Over a career spanning four decades, Darlene Davison has shaped the interiors of iconic landmarks and historic homes throughout St. Louis. But don’t call her a decorator.
As Director of the Interior Design program at Maryville University, Darlene uses a tasty analogy to differentiate the role of the interior designer.
“I tell my students they’ve worked far too hard for anyone to call them decorators. Decorators have a valuable place in design as well, but it’s to come in and add finishes, furnishings and art. Interior designers must know about HVAC systems, electrical, lighting, technology, and they can do the decorating side as well,” Darlene explains. “I tell incoming students to think of it like an incredible cake. A decorator can make it look pretty on the outside with icing, colors and writing. But an interior designer can create the recipe for the cake, put the ingredients together, bake the cake and decorate it.”
Darlene graduated from the Faye Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas in 1980 and went to work for Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, better known as HOK. At the time, the architecture profession was still something of a good ol’ boys club, but Darlene has seen this trend begin to reverse itself in recent years.
“When I was in architectural school, about 95 percent of my classmates were male,” Darlene recalls. “Currently, just like with medicine and law, architecture is pretty much split 50-50 between men and women. In fact, it might be tipping in favor of females now with more women in college. So it’s become very much an equal-opportunity profession.”
But for the first 10 years of her career, Darlene’s coworkers were almost exclusively men, first at HOK and later with Stone, Marraccini and Patterson. The male-dominated culture meant that Darlene couldn’t even get maternity leave when she became pregnant with her first child, a fact that ultimately spelled the end of her days of working full-time for a firm.
“At the time, maternity leave was considered a disability, and we had no disability insurance, either,” Darlene recollects. “So I had to use up all my vacation, all my sick time – whatever I had saved up, until it was time to have the baby. “They did want me to come back, but I just couldn’t. I just loved being home with my son.”
Two more children followed in quick succession, and Interior Design began to take a back seat to teaching, preschool and wrangling troops of Brownies and Cub Scouts. Darlene still found time to keep her design skills sharp, however. Together with her husband, himself an architect, she renovated historic homes, remodeling bathrooms and kitchens while doing the occasional small addition.
One day in 1996, a former coworker at HOK who also taught at Maryville asked Darlene to sit in and give a critique of the class. The Program Director at the time was so impressed with Darlene’s knowledge and evaluation skills that he offered her an opportunity to become an adjunct professor. Darlene declined, but the Director was persistent, and in 1999 Darlene began teaching in the Interior Design program at Maryville.
“I’m very fortunate that he stuck with me because for three years he would call and ask if I was ready to teach yet, and I kept saying I really wasn’t,” Darlene acknowledges. “But once my youngest daughter went to kindergarten, I said, ‘Well, if I can teach and be home by 3:00 p.m., then I’ll teach,’ and so I was an adjunct for many years.”
Darlene eventually received an offer to go back to work as a full-time Interior Designer, but after careful consideration she turned it down, not wanting the long hours to take her away from her young family. Career advancement was still in the cards, however. An unexpected vacancy in the interior design department at Maryville led to Darlene being named Interim Director in 2007, a position that soon became permanent. While she never would have predicted such a turn of events, Darlene was grateful for the professional change of pace.
“It wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do back then, but I definitely have enjoyed it and I’ve been there as Director for a long time now,” Darlene acknowledges. “I tell my students that I’m on my third career, and I think many of us will have more than one career in our lives. It’s important to understand, and for me, it was a really good move.”
Darlene, who now serves on the Universal Design Summit 7 Steering Committee, first met Colleen Starkloff when she taught her own class at Maryville. She says Colleen is the ideal person to lead such a movement.
“Colleen is just such an amazing advocate for the Americans with Disabilities Act and Universal Design. She never stops advocating,” Darlene marvels. “She is just a passionate person, and she wants everyone to know and understand what Universal Design is. I wish she could still teach her class at Maryville, but she’s a busy woman.”
While attending a Universal Design Summit several years ago, Darlene was part of a group that toured 6 North, a universally designed apartment complex in the Central West End. Seeing these inclusive principles implemented in such a powerful way left a lasting impression.
”My real interest in Universal Design and my understanding of its importance really stemmed from my visit to 6 North. They did so many great things with that facility,” Darlene reflects. “I just remember being struck by the amount of knowledge I gained by going to this conference, all these things I hadn’t really thought about or considered before. Everyone knows what the ADA is, but I’ve learned that simply making things accessible is a minimum requirement. We can always do more, and a lot of Universal Design is just that — doing more. It’s just smart design.”