The Early Years
Kendall was incorporated in 1928 by a provision in the will of Helen M. Kendall, the second wife of nationally known Grand Rapids furniture designer David Wolcott Kendall. Mrs. Kendall established the David Wolcott Kendall School of Art as a memorial to her husband, to reflect their strong belief in the fundamental principles of art, and to offer encouragement to aspiring artists, as David Kendall had done throughout his life. The school opened its doors on March 1, 1931, with a total enrollment of 35 art students.
David Wolcott Kendall (b. 1851, d. 1910) was born in Rochester, New York, the son of a cabinetmaker who taught him the trade. He came to Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1879 to work for Phoenix Furniture Company, and began a career that had significant and lasting effects on the furniture industry. A man of varied interests and talents, he set up a chemistry laboratory in the basement at Phoenix and developed special finishes that transformed wood such as oak and ash into products more attractive to customers of the period.
David Kendall traveled throughout Europe, Asia, and Central America to study new forms and decorative motifs in furniture design. The many rare and beautiful objects he acquired in his travels are still in the collection of Kendall. His lasting designs earned him the moniker “Dean of American Furniture Designers” and included a version of the Morris Chair that became known as the “McKinley Chair” after President McKinley selected one for installation in the White House. Kendall was also credited with developing an office chair that revolves and reclines. Though he never patented the design, his ideas still reverberate in the office furniture industry that continues to thrive in West Michigan.
The David Wolcott Kendall School of Art was housed in the old Kendall homestead at 145 Fountain Street, amid the lumber baron-era mansions in the area of Grand Rapids now known as Heritage Hill. The school offered a two-year program in the fundamentals of art and by the mid-1930s was making a name nationwide as the heir to the legacy of the craftsmen who built the Grand Rapids furniture industry.
Post-war boom brings growth
The postwar boom brought a wave of new students, including returning veterans. New wings were built on two sides of the Fountain Street building, and a new library housing Kendall’s personal collection was opened to the public in 1945. In 1947 the school’s name was changed to Kendall School of Design, reflecting the school’s national reputation in furniture design and home merchandising.
In 1961, having outgrown the Fountain Street location, the school purchased a home and land at 1110 College Avenue NE. Through the ‘60s and ‘70s Kendall expanded its programs and campus, adding two new buildings at the College Avenue location. A foundation program for all students was established, and in 1977 an academic program led to the first Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. In 1981, Kendall College of Design was certified as a baccalaureate degree-granting institution and was accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Universities.
Back to downtown
Enrollment over the next few years continued to grow. Students from around the world were drawn by the exceptional design programs and by the school’s placement rate of 90%. A committee of trustees, faculty, staff, and students began examining sites where the burgeoning school could relocate.
Somewhat ironically, the search ended just a block or so from the school’s original location in the old Kendall homestead. Built just after the turn of the century as exhibition space, the Manufacturers Building offered ample room for expansion. Kendall bought the building in ‘81 and moved its operations back downtown in the fall of ‘84.
In 1987 the name of the school was changed to Kendall College of Art and Design to reflect the school’s status in granting four-year degrees and the equal importance of both art and design in Kendall’s curriculum.
Kendall impact recognized nationally
After more than six decades, Kendall’s impact on the design industry nationwide was unmistakable. Most of the well recognized furniture designers in the country were Kendall alumni. Graduates in the school’s other programs were highly sought after by the nation’s top illustration, advertising, graphics, industrial, and interior design firms, as well as graduate schools.
In the summer of 1995, a gala event in New York honored renowned design editor and author Beverly Russell, a member of the Kendall Board of Trustees and recipient of an honorary doctoral degree from the college. Funds from the event were used to establish a lecture fund, which over the next six years, brought a stellar array of international design figures to Grand Rapids including Viscount David Linley, the son of England’s Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon and a furniture designer of international renown.
At about the same time, it was becoming apparent that to maintain the momentum of growth and the college’s national reputation for art and design education, and to provide the technology and services necessary in higher education, further growth was needed. At the same time, Ferris State University was exploring ways to expand from its geographic area, centered for most of the last century in Big Rapids, Michigan. A merger was discussed.
A meeting of minds
The idea of merging the two institutions was attractive to both Kendall and Ferris, offering a partnership of art, design, and technology that optimizes both school’s strengths. In 1996, the schools embarked upon a four-year process of affiliation that culminated in a complete merger in the 2000-2001 academic year.
As the school continued to grow, an ambitious project was undertaken to purchase the old Interstate Building, another turn-of-the-century loft building just around the corner, and connect it to Kendall with a striking three-story atrium. The new facility was opened in May of 1998.
The same year, Kendall received a $2 million grant from the Herbert H. & Grace A. Dow Foundation to establish a dynamic, interdisciplinary learning center that explores the potential of linking design, innovation, and technology in for business. The Dow Center serves as a symbol of the ideological link between art, design, and technology that was, in many ways, a driving force in the decision to merge the two schools.
Today, Kendall continues to focus on growing its academic programs and expanding its facilities. In the coming years we intend to add more programs to both our undergraduate and graduate degree offerings in art, design, art education and art history. And we look forward to a future that includes expanding our physical space.