The Gibbs Spotlight: Chelsea Holcomb

GCA Communications intern Kali Curtis (K) sat down with Chelsea Holcomb (H), an alumna and lecturer of Interior Design here at Gibbs! We spoke with Chelsea Holcomb to learn about her experiences with technology as an interior designer. Read on for highlights or click the link below to access the full podcast. 

K: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Gibbs Spotlight. My name is Kali Curtis and I’m a Communications intern at the Gibbs College of Architecture. Today we’re talking to Chelsea Holcomb. Chelsea Holcomb is a lecturer of interior design at Gibbs College. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Interior Design at the University of Central Oklahoma in 2010. She received her Master of Architecture from the University of Oklahoma in 2021.  

Thank you so much for meeting with me today. It’s so nice to meet with you.  

H: It’s nice to meet you, too. 

K: So, can you tell me a little bit about yourself? 

H: Yeah, so my name is Chelsea Holcomb. I am an interior designer. I’ve been practicing for about 12 years. I graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma in 2010. And then I received my master’s degree in architecture from the University of Oklahoma in spring of 2021. So, I’m a lecturer. And this is my first year. And so, it’s a completely different experience, but I’m loving it. 

K: Could you tell me about your work in interior design? 

H: Yeah, so I was really fortunate enough to work for a small architecture firm right out of college. It was during the recession. And so, it was kind of hard to get a job, because nobody was hiring. So, I lucked out. And I was the fourth person that worked there. And because of the small firm, I was able to do quite a bit of like different projects that have a lot of involvement, even from an early point in my career.  

The firm specialized in commercial design, and they were primarily architecture focused. So, they didn’t have an interior designer on staff. They didn’t do Interior Design until I was hired. So, I was really kind of able to create that department within the firm. I think it was a really special experience and I really appreciate the principal of the firm for allowing me to have such a large responsibility, like even from the get-go. And as far as like the project types, I did education K through 12, we did higher education. So, university level work. We did some worship centers, corporate office; we kind of didn’t specialize in any one particular area, we just did a host of things. 

K: Thank you. So how have the design methods or practices changed in interior design since the start of your career? 

H: So, I think they’ve changed quite a bit. I will say, like, I went to a school that was very much art focused for my undergrad. We did everything hand drafting, hand rendering. I had exposure to AutoCAD at the high school level, because I’ve always known this is my path. And so, I had an early introduction, and then going into school and having to have it like stripped back from the technology computer aided drafting to then just going to hand drafting, hand rendering, that was like an adjustment period. So then when I got out of school, I almost had to revert back like four years to practicing with drawing with computer aided software. 

J.D. and Mary West Science Laboratory, Southern Nazarene University (Chelsea Holcomb, Studio Dane)

We primarily used AutoCAD, so that’s what I had learned in high school. So, I felt very comfortable with it. But we just didn’t utilize it very much in my undergrad degree. So that was interesting. It was like these really weird transitions back and forth to different methods in the design process. Then, as far as like professional practice, because of the firm I worked for was so small, and they were all very comfortable using AutoCAD, we never really evolved our drawing process into Revit or other drawing software. We pretty much stayed in AutoCAD, but what did change pretty significantly was our documentation and distribution of our work.  

When I first started in 2010 there, everything was printed. We had 24 by 36-inch drawing sets that would get plotted, and we would have multiple sets, and they would hang on hang racks, and there would be a full-size copy that would go to the contractor and a full-size copy that would go to the owner. So anytime there was like a change or revision, we’d have to print, and it was my job early on to go and change those sets out. And so, the biggest change has been going completely digital, like having all of our stuff archived and be able to send it in a PDF, being able to change pages like really quickly and making sure that everybody’s sets are up to date and current. I think that that has really changed how we produce and how to keep up with that stuff. And then little things like, how we keep up with some middles.  

So, I did a lot of project management and construction administration, not just at the interior design level, but in the architecture level also. And the way we handle submittals from contractors now has just completely changed. Before we would get six copies of, you know, 45 pages, and they’d have a transmittal, and we’d stamped them and stamp them out. And we’d have to make sure that we hand wrote all the comments on each page on each set. Now, like all of that is done in Bluebeam or Acrobat. So, the amount of time we spend transcribing all of those comments, and all those red lines, and then like the spreadsheet is now updated live by the contractor, so that we’re all kind of on the same page. Where before, that just wasn’t how we did things. So, I think there’s a lot less time spent with that process. 

K: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That’s something really interesting to think about is how before, you know, you had to print everything out every single time and every time it changed, you had to change everything. And then now it’s just all stored online. 

H: Yeah, it’s really interesting to think back because that was just 12 years ago. Like, it’s changed so much in 12 years, and the amount of time that I personally spent putting that stuff together and handwriting all of those notes on all of those pages, it’s kind of astonishing to think about how much time that has freed up by using technology. 

K: You said that your undergrad degree was more art focused? How would you say that impacts your perspective in the design process?  

H: Yeah, so I think I’m fortunate to have gone to a college that’s interior design degree was influenced by art because it definitely helps you to see light and color, and how people are going to experience a space. You’re able to see visually, so it kind of fine tunes how you want people to see your designs, and then it also allows you to develop the skills to communicate that information.  

I will say the drawback to that (there’s also a drawback) is that interior design has so much technical information, and there’s so many things that have to be done in order to make sure we are creating healthy and safe environments. And I feel like some of that I wasn’t quite prepared for. I think I didn’t realize the amount of time and effort that goes into selecting safe materials, and designing to think about things like accessibility, and aging in place and thinking about acoustics and slip coefficients, and just all of the things that designers have to think about. I will say that my undergrad was, you know, 12 years ago. So, I’m sure things have evolved quite a bit, and I had an amazing experience. 

K: Thank you. How have the changes in the use of technology personally affected your own career?  

H: Well, I think it goes back to kind of what I said is it’s just like streamlined the process a little bit, as far as like the paperwork side of things. But I don’t think it’s changed the beginning process. Like we still sketch and we still program the same way as I did in the very beginning of my career. Now, I think there’s more time spent detailing, and we’re detailing quite a bit more on connections and wall sections, and just all the different details that go into making sure a building comes together correctly has just been blown up.  

I will say even from when I first started, the amount of time we spend on the details has really, really increased. I think that’s just partly because of having more understanding and a more thoughtful approach to design and making sure that our buildings are safe and inhabitable and that there aren’t errors. So, there may be even a point where we’re over documenting because we’re getting to such minute details that we may be losing some of the global picture. I think with the development of more rendering software and that becoming more of a standard on projects, that that has definitely added to the design process. 

R.T. Williams Student Library, Southern Nazarene University (Chelsea Holcomb, Studio Dane)

Before you’d have hands renderings, and now, we’re doing computer rendered photorealistic renderings, and even animations so that people can experience space. Most people have a really hard time visualizing space in the two-dimensional plane. And so, renderings have helped people to see the vision or the global idea. And then animations have helped introduce this idea of experience into the space.  I’ve even had a project where we did Virtual Reality paired with a rendering animation so that the client could walk through our design and experience it for themselves. And so, I think even larger firms have taken that and really, really pushed this idea of bringing technology into the design process.  

So, I don’t know if it’s changed much. I think it’s just added on to the design process a little bit. Early on, we would just get to a point on a project where our construction documents were done and we may have somebody in the office do a quick hand rendering or really quick white box SketchUp rendering. Now, like every single project gets a full blown, photorealistic rendering, and some even get animations. So, I think that that’s the thing that’s changed the most is the visual graphic communication has gotten to be more important. 

K: So, it sounds like now designers are spending a lot more time focusing on the details. Like you mentioned before, they were spending a lot more time on the hand rendering and writing through all the different comments. So, I think in a way, it kind of evens out because like you save a little bit of time with the technology, but then now you’re also spending a lot more time detailing it. And technology has made it to where people can experience the design a lot more accurately. 

H: Yeah, especially before like we actually break ground, which I think is really interesting is that it’s made it possible for people to experience it, where you as an architect or designer have the ability to see it in your mind. Other people have don’t have that same ability. Now we’re able to share that with them, which I think is a really cool part of development of technology is that we’re able to share that information a lot sooner. 

K: Thank you. So, what thoughts did you have about the field when joining? And how did your thoughts differ from reality? 

H: I think I mentioned earlier, I’ve always had this interest in the built environment and design and architecture from a very young age. I mentioned that I took those AutoCAD classes in high school, because I just knew already that this is what I wanted to do. So, I think I had a really good understanding of that’s what I wanted. I think where it kind of got a little bit muddled was I didn’t understand the stereotypes that were going to be associated with interior design.  

I pursued interior design because I was really interested in this idea of the human interaction within space. I didn’t realize that there was the stereotype that only women were in interior design, and that they only pick colors and finishes. So, that was a little disheartening. And a lot of interior designers have to deal with this. People probably say, we’ve got this chip on our shoulder about the stereotype. And it’s true, we do have a chip on our shoulder. So, I think that that has been what I didn’t expect.  

But I will say the encouraging thing is that it’s starting to become less and less, and the stereotype is starting to break down. Which is super comforting, especially now as an instructor for my students in interior design, for me to know that they’re not going to have to deal with that quite as much. I think I’ve been encouraged because of the architecture students at Gibbs. Like they have been welcoming and collaborative and open to this idea of interior design pushing the boundaries. I discovered that as a grad student at Gibbs. So, I came in with my interior design degree and I was put in a class full of undergrad architecture students and I was welcomed with open arms.  

This younger generation is just so accepting. So, it really makes me feel comfortable for where we’re headed, especially in interior design. I think we’re headed in a really great direction and that stereotype is just going to get broken down even more. So, I guess that’s a really long way of saying that I didn’t expect it going in, experienced it, and now I’m very hopeful coming out on the other end. 

K: Well, that’s good. It kind of seems like the collaboration can kind of just spread awareness of what interior design really is. 

H: Absolutely. I think that’s the great thing about Gibbs College is they have all of the different disciplines under one roof. So, all the people we’re going to be working with as professionals, they’re in that space. So, we’re going to work with architects, we’re going to work with construction managers, we’re going to work with landscape architects.  

So, all of these different disciplines being under one roof really starts to create this collaborative environment from the very beginning at the education level, so that moving into the professional level, we’re already setting them up without those stereotypes and expectations, because they’ve worked with everybody before, and they already have an understanding of what we all do. I’m not just to say like interior design is the only one who deals with that there are some of those stereotypes that go across the board for all the different disciplines. It’s just something I struggled with personally in my own career. 

K: Thank you. So, what is the most valuable thing that you’ve learned at Gibbs College? 

H: So, as a grad student, I think the most valuable thing that I learned is that there are so many possibilities within architecture that you can be interested in multiple things, you can explore multiple things, you can research and they really allow you the flexibility to do that. I had been working for a firm for so long, that there was like such a set way to design and a set way to go through the process. And going back to school, that was like taken away. I was given the creative freedom to really explore what was important to me and what I was passionate about.  

Another thing that I will say is that all of the instructors at Gibbs have their own passions and interests. And so, when you’re being instructed by them, you get to learn more about what they’re interested in. And so, you have this exposure to different research and to different ways of designing. And I think it really strengthens you as a designer, because it allows you to have more than one viewpoint.  

I will say, as an instructor, what I’ve learned, (I’m still very new, and I’m still figuring it out), but this generation of students coming through, they care. They care more about issues, they care more about, like current events, they really value representation for like underserved communities, and for diversity. And so, it’s super empowering as an instructor to see people come into the program who have this, like very thoughtful mindset. Because then going into architecture, they’re going to have a thoughtful mindset in how they design. And that goes for people and environment and all these different aspects. So, I think students, just this generation is more fine tuned into what’s going on in the world. And they’re like choosing to care about it. So, I think that that’s really something that I’ve been very excited to learn about.  

K: Well, I’m really glad to hear that that you’ve noticed that this generation is really caring about diversity and equity, and really just being aware of what’s going on in the world. Your experiences with the Gibbs culture, is that the Gibbs College really allows for creative freedom. 

Inside the J.D. and Mary West Science Laboratory at SNU

H: Absolutely. I’m just really proud to be a part of it, because I think that they just give you the space to really be who you are and to have creative exploration are encouraging you to like make a difference or to have thoughtful designs. So, it’s also like just very encouraging, especially as a new faculty to be welcomed, so well. And then to experience things I’ve experienced, and I know this is a technology podcast, but I think that those things have been the most valuable above and beyond.  

K: Yeah, so above all the technical side of things, what’s most important is the people, I guess.  

H: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s kind of what we do. We design for human interaction. And, you know, people spend, I think the statistic is like 90% of their time in in buildings and spaces and or structures, I guess. And so, we have, like such an important role. And I think that we need to take it seriously. And we’re designing for people and to have thoughtful people coming out of the program, who are going to be very mindful of their responsibility, I think is really, really, interesting.  

K: Alright, thank you. So how do you use your professional experience to influence your students? 

H: Well, I mean, honestly, that’s the only thing I have to go off of, because I’ve been practicing for 12 years. I don’t have the experience in a classroom; I have the experience in a firm or on a job site, and they’re going to be there one of these days. So, I think the best I can do is to share with them some of my experiences, and share with them, just different things that I’ve learned and how things are achieved, will help them when they leave Gibbs College. We are educating them for professional practice. So, I think it’s been helpful for me just to use my experience to share with them. 

K: Thank you. Do you have an example of a project that you would like to talk about? 

H: Sure. So, I worked on such a wide range of projects. There’s like two that come to mind. One was one of the very, very first projects that I was able to work on, and this relates to technology. So, it was a science laboratory building and it was a very large new build. I was very new to the firm, but I was the only one who could use any sort of 3d rendering software. The design was so complicated that they needed to be able to see it in 3d.  

And so, I had a very hands-on experience with the design of the exterior structure because of how complex it was and the need for that three-dimensional technology. I think it really shaped my trajectory in my career, because it was a very large project that I got trusted to work on right out of the gate. That had helped give me the confidence I needed to continue to take on and tackle larger projects.  

The second one I would say would be the adaptive reuse project in Midtown. It was the Hall’s Pizza Kitchen. It was an old tire warehouse that we turned into a restaurant with a rooftop deck. I was the project manager on it. The family that owns the company was just super hands on and the contractor was amazing. And so, the process just went really well. It was such a good team. And there was just a lot of detail that really came together in such a beautiful way. So, I’m just very proud that I had the opportunity to work on that project. 

Hall’s Pizza Kitchen, an adaptive reuse project managed by Chelsea Holcomb

K: Thank you. Those are some really interesting projects. Do you have any other thoughts that you would like to share today? 

H: Just that I’m excited to be a part of Gibbs College. I was very, very proud to graduate with my masters from University of Oklahoma, and then to now be an instructor, it just feels like a really, really great place to be. It’s been so welcoming. People have been very kind, the students are great, and I’ve honestly learned probably more from them than I have probably taught them, but I’m just really proud to be a part of this community that has been built here.  

K: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. 

H: Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it. 

K: Thanks again for listening to the Gibbs Spotlight. Tune in next time to hear more stories from the Gibbs College of Architecture. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.