Parsons has been a forerunner in art and design education since its inception, spearheading new movements and teaching methods that have propelled artists and designers creatively and politically.
The renowned American Impressionist William Merritt Chase founded the school in 1896. It was a rebellious gesture: Chase led a small group of Progressives who seceded from the Art Students League of New York in search of more individualistic expression. The Chase School would educate future luminaries of early American modernism, including Marsden Hartley and Edward Hopper.
In 1904, arts educator Frank Alvah Parsons joined the school. Six years later, he became its sole director. Predicting art and design's inexorable link to industry, Parsons launched a series of groundbreaking programs, the first of their kind in the United States:
"Art is not for the few, for the talented, for the genius, for the rich, nor the church," Parsons said in 1920. "Industry is the nation's life, art is the quality of beauty in expression, and industrial art is the cornerstone of our national art."
By pursuing beauty in ordinary things, Frank Alvah Parsons virtually invented the modern concept of design. His faculty cared about the spaces ordinary people lived in, the garments they wore, the advertising they read, the furniture and tableware they used. His principles effectively democratized taste.
Recognizing his profound impact on American life, the school adopted Parsons' name in 1941.
Not long after design entered its repertoire, the old Chase school, by that time known as the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, began applying this new doctrine internationally. In 1921, Parsons initiated a satellite school in Paris, becoming the first art and design school in the United States to found a campus abroad.
It was there, in the 1930s, that the famous Parsons Table was born. The table came into being as a drafting exercise in a class taught by interior designer Jean-Michel Frank in the 1930s, and to this day it is widely regarded as an example of good modern design. With legs as thick as its top, the Parsons Table is synonymous with design that emphasizes an economy of means.
Parsons students today expand their horizons by studying at art and design partner schools in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and around the world. Additionally, many academic programs organize short-term classes, external partnerships, and research-based projects that take students abroad.
Parsons has long regarded its artists and designers as actively engaged citizens. "Materially the American is better off because of his great industrial society. But what is happening to him spiritually?" Parsons president Pierre Bedard wrote in 1954. "This School is conscious of its great responsibility in forming characters and minds of those who will help shape our civilization."
Political upheaval and new social history in the late 1960s would challenge several Parsons departments, especially Interior Design. Whereas that curriculum had emphasized middle-class and upscale homes, the program redirected students to work on more socially conscious projects, such as prisons, hospitals, and public housing.
In keeping with this new outlook, 1965's Interior Design graduates mounted A Place to Live, an exhibition that proposed alternatives to substandard urban housing. Since this formative era, every Parsons program has emphatically championed art and design as both intellectual practice and social responsibility.
In 1970, Parsons joined The New School (then called The New School for Social Research), a renowned institution of progressive thinking.
The New School had been founded in 1919 by a group of prominent progressive scholars including Charles Beard, John Dewey, James Harvey Robinson, and Thorstein Veblen. In planning their school, these distinguished intellectuals envisioned a center for instruction and counseling for mature men and women. They planned it as an alternative to traditional universities, with an open curriculum, minimal hierarchy, and free discussion of controversial ideas. In 1933, The New School for Social Research gave a home to the University in Exile, a refuge for scholars forced from Europe by the Nazis. In 1934, the University in Exile was incorporated into The New School for Social Research as the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science.
The merger with The New School provided Parsons with new resources to expand its education offerings. The move also strengthened the connection between academic knowledge and social activism. In 1977, for example, the establishment-defying New Museum of Contemporary Art showed its first exhibition, Early Works by Five Contemporary Artists, at The New School.
Today The New School and Parsons are committed to employing design thinking as a way to help solve complex global problems. At the India China Institute, for example, scholars, cultural practitioners, and activists from across the university grapple with urban planning, learning technologies, international collaboration, and other pressing issues facing China, India, and the United States. At PetLab and The Center for Transformative Media, research fellows and faculty promote public interest engagement through transformative media practices such as gaming, social networking, creative mobility, data mining, and participatory learning.
Projects with community, industry, educational, and government partners often emphasize tangible outcomes. Since 1998, The Design Workshop has provided pro bono design-build services to deserving nonprofit clients. Since 2001, students have worked with the Open Society Institute's Public Health Program to help health-related nongovernmental organizations – including the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa – develop communications plans, facilitate training, and devise effective implementation strategies. More recently, using a "designing with" model, Parsons partnered with The Fortune Society to develop services to help previously incarcerated individuals re-enter society and build fulfilling lives.
Since Parsons' earliest years, its progressive educational agenda has bridged the gap between theory and practice, extending education beyond the confines of the academy. Parsons' reorganization into multiple schools in 2008 has torn down the barriers between disciplines, fostering the lateral collaborations necessary to solve today's complex problems. Collaborations between Parsons and other New School divisions have been increasingly fruitful, as evidenced by the consistently triumphant teaming of Parsons students with the Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy for the JP Morgan Chase Community Development Competition.
In 2008, Provost Tim Marshall said, "We set about to ‘design a design school' that could operate more deftly and strongly in the New School context, and—more broadly—that would have the agility to respond to, anticipate, and lead dynamic changes in the art and design professions and in the academy." This new educational programming places students and faculty within a dense network of colleagues that effectively responds to dramatic global shifts in demographics, economics, and culture.
Joel Towers, dean of Parsons, describes the school's forward-looking pedagogy with these words: "Parsons' embrace of curricular innovation, pioneering technology, and a global perspective has once again put the school at the leading edge of art and design education: exploring new methodologies in existing disciplines, broadening the scope of those disciplines, and forging paths in new fields of services and transdisciplinary thinking."