Parsons Paris ~ School Of Art + Design

A Leader in Franco-American Education Exchange
Photo of Frank Alvah Parsons ©The Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Archives Center for Parsons The New School for Design.
A towering figure in the world of design education, Frank Alvah Parsons encouraged the rise of the design profession in America, trained many of the leading commercial artists of his day, and created and disseminated influential theories of design. Because of his importance, the school he directed, then known as the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, was posthumously renamed for him. The prestige of Parsons The New School of Design owes much to Frank Alvah Parsons and the ways he developed the school’s curriculum.1

In the 1904 Parsons begin teaching at the New York School of Art and from September 1907 through December 1910 co-managed the school. Parsons established the first professional programs offered in America in costume design, interior decoration, and graphic design (then known as commercial illustration). In 1909, so as to reflect the multi-disciplinary curriculum, Parsons reincorporated the school as the New York School of Fine and Applied Art.

After becoming the school's director in 1911, Parsons continued to expand the scope of the school, establishing a program in photography in 1916 and later by opening The Paris Ateliers.

Frank Alvah Parsons was well recognized in France and the US as a leader in design education and international partnership. Parsons represented the United States as a Delegate at Large at the Paris Exposition of Decorative Art in 1925 and then in 1927, the French government acknowledged his work in advancing Franco-American relations, by making him a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur.

1 The New School Libraries: Special Collections: Kellen Archives: William Merritt Chase available at:, 2005, viewed July 6, 2009.

Photo from the Paris Ateliers ©The Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Archives Center for Parsons The New School for Design
In 1921, Frank Alvah Parsons launched the first American education program abroad, The Paris Atelier, situated at the Place des Vosges with 22 students. By 1927, this full-time art and design program had grown to 217 students with 17 nationalities represented, including Austrians, Swedes, Swiss, Russians and Australians. By establishing The Paris Ateliers as a branch of the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, Parsons encouraged the exchange of ideas and trends between New York and Paris at a time when communication between the two continents was much more limited then today.

The Paris Ateliers catalog of 1926-27 beautifully expresses Frank Alvah Parsons’ philosophy and mission for the school:

The basis of the school… was the recognition that art is a universal quality belonging to no particular time, location, class, field or technique; that it is essential to the happiness and success of nation or an individual, both spiritually and materially; that like other universal things it is based on principle and plan, in matters of function and of taste. It also acknowledged the truth that art should be expressed in intimate necessities as well as in luxuries. Hence the unceasing policy of the school to arouse interest, stimulate desire and start action for better taste in the house, in clothes and in the various graphic methods of modern American salesmanship called advertising.

The extraordinary change wrought in public taste, the growing belief in a more scholarly research for ideas, instead of the adulation of "originality" with out ideas (particularly for the house and the stage) led to the founding 1921 of the Paris brand of the school at 9 place de Vosges….

The Patrons and Patronesses of The Paris Ateliers were drawn from the elite society of Paris and in the art and design fields of the day, including then Ambassador of the United States in Paris, Jesse Strauss, the Directeur Général des Beaux-Arts, Geroges Huisman, Mme. La Duchesse de la Rouchefoucauld Doudeauville, Mme. La Marquise de Dampierre, Mme. La Comtesse de Fels, Mme. La Marquise de Ganay, Princesse Edmond de Polignac, Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, Edith Wharton, as well as the Conservateurs of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs, Palais de Versailles et des Trianons, Palais de Fontainbleau and the Musée du Louvre to name a few.

Many designers of great renown were educated at the Paris Ateliers including Claire McCardell, the pioneer of ready-to-wear clothing in America and Gilbert Adrian, the creator of the costumes for The Wizard of Oz. The Parsons table, minimal and, for its time, revolutionary, was designed by Jean-Michel Frank in collaboration with students from The Paris Ateliers. Sadly, due the outbreak of World War II, the Paris Atelier closed its doors in 1939.

Photo from the Paris Ateliers ©The Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Archives Center for Parsons The New School for Design.

Parsons in Paris / Ecole Parsons à Paris

The school was first reopened as a summer program in the late 1970s. In 1981, Frank Alvah Parsons' great vision of internationalizing art education was revived by David Levy, then Dean of Parsons School of Design, when he established Parsons in Paris as a full-time program.

At its inception Parsons Paris, offered majors in: Communication Design, Fine Arts, Photography, and Environmental Design. Then Chairman of the Paris Board, Helene David-Weill, said of the school, "There are opportunities for American students to come to France and for those studying in Paris to go to America, and that marriage of two civilizations is very important." In the intervening years the department offerings have changed and grown to include Communication Design, Design Management, Illustration, Fine Arts, Fashion Design, and Photography.

In 2006, in order to strengthen Parsons Paris's role and its European identity the board appointed a French president along with an independent management team, which engendered a greater autonomy from Parsons The New School for Design.

Under the new leadership, Parsons Paris developed its identity as a European art and design institution anchored in the American educational tradition. In the short period from 2006-2010, Parsons Paris acquired individual NASAD accreditation, was invited to become a member of CUMULUS*, and created partnerships with the Centre Pompidou, Ecole Lesage, and les Arts Decoratifs. Additionally, great strides were made towards achieving an even higher level of academic excellence through new faculty hires and establishment of the Knowledge Network, Parsons Paris' research department.

In 2009, Parsons Paris added a second location, in the 11th arrondisement, which houses the fashion design program.

*Cumulus is the only global association to serve art and design education and research. It is a forum for partnership and transfer of knowledge and best practices. Membership is restricted to schools and institutions that have passed through a rigorous application procedure and have been recommended and reviewed by a board of member schools. Parsons Paris was sponsored for membership by Domus Academy, University of Art and Design Helsinki TaiK (Aalto University 1/9/2009), Unitec, and Honjik University.

In 2010 Parsons Paris' long-time goal, to become an autonomous school, has been realized. Since the establishment of Ecole Parsons à Paris' degree programs in 1981, the school was dependent on the American University of Paris at one point and The New School at others to issue degrees to its students. It became evident to the Board of the Ecole Parsons à Paris that full independence was essential for the school to fulfill our double mission: 1) to provide the highest international standard of art and design education taught within an American pedagogical paradigm while being influenced, informed and drawing from our French/European environment and 2) to open up French educational opportunities to the world and international education to the French.

To this end, Paris College of Art was established. Paris College of Art is at the same time an American college with degree-granting authority from the state of Delaware and accreditation from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design (NASAD) and a French school recognized by the Rectorat of Paris as an establishment of higher education. The Atelier of Art is also a division of Paris College of Art.

We believe that while moving forward toward the future it is also important to maintain and cherish our history and, therefore, our American degree programs will remain within the Ecole Parsons à Paris as a division of the Paris College of Art.

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