A group of Baltimore visionaries. An abandoned, historic former manufacturing facility scheduled to be demolished. A community seeking renewal and a renaissance in the arts. So starts the story of Baltimore Design School (BDS), now in its eighth year of helping Baltimore City students grow their critical thinking and creativity. The school’s founders were deeply focused on the underrepresentation of minorities in many design fields, and sought to offer opportunities and training in fields like graphic design, architecture, and fashion design to Baltimore City students. We had the honor of meeting the BDS team back in 2011 when the idea for a school that would give Baltimore City Public School students the opportunity to develop skills in all aspects of design was just beginning to take shape. They started out as a sixth and seventh grade school, renting space in an unused building, while actively looking for the right building to grow into. We helped them identify the 100-year-old former Crown Cork and Seal Company building, later known as the Lebow Clothing Factory, in Baltimore’s Greenmount West community. It had sat dark since 1985, and the community desperately wanted something positive to transform the site; the building’s legacy as a hub for design and fashion seemed meant to be, and it sat adjacent to the important Station North Arts & Entertainment District. All the pieces were falling into place. We then came alongside the BDS team to lead the process to acquire, finance, design, and build their new state-of-the-art facility. The 120,000-square-foot historic building was transformed into classrooms, studio space, and hallway art gallery experiences that foster an immersive educational process in all aspects of art and design. Through creative financing and a unique partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools, the $25 million project was able to move forward, and the school now operates as a grade six through 12 public school, serving more than 800 students from all across Baltimore City.
The [Baltimore Design School] project was really a focus on getting the best outcome for everyone; we [Greenmount West] struck gold with that building, we really did. Seawall went over and beyond to work with the neighborhood. I don’t think anyone could have envisioned the strides the neighborhood has made in the past 10 years.
Co-founder, Baltimore Design School
It was a team of visionaries and leaders who brought the idea of Baltimore Design School to life, and Fred Lazarus (along with many, many others) helped see that vision to life.
Where did the idea for Baltimore Design School come from?
A number of us, different artists, educators, and leaders in Baltimore City, came together with the idea of a design school open to any student. Not only were we all passionate about art and design, but we felt like there was a big need to provide options for experiential learners who want a design thinking education. All of us involved also feel like there is an unbelievable underrepresentation of people of color in design industries. We think that over time, we could help change the demographics in these [design] fields while becoming a feeder for design programs around the world.
How did you guys start out and when did you decide to find your own building for the school?
From the beginning, we knew we would need our own space to provide the kind of design-centered education we envisioned. We started out in rented space in northeast Baltimore but had already started the search for a building of our own. We came across the old Lebow Clothing building in Greenmount West through Seawall, and it was the perfect size and close to MICA and the Station North Arts District. It [the building] had been really problematic in the community for a long time; it was empty and derelict. It was a high priority of the neighborhood to have it repurposed as an anchor for the community.
How did the BDS team undertake the process of renovating and improving the building for your future use?
The whole process of financing and planning for how to move the project forward couldn’t have happened without Seawall. We all worked together as a team, but they were instrumental. As a new nonprofit with few assets, acquiring, designing, and renovating this kind of structure on our own was not something we could do. We had great architects in Ziger/Snead who wanted to retain as much of the integrity of the existing building as possible and all the relevant history that came with it. We needed terrific studio spaces for the three design tracks and academic classrooms. Then, we always knew we wanted the hallways to be exhibition spaces to show the work of the students on a regular basis. Over time, we created a library, which has become more than a center for the academic programs but a resource for a much broader set of needs and studies.
The new building opened in 2013 and you’ve now graduated your third class from BDS; what kind of impact have you seen the school since you created it not too long ago?
From my experience, if you can engage students in something they can be successful at and interested in, it causes a ripple effect in all of their academics. It builds self confidence that rubs off on everything. At BDS, we see kids with serious learning issues and other challenges who are able to thrive and become successful for the first time at school. Their whole demeanor changes. It’s just remarkable. It’s not even about sending students off to only be designers, but really about these kind of holistic changes our whole approach can help them make. The project has also been great for the neighborhood and has become a really important anchor. Greenmount West is now a model of success in the city for turning vacants to value, and now, you see virtually no vacants in the community. We hope that BDS has created a model for how public design education can be done, working closely with a community and city.