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MICA's new residence hall combines pretty and practical

Teaching students about color and design is nothing new for the Maryland Institute of College of Art.

But the school's newest residence hall, set to open this month, provides lessons in creating a space that is not only chic and attractive, but also durable and flexible.

From the vinyl flooring that resembles driftwood to pressed-concrete walls that look like planks and innovative seating that can be configured in multiple ways, the $16.3 million dormitory is designed to withstand the demands and needs of 240 art students who soon will take up residence.

The building's interior designer, Brad Weesner, says he wrestled with a number of issues, including the need to create both living and learning areas in the same building.

"The first goal is to keep this residential," he says. "Like any one of us, they want to come home to a soothing and calm place. …The other challenge is to keep it neutral without being boring."

Named for a former MICA president, Eugene W. "Bud" Leake, the five-story building includes a lecture hall, a performance theater, artist studios and gallery space on the first floor, and, above all that shared space, 63 suite-style apartments for freshmen and new transfer students.

The building is part of an expansion project that includes renovations to existing dormitories and dining facilities on McMechen Street.

Working with the landscapers and architects, Weesner and the administrators at MICA early on settled on a color scheme of rich brown, beige, copper and stainless steel for Leake Hall.

"We like the color of dirt because our students make things dirty," Mike Molla, MICA vice president for operations, says half-jokingly.

Weesner says art students aren't malicious, just messy. As he selected colors and materials, he kept in mind students whose clothes might be covered in pottery clay or splattered with paint.

At a distance, brown petal-shaped seats in the building lobby appear to be made of leather. Chaise lounges near the elevators seem to be covered in a dark fabric. But both are of high-quality vinyl that can be recovered when they wear out.

The apartment furniture is similarly sturdy. Stackable brown plastic dining chairs appear to be made of quilted leather and unusual cube-shaped seats contain a hardwood frame covered in durable fabric.

Keeping in mind that students who will be creating art projects in their apartments, Weesner selected stainless-steel kitchen countertops to withstand the slip of an X-acto knife and gave the counters raised edges to contain spills.

Molly Gamble, a junior art history major who will be a resident adviser in Leake Hall, says it's surprising how messy art students can be.

"It is amazing the amount of charcoal, graphite and paint splatters," she says. "It's on the ceilings, in the drawers. It's everywhere. … It's good to have a forgivable surface in an artist dorm."

In addition to durable furnishings, Leake Hall features 10-foot ceilings and wide hallways to accommodate students who might have to haul large pieces of art.

Yet the dorm had to be more than durable. It also had to be attractive.

Exposed ventilation systems and concrete and cinderblock walls in the lobby and other common areas call to mind industrial chic, but the starkness has been tempered with lighting and a neutral palette, and carefully positioned textured surfaces give the interior a more welcoming feel.

Large windows in the apartments, lounges and studios infuse the rooms with natural light, and tract lighting in the hallways will illuminate student artwork. Strings of lights outline the stairs, providing a sense of security as well as beauty.

Concrete accent walls feature a pattern that resembles wood planking and mimics the vinyl flooring that looks like driftwood. Off-white and light beige walls in the halls, lobby and apartments are meant to show off the student art work.

"We wanted to create spaces that have a neutral palette," Molla says. "The students provide the color."

By leaving ceilings and walls exposed, the college was able to spend more money on high-quality carpets and Merillat cabinets in the baths and kitchens, adding beauty to the apartments, Weesner says.

In addition to being durable and attractive, the interior spaces are flexible.

The first-floor lecture hall is suitable for showing films or putting on poetry slams; a theater space can serve for an art exhibition, dance recital or reception. Even the counter in the lobby might be used as a security desk or a ticket kiosk.

Living and learning areas are blended throughout the building. Lounges on the apartment floors might be places for students to hang out and play video games or the rooms might be used for meetings and presentations.

"The idea of formal learning areas is getting more outdated," Weesner says. "The lines are blurred as to what is my apartment and what is my classroom."

In the apartments, students will have the chance to apply their artistic talents to their rooms.

The twin beds can be bunked, raised above dressers, or stand traditionally on the floor. Seating cubes can be configured as individual chairs or combined into loveseats.

Molla calls the custom-designed seating the 21st-century version of a "really flexible bean-bag chair."

The walls in the apartments are covered with inexpensive fiberboard that can be painted, tacked or nailed. When it wears out, the panels can be flipped over or replaced.

Such freedom to decorate their rooms as they wish is important to the art students, Gamble says.

"It's crazy how different each room is," she says. "People really like to create and design their own space they feel comfortable in."

Take a lesson from MICA

The new Leake building — part dorm, part learning areas — blends pretty and practical in its interior designs so students can create art there and display it, too. Here are some tips for any home:

•Hide dirt by creating a palette of rich browns, beiges and copper colors.

•Create warmth with textured walls and floors.

•Choose furnishings that can be recovered rather than replaced when they wear out.

•Don't be afraid of high-quality vinyl for furniture and floors that see a lot of use

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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