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Interior architecture student draws on theater background in design projects

Outstanding Herberger Graduate tackled apartment redesign for women's shelter

April 29, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Working in an ensemble theater that has a focus on civic dialogue turned out to be a useful background for Courtney Davis when she decided to pursue a master’s degree in interior architecture at Arizona State University.

“Our company does a lot of engagement and we do unconventional work, in different sites, not theaters,” she said. Davis has been a member of the Sojourn Theatre ensemble for several years.

“Working in those sites, you get a sense of bodies in space — what it looks like to have a performance happen in a car dealership instead of on a stage in a theater,” she said.

“You’re really working with the architecture of what exists and that sparked something in me.”

Davis, who was named the outstanding graduate student for the spring semester by the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, got her undergraduate degree in theater and worked as an actress for several years. She later launched an interior-design business that flourished.

Then the family moved to Phoenix, where she decided it was time to pursue her interest in design. She is graduating after completing the three-plus-one program, a master’s degree for students whose undergraduate degree is not in design.

Davis said her background in theater has informed her design work.

“Our theater company works in communities and talks to people and finds out their stories and then expresses those stories and thinks about them critically,” she said. “We don’t make shows about one side or the other. We try to present questions.

“And as a designer, you have to ask all the questions of all the angles before you can even get started designing,” she said.

Davis was profoundly influenced by Design and Arts Corps, an initiative in which students partner with community groups. It's directed by Stephani Etheridge Woodson, a professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre.

Davis spent a semester last year working with Chrysalis, a women’s shelter in Phoenix, to renovate a two-bedroom transitional apartment.

“So through the course, Stephani mentors you through the collaboration process and communication with your partners and how to treat them as an equal in the design process. That’s core to how I think about design now,” she said.

“Our spaces can do a lot to care for us in ways we don’t always think about, so I’m always putting that lens on things now, especially when I think about public spaces.

“I was so honored to help them.”

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Davis answered some questions from ASU Now:

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer:  Because I was in the three-plus program, that first year I was wondering, "Is this meaningful to me?" But when I started working on my health care semester and with Chrysalis, I saw that this is science-based. This has impact. If I place this window so there’s a view of green, it can affect this patient and whether they need to take pain medication. Once I had that knowledge, I was like, "I get it." You can apply those wellness principles anywhere.

Q: What advice would you give to someone thinking about the master's degree in interior architecture program?

A: People ask me all the time about the difference between architecture and interior architecture, and I say it’s about the human experience in space. I love architecture and it’s important, but I recognize that we spend most of our time inside and so I like to think about the space that people are in. And do Design and Arts Corps because it changes the way you think about your client.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus?

A: I remember my first year, it was so hot out but the air conditioning was cranking in the studio, so we would go sit on the upper patio of Design North to warm up. And it became one of my favorite spots. I spent time with other people out there and I also used to go out there by myself. I would give myself a little quiet space. You get a nice view of people walking by.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem in the world, what would you tackle?

A: I would spend the money on antiracism training for everybody. There’s a lot that people with privilege and power don’t recognize. They don’t recognize the difference it makes when you don’t have that power. We all need to dig deep and explore what it’s like to be someone else and have their experience.

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