New Programme Leader: Introducing Catherine Byrne

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As the new programme leader for the OCA Interior Design course I’d like to give you a bit of background to my own education and career, and also a little insight in to what you can expect from the course – as a student of Interior Design at the OCA.
I decided very early on that I wanted to design spaces. My first drawing of a space was a plan of our family garden shed; kitted out with beds, desks and chairs for myself and my best friend – I was about nine years old. Over the next few years I spent many happy hours re-arranging the furniture in my bedroom, making different spaces and eventually (when I was old enough to be trusted with a paint roller) moving on to decoration and soft furnishings. When I had a clearer idea in my head (aged about 15) I finally realised that I wanted to be an architect – or at least I thought I did, and I thought I knew what an architect was.
I did my first degree in Architecture at Greenwich University, and after working as an architectural assistant for a couple of years I returned to Southbank University to do my PG Diploma. I think it was over this period that my ideas changed – I had tried ‘straight’ architecture (buildings, car parks, big stuff) and was back studying all sorts of things that I had no idea were really anything to do with architecture – film, popular culture, art theory. I also had a Saturday job at the National Gallery and found that I quite liked the feeling of working in a gallery, being in a museum.

I successfully completed my PG Diploma in Architecture with the very happy realisation that I no longer wanted to be an architect. But I did love designing spaces, probably even more now than I did at 9 years old.
Determined not to find a job as an architect I got my first design job at Selfridges as in-house 3D designer. I learnt loads about how things are actually built – designing window installations, in-store retail units and (the most exciting project) the children’s Christmas Grotto! It was a steep learning curve for someone who had never had anything made or built from their own drawings before – but it was also a brilliant introduction to designing in the real fast-paced retail world, and a whole heap of fun.
As much fun as retail design was I always had the idea that I’d like to be involved in fine art and museums, and so my next job was as 3D designer back at the National Gallery – designing exhibitions, galleries and other interior spaces, furniture and objects. Again learning lots through ‘doing’ and building my knowledge of interior design in different spaces. I moved on from here to a similar position at the V&A – a much bigger and more varied collection of objects; so much more scope for interesting spatial design challenges and ideas. In these jobs I learnt the most fundamental spatial design skill – good communication; and second most fundamental – tact and diplomacy. Everybody (designers and non-designers alike) has an opinion of what the space around them should be like; and it is your job as a spatial designer to be considerate of all of these views – but also to know when and how to move on from them.

Through my work in museums and exhibitions I developed an interest in the narrative aspect of spatial design; how spaces can help to tell stories, and how the design of those spaces can directly influence the way a story unfolds. After several years working in this field I chose to take a sabbatical and return to education again – this time to explore design and story-telling through an MA in Production Design for film and TV. After graduating I was really lucky to spend a few years working in the film industry – lots of fun, lots of stories and lots of interesting people to collaborate with.
As a spatial designer who trained as an architect – and also as someone who has practised in a broad range of disciplines – I have always felt that a multi-disciplinary approach to designing is the most exciting. It is also very relevant to todays’ design world; a world that changes and merges – as professional design practices change and merge and the differences between disciplines become less clear cut.
I aim to encourage a broad approach to spatial design on the Interior Design courses at the OCA; supporting students to become creative spatial thinkers who can choose where (in the professional design environment) to position their practice.

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