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Interior design students partner with Kenyan design firm

By Katie Howard, civic engagement graduate assistant
Appalachian and the Community Together

BOONE—Upper level interior design students at Appalachian State University are putting their learning to work for an internationally acclaimed restaurant in Kenya.

View larger imageJuniors Brianna Martin, foreground, and Jordan Maurer work on a design concept for The Tamarind Group, which owns and operates The Carnivore restaurant in Kenya. Students in the upper level interior design studio will submit proposals to the design firm PIL and the restaurant management group for possible implementation as part of a redesign of the famous restaurant.View larger imageAppalachian State University junior Hunter Smith works on a design concept for consideration for The Carnivore Restaurant in Kenya. The Tamarind Group, which owns and operates The Carnivore as well as other restaurants in Kenya, wants to update the restaurant’s look, including a focus on the country and its multi-ethnic tribes. (Photos by Jeanne Mercer-Ballard)

Professor Jeanne Mercer-Ballard’s students in the College of Fine and Applied Arts’ Department of Technology and Environmental Design are partnering with Planning Interiors Limited (PIL), an interior design company in Nairobi, to provide design services to The Tamarind Group for the famous The Carnivore restaurant.

The student proposals will be critiqued by PIL, with one being selected by the design firm and edited or expanded if needed and presented to The Tamarind Group for possible implementation.

The Carnivore is popular with both tourists and locals, so the students are challenged to create a design that upgrades its image and keeps its appeal for Kenyans and tourists. The main challenge is to create something contemporary but Kenyan and not lose the soul of the historic restaurant, Mercer-Ballard said.

The students will present a plan to upgrade The Carnivore’s floor plan, furnishings, finishes, lighting design, décor, accessories, restrooms and wait staff attire focusing on Kenya’s context and the multi-ethnic tribes.

The class’s connection to Kenya is due in part to alumna Michelle McMillan ’11, who works for PIL. Dr. Jeremiah Kitunda, a history professor at Appalachian who is from Kenya, discussed Kenyan culture with the interior design class.

Typically, students in design classes work on hypothetical projects that provide insight into working for a client, according to Mercer-Ballard. In this case, McMillan and her colleagues interact with the students via Skype to provide real-world experience.

“We start with understanding the client’s needs, mostly functionally but also aesthetically,” McMillan said about PIL’s approach to the design process. “We come up with a unique design concept, space plan, and then put these creative ideas into realistic, technical construction drawings that deal with everything within the structural perimeter walls of a building. Then we supervise and instruct the contractor on the construction sites and ensure that when the client is ready to move in, it will be what they initially had in mind from the beginning.”

Students at Appalachian will each create a design and present it to Eugene Ngugi and Fatema Essajee, directors of PIL, and McMillan, who will critique their project. The feedback and the project collaboration will enhance the students’ portfolios and give them an understanding of cultural issues in design and an edge in today’s competitive job market.

“The same skills, design values and vision I learned at the interior design program at Appalachian are carried out every day at Planning Interiors here in Nairobi, Kenya. I am privileged to be part of the interior design profession and this collaboration with my alma mater,” McMillan said.

“I believe the language of design transcends the boundaries of spoken/written languages, and both cultural and physical borders. Interior design is a universal language and a global community,” she said. “Since I am an American who was born and raised in Africa, I have seen this lived out.”

According to PIL’s website, the firm is recognized as the leading professional interior design consultancy in East Africa. Their clients include General Electric, the Java House restaurants, Deloitte offices, Heritage hotels and The Tamarind Group.