By Dina Weinstein, University Public Affairs
With experience in the construction industry, Virginia Commonwealth University interior design student Donald Petties brought hands-on, pragmatic knowledge about the realities of building to his classroom projects.
“I understand a bit more than my counterparts how systems of construction work and when a project becomes a little too ambitious,” Petties said. “I understand when things we design probably aren’t going to get built. Because [if] people like me who are in the construction industry don’t have detailed drawings, we’re just not going to do it.”
Coming from a family of carpenters, Petties worked in construction, carpentry, and interior and home renovations during his teens in Hampton Roads, balancing those jobs with athletics and schoolwork. At VCU, he chose to study interior design in the School of the Arts because it connected to a broad design picture, used his knowledge of construction work, and offered him the chance to work on spaces that affect how people live.
“I’ve always thought about the way other people live their lives, what are the requirements they need to live their life a certain way and how can we make people’s lives easier?” Petties said.
Petties has explored those questions from numerous angles — interior design, graphic design, urban planning and sometimes even a psychology or a sociology standpoint — in hands-on classes at VCU, including through middle Of broad, an interdisciplinary studio. Projects have ranged from designing a website to renovating a getaway cabin. Working as a resident assistant for three years in VCU residence halls also has given Petties insight into communal living and what constitutes a supportive community.
This year’s middle Of broad project with a local mayoral campaign explored re-uses for the political yard signs that could serve people and give the signs new life. That led Petties to craft satchels from the signs.
“The way that I looked at it is creating backpacks for people who need them, specifically the unhoused within Richmond, just making it easier for them to get their stuff from point A to point B,” said Petties. “I find backpacks to be one of the most useful things ever created. I think [the satchel is] special because it’s made of nothing but five campaign poly bag signs and thread. I think it serves as a great precedent for what can be if we take inventory of what we have instead of trashing it and replacing it with something else that is newer but will also eventually be trashed.”
In a side group project, Petties looked at Richmond’s infrastructure and how to make it more sustainable, examining disconnected bike routes within Richmond.
“We’ve been looking at where can these connections go so that you can use your bike the same way you would use a car, because one of the biggest problems right now I see with bike lanes in Richmond is you get a good way out, but then you just go to a dead end and you don’t know what’s the next safe place to continue biking,” Petties said. “So, most people only do it as a leisurely activity, but I’m thinking, a few years down the line, what if we use bike lanes as roads? How would that affect how we get to work and how we do our shopping?”
A lot of Petties’ work has been what he calls a love letter to the Jackson Ward neighborhood. That work includes service projects focused on creating community areas where people can come together, revisit their past and try to dictate where their futures are heading.
For Petties’ senior thesis, he designed a grocery store, community center and community kitchen concept in Jackson Ward because the area is now classified as a food desert, with the nearest grocery store over a mile away. Focusing on the theme of being a good neighbor, Petties describes the market as giving off a home-like feel.
“When you walk in, you feel like this is a place you’ve been before and a place that’s not trying to hide anything from you,” Petties said. “It is a store where they do not use a lot of grocery store tactics that try to trick you into spending more money and just spending more time. This grocery store doesn’t really care about how much money you have in your pocket. It only wants to help you and make sure you have what you need. It’s a place that encourages the community to come, not just shop, but to interact with one another. It hires from within the community, because it cares about creating jobs and strengthening the community from within.”
After graduation Petties hopes to pursue work in the fields he has explored at VCU, but not necessarily in one specific design industry. He said the Hampton Roads area lacks spaces for community interaction, and he would like to address that shortage.
“I want to start doing work down there and start creating those spaces,” he said.