The Early Years
KCAD 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 (KCAD) to reflect the school’s status in granting four-year degrees and the equal importance of both art and design in the college's curriculum.
Creating impact nationally
After more than six decades, KCAD's impact on the design industry nationwide was unmistakable. Most of the well recognized furniture designers in the country were KCAD 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 KCAD 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.
A meeting of minds
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.
The idea of merging the two institutions was attractive to both KCAD 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.
An explosion of growth
Under the leadership of President Oliver Evans, the school continued to grow, and 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 the Manufacturers Building with a striking three-story atrium. The new facility, which was opened in May of 1998, is located at 17 Fountain Street NW and houses the majority of KCAD's administrative offices, classrooms, and dedicated work spaces.
In the early 2000's KCAD began the long process of acquiring and renovating the Historic Federal Building at the corner of Pearl and Division in downtown Grand Rapids, but it wasn't until the fall of 2012 that the building's dazzling LEED-certifed remodeling was revealed to the public. All of the buildings historical aesthetics were preserved, while the interior was outfitted to meet the demands of 21st century.
The Federal Building, now known as the Woodbridge N. Ferris Building, houses 3,500 sq. ft. of exhibition space, featuring high ceilings and professional-quality lighting that have dramatically improved the exhibitions department's ability to attract and exhibit high-caliber artistic talent. It also hosts the Material ConneXion Library, the largest physical academic collection of material samples from the Material ConneXion organization in existence. The onsite research center features more than 1,050 samples from an archive of more than 7,000 materials, all of which are available for students to utilize. The Woodbridge N. Ferris Building also houses additional classroom, administrative, and public lecture spaces that give KCAD a greater ability to interact with the public at-large.
Meanwhile, many of the floors in the 17 Fountain Street NW building were renovated to provide am increasingly diverse and transdisciplinary community with cutting-edge resources and technology. New student commons areas and display galleries for student work were established to facilitate expression and a sense of community. Dedicated labs for sculpting, printmaking, photography, digital animation, audio recording, video production, interior design, woodworking, and more were outfitted with all of the equipment necessary to push students to new heights of creativity. KCAD also received a $2 million grant from the Herbert H. & Grace A. Dow Foundation to establish a dynamic, transdisciplinary disciplinary learning center that explores the potential of linking design, innovation, and technology. The Dow Center, better known as the FlexLab, is an open-source area where students can learn how to use contemporary digital processes such as 3D printing, LASER etching and cutting, vinyl cutting, large format inkjet printing, CNC machining, and plasma cutting.
Focused on the future
President Evans guided KCAD forward into the 21st century looking to also increase the college's program offerings. Components of the Fine Arts program such as Painting, Drawing, Sculpture, Metals and Jewelry Design, and Printmaking were expanded into separate accredited BFA programs, while a host of new programs were created. A new BFA in Digital Media was added to respond to rapid advancements in technology, while BFA and MFA programs in Art Education were also established to help prepare the next generations of art educators to be leaders and innovators. Fine Arts MFA programs were also created, giving KCAD the ability to attract a wider range of students and provide them with the added depth and marketability of a professional degree.
Under Evans, KCAD also began building outward, working to create partnerships with area businesses and organizations in order to integrate the college within the then burgeoning design community of West Michigan. When the inaugural ArtPrize took the world by storm in 2009, KCAD was immediately invested in helping the revolutionary contest succeed, striking a partnership with ArtPrize organizers that continues to grow with each passing year. Evans also connected KCAD to local design organizations such as the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT) and Design West Michigan (DWM).
Passing the torch
After 18 years of service, President Evans announced his retirement in early 2012. His successor, David Rosen, took office with a mission to redouble efforts to expand KCAD's impact both internally and externally. Under Rosen, KCAD has seen it's program offerings grow even further. The college now offers a BFA program in Fashion Studies, which is headquartered in the Woodbridge N. Ferris Building at the Pamella Roland DeVos School of Fashion, named for and supported by the prominent regional philanthropist and international fashion designer. Also created was a BFA in Collaborative Design, which is the first program of its kind in the country. Professional offerings were also expanded with the creation of an MBA in Design and Innovation Management and the region's first Master of Architecture program. An MA program in Critical and Visual studies is currently in development.
Most importantly, Rosen has intensified KCAD's efforts to build a strong sense of community around itself by working to help raise the profile of West Michigan as a powerhouse of art and design. In the fall of 2013, KCAD finalized a merger with Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts that enables both organizations to reach a wider audience through enhanced opportunities for joint exhibitions and additional programming. Other key partnerships include a significant commitment to ArtPrize through sponsorship of the juried grand prize award, a collaboration with Grand Rapids Public Schools and the Grand Rapids Public Museum to help create a place-based school that uses human-centered design as its pedagogy, and a partnership with The Wege Foundation to create the Wege Prize, an intercollegiate collaborative design competition that gives students the opportunity to solve wicked problems.
Rosen serves on the boards of ArtServe, the Grand Rapids Public Museum Foundation, and the advisory board of AIGA West Michigan. He also sits on the City of Grand Rapids Arts Advisory Committee and Downtown GR, Inc.’s Alliance for Vibrancy. Today, KCAD uses its momentum not only to grow and expand, but to contribute, collaborate, and innovate. Under the leadership of President Rosen, the College is focused on building community and creating impact.