IDEC, IIDA, LEED AP—associate professor, chair and founder of the Sustainable Interior Environments program at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s (FIT) School of Graduate Studies—understands that laurels are not meant to be rested on.
“It will continue to look different,” she says of the program that originally developed out of a class she created, entitled Ecology and the Built Environment. “Because the discipline is always changing and developing, it has to morph in order to stay on top of what is going on.”
It’s a mantra that has served Pilatowicz well throughout her life, which began in communist Warsaw, Poland, where she obtained a master’s degree in art history. “Behind the iron curtain, life had certain realities, including limited access to information and limited ability to travel,” she recalls. “Studying art history in that situation was quite interesting, because you often had outdated books. You learned about art from black and white photography; you couldn’t travel and see things.”
After working briefly in the research and documentation of art and architecture, and finding it impossible to teach or publish anything without being highly censored, Pilatowicz and her first
husband (also an art historian) decided to flee the country. They entered a system for political
refugees in Austria, where they were granted asylum. While there, they decided to apply for entry into the United States. “I came to New York completely by accident,” she says. “It wasn’t my plan—I just wanted to leave that situation, which was unbearable. It wasn’t from hunger, but rather the walls around us, and it’s difficult to accept that when you are a young person.”
The couple arrived in New York City under the care of the International Rescue Committee with $100 (which they’d borrowed from a friend) and one bag of clothing. “Oh, and I didn’t speak English,” she adds with a laugh. Help came in the form of federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) programs, which gave the couple a weekly stipend and helped them to learn English and basic business rules. They also helped Pilatowicz land her first job working for American Express as a bookkeeper, where she stayed for seven years. She wanted more, though, and started to ponder what she could do in this country as an art historian. “I could always draw, so I thought about interior design and started to take classes in the evening.” She eventually became a full-time student and graduated from FIT in 1993.
Instead of focusing on an interior design project for her thesis, Pilatowicz wrote the first draft of what later became her book, “Eco-Interiors: A Guide to Environmentally Conscious Interior Design,” published by Wiley in 1995. The book’s release lined up with what she calls the “first little wave” of sustainability in the early 1990s, and marked one of the first times sustainability was discussed outside of an architect or engineer’s point of view. It was a shift in perspective that still drives Pilatowicz and her program to this day.
“Mainstream sustainability in the built environment seems to be focusing on performance: energy efficiency, proper lighting, etc. And while those are things that interior designers can get involved in, there are other aspects which I believe are part of sustainable design which are more within the expertise of interior designers,” she says. “What I’ve been talking about for 20 years are issues related to indoor environmental quality, which relates to lighting, sound, air quality, ergonomics and behavioral issues. So the [FIT] program is really devoted to providing interior designers and architects with the possibility of seeing sustainability in that kind of broad understanding. If spaces do not work for the people in them, then they’re not sustainable.”
For Pilatowicz, designers working on sustainable projects simply address the needs of the planet all too often, forgetting that truly sustainable interiors need to satisfy the needs of people and their economies as well. Focusing on the triple bottom line is not always the easiest approach, she acknowledges, but it is the most responsible one. “It requires a little bit of thoughtfulness. The whole idea of this program is to give designers tools so they can make those responsible decisions. One of the reasons this program was created is because I taught at the undergraduate program and dealt with students in the upper divisions who were graduating and coming back to tell me, ‘I need more.’”
The Sustainable Interior Environments program began in the fall of 2011, and is a research-based, two-year, part-time evening program for working professionals. It is not structured around studio (typical for most design programs), which Pilatowicz felt was important because “as soon as you give designers design, they don’t think about anything else but design.” By taking away that element, students are forced to genuinely dive into the whys and hows of specialized topics like ergonomics, universal and active design, and indoor environmental quality.
“We have to realize that our interior design decisions have an impact on a global scale—on the environment and the people using the spaces. We have to address the needs of the inhabitants of those spaces. We are the ones representing their interests at the table when the projects are being discussed. Sometimes you need to help the client understand what [the users’] needs are,” she explains.
Pilatowicz saw this first hand when she spent 14 years working as an in-house interior designer for a major drug rehab program. She and an architect oversaw about 100 of the program’s facilities spread across the country. “I believe that interior designers, in working for those types of programs, we can have really incredible roles. We’re really impacting people’s lives—I’m talking about very fragile lives—and can have incredible satisfaction from that.”
“It’s not a matter of how much money you spend, but the fact that it is thoughtful,” she adds. “The people using those spaces will immediately recognize and appreciate that somebody cared.”