exploring that aspect of it with the students in Austin.

Q: And the barbecue?

P: And the barbecue—right.

“My advice to the next generation is to do your own research, structure your point of view, tell the unique story of your customer and be curious.”

Primo Orpilla