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Parsons, Frank Alvah

Frank Alvah Parsons with Assistant. circa 1927. Parsons School of Design Alumni Association records.


Frank Alvah Parsons was born in Chesterfield, Massachusetts, on April 1, 1866. He attended Wesleyan Academy, then studied art in England, France, Italy, and Austria. In 1901, he became instructor in fine art at the Horace Mann School of Teachers College, Columbia University, and, in 1905, completed a degree in art education with an applied arts component

In 1904, Parsons was hired to teach at the New York School of Art. Founded in 1896 by American Impressionist painter William Merritt Chase, the school at the time was focused on the fine arts. Parsons was invited to bring applied arts into the curriculum, teaching design theory, costume design, and interior decoration. This marked the start of what would come to be a radical reshaping of the school's mission and legacy. In 1909, the school was renamed New York School of Fine and Applied Art, to reflect this new trajectory.

Parsons became sole director of the school in 1911. Early programs of concentration were costume design and interior decoration. Not far behind he instituted a program in commercial illustration. In the coming years, he continued to expand the school's scope and broaden its reach. In 1921, he established the Paris Atelier, encouraging an exchange of ideas and trends between New York and Paris, as students and instructors went back and forth between the two, and established outposts in England and Italy. In 1927, the French government named him a Knight of the Legion of Honor in acknowledgement of his work to advance Franco-American relations.

Many noted designers were educated at Parsons, including Claire McCardell, pioneer of ready-to-wear clothing in the U.S.; Eleanor McMillen, founder of the illustrious interior design firm that still bears her name; Gilbert Adrian, costume designer for The Wizard of Oz; and Joseph Platt, set designer on Gone with the Wind (and the artist behind the Whitman's Sampler chocolate box).

Parsons took his ideas well beyond the confines of his school. He was in high demand as a lecturer by museums, universities, trade and civic organizations, private schools, and women's clubs. His subjects included "The How and Why of an Artistic Home," "Democracy, Feminism, and the New Art," and "Art, Dress, and Common-Sense." His books include, The Principles of Advertising Arrangement (1912), Advertising, Its Principles and Practice (as co-writer, 1915), Interior Decoration, Its Principles and Practice (1915); The Psychology of Dress (1920); and The Art Appeal in Display Advertising (1921).

Central to Parsons' design philosophy was the cultivation of "taste." Based on universal principles of harmony and simplicity, good taste could--and should--be cultivated and learned. Another essential principle was "appropriateness," with an emphasis on purpose and function. "Good design was democratic and accessible to everyone," Parsons wrote, not only "for the few, for the talented, for the genius, for the rich, nor the church." Good design was also a national value, and must be understood to have a fundamental part in American life. "Industry is the nation's life," he wrote,"art is the quality of beauty in expression and industrial art is the corner stone of our national art."

Parsons died on May 25, 1930, at the age of 64.

Adapted from a biography by X. Theodore Barber, Archivist, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Archives Center of Parsons School of Design, New School University, 2004.