The Open Atelier: “I was told he was a designer and a poet…”

This quote is an excerpt of what Giuseppe Zambonini had to say about Michael Kalil in a 1979 New York Times feature about The Open Atelier of Design and Architecture.

The Open Atelier brochure, 1978-1979

The Open Atelier of Design and Architecture (OADA) was a non-accredited design school founded by Guiseppe Zambonini in 1978. At the time, Zambonini was the Dean of the New York School of Interior Design (NYSID), but felt that the students were not receiving enough practical teaching in relation to the abundance of theory and design courses. His goal in establishing OADA was to cover a full cycle of design study from theory to practice. Zambonini likely knew Kalil through NYSID where Kalil taught seminars in architectural history. Judging by a promotional brochure in Kalil’s papers, by 1978 Zambonini had invited Kalil to be a part of his OADA faculty. Other faculty members included Christian Hubert, George Ranalli and Michael Monsky. Guest speakers included the conceptual artist Donald Judd, architectural theorists Raimund Abraham and Lauretta Vinciarelli, and also design luminaries including Ward Bennett, Norman Diekman, Joe D’Urso, James Wines, Michael Webb and Gamal El Zoghby.

The school was originally housed on 11 Worth Street, in a 100-year old warehouse in TriBeCa (the downtown extension of SoHo at the time).

Page from an uncorrected proof of an article for Interiors magazine, “Low Budget Design” by Beverly Russell, 1980.

It occupied roughly 2200 square feet in a fifth floor loft that was internally unbuilt and without utilities. Zambonini saw this as a golden opportunity to design a space that would not only house the activities of OADA, but also serve as a space that could “teach by example.”

OADA offered both day and evening classes, lecture series, and opportunities to do professional design work, and it was equipped with a working wood and model shop.  Most of the furniture used as drafting tables and work surfaces were designed and built on premises in a joint effort between faculty and students. Although the school did not award degrees, Zambonini ensured that every student left with a portfolio of real-world residential and commercial projects that the school contracted as class assignments.

Within Kalil’s papers, there is no tangible evidence regarding this part of his career aside from a couple of articles and a few promotional brochures published by OADA. Kalil’s relationship with OADA and Zambonini may have been relatively brief, but it does illustrate that during the 1970s, he was already active as a design educator, and very interested in creating alternative kinds of learning experiences for design students.

Interestingly, I recently ran some Google searches for “Open Atelier of Design and Architecture”, and variations that used both Zambonini’s and Kalil’s names, and I came across a number of results that took me to the websites of working architects and designers where OADA was cited in their CVs. If you are one of those individuals, please feel free to contact me via this blog- I would be interested to hear about your educational experience at OADA, particularly if you took one of Kalil’s courses!

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3 Comments on “The Open Atelier: “I was told he was a designer and a poet…””

  1. Patricia Soper says:

    I was a student at NYSID in 1974-75. I have a beautiful recollection of Michael Kalil. He was an instructor in a special workshop, “In Light of Architecture.” I had been struggling all semester and he was enormously encouraging and supportive, calling my work “primitive,” but adding that was a compliment. I had kept, for years, a paper bag on which he’d scribbled, to illustrate his point. I had just been wondering what became of the Open Atelier which I’d heard about at the time of its opening, but by then, largely due to the sociological perspective Giuseppe Zambonini introduced to us at NYSID, I changed my focus of study. I was delighted to find this blog and to know that Michael Kalil is honored and remembered.

    • larsonj11 says:


      Apologies for the really slow response- very busy with my job here at Parsons and also doing some additional research about Michael for the upcoming Kalil Fellowship announcement here (I’ll be giving a presentation about Michael’s life and career). Thanks for sending along a beautiful recollection about his approach as a design educator. By all accounts, he was a challenging yet very empathetic instructor who valued the journey as much, if not moreso, than the destination of a completed project. My understanding is that AOA had a good run, but according to Mr.Zambonini’s NY Times obit (sadly, he passed away at the age of 48), he closed the school in 1988 when he moved to Atlanta to become the director of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s architecture school.

  2. I was a NYSID student 1974-77 eventually graduating with a BFA from the school. Michael Kalil was a favorite instructor of mine. Always encouraging, he had a way of challenging you to think differently. Some would say, “out of the box”. One of our assignments was to “design a space to contain earth”. We could use whatever medium we wanted and I chose watercolor. On the day of our presentation, I was so nervous as I was a 19 year old, immature, struggling student among many more accomplished, mature, already established professionals. When it was my turn to present to the jury of Michael, Norman Diekman and Guiseppe Zambonini, I thought the worst. My design featured a crystal wine glass sitting on a moonlit beach with the ocean waves rolling in the background. Inside the wine glass was a plant sprouting a bud of the planet earth. As the three of them looked at my project, no one said anything. The first one to speak was Michael. In his excited way, he asked me, “how did you come up with this concept?”. I told him I had a live plant sitting on my coffee table in my apartment and my roommate was sipping a glass of wine as we were talking one night. The visual image of the plant and this beautiful wine glass and the reflection of the light on the glass all contributed to my concept of the earth continually growing and evolving, that we are as connected to it as it is to us. Needless to say he loved it, they all loved it. This scared immature midwest farm girl finally GOT what he was trying to teach us. That was the defining moment of my time at NYSID. I realized with a little effort I could be a viable and creative designer and I became just that. Not everyone can be a teacher. Not only was Michael Kalil a gifted teacher but his exuberance and passionate personality created an atmosphere of learning in which ANY idea or different way of thinking was explored and encouraged. I was so saddened when I learned of his passing. That painting is the lone surviving project of my years there. It hangs in my office to this day as a reminder of not to be afraid to take a chance and express yourself. If you don’t, you may never know what you might be capable of.
    Robin Brechbuhler (Meier)

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