i + D - September/October 2020 - 41
ICONic Profile - By Ambrose Clancy
There are some 570,000 Americans who face
every day without a roof over their heads.
Designer, educator, activist, and author Jill Pable,
Ph.D., has devoted a large portion of her career to
helping ease the burden of people suffering from
homelessness-in North America and abroad-
through her skills and training as a designer and
as a voice for those in search of a decent life.
An NCIDQ-certified interior designer and a
WELL-accredited professional, Pable is a fellow
and past national president of the Interior Design
Educators Council and is a professor and the chair
of the interior architecture and design department
at Florida State University in Tallahassee. As
project lead for the non-profit organization Design
Resources for Homelessness, she spearheads a
movement to produce supportive housing and
shelters that prioritize the needs of those who
will occupy them. Her work in the classroom and
in the field is dedicated to looking at the built
environment for those experiencing homelessness
as therapeutic as well as utilitarian.
Pable is the author of several books and numerous
articles in scholarly and popular journals and
was included in the 2015 DesignIntelligence
list of the 30 Most Admired Design Educators
in the United States.
i+D: You live in Tallahassee?
Pable: Yes. With my husband of 26 years, Bill,
and a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy named Katla.
She's named for a volcano in Iceland.
i+D: What's the most difficult part of teaching?
Pable: I consider myself-now and forever-a
student of the student mind.
i+D: Sounds like an impossible job.
Pable: (Laughing) It's a matter of determining what
place of knowledge they're coming from. What do
they need? How can I reach them so we can build a
framework that's meaningful? Every student cohort
is a little bit different. I've seen a lot of evolution of
students' motivation, values, thinking, and skills as
we go along.
Image: Danilo Agutoli
i+D: Do you remember your first encounter
with a person who was homeless?
Pable: There was an area of Daytona Beach where
I grew up that was kind of down and out, a place
where I could only go through with my parents.
i+D: As an adult professional in California, you
had your first real insight into homelessness.
Pable: I was asked to provide some visionary
assistance for a shelter along with my students
when I was teaching at California State University,
Sacramento. It was the first time I actually
interviewed people about their experiences, and it
was so different from what I had always thought.
All of a sudden, it was, 'Of course. They're just
like me.' The same aspirations, the same dreams,
plans, goals, except they've come across hurdles
that were either handed to them when it was
absolutely not their fault, or they coped with things
poorly and made their situations worse. I realized
the extent that our society is basically geared
against them, in housing and jobs, for example. It's
a terrible problem, and getting worse right now.
i+D: You've written: "We must listen to and
include these people in the design approach."
Can you give an example?
Pable: I interviewed a young woman in South
Florida who had been homeless but had just moved
into an apartment. She invited me to her place,
and I saw she was really agitated. In the apartment
were just a few pieces of furniture, no shelves or
cabinets, and every surface-kitchen countertops,
floors, a tiny dining table-was covered with stuff,
papers, keys, dishes, medicine bottles, the stuff of
life. I said I noticed how unhappy she was, and she
said she'd had a job interview set up the day before
but didn't go. She'd lost the piece of paper that
had information and phone numbers on where she
was supposed to go. What she said next has stuck
with me. "I can't find anything in this place. I feel
like I just can't get it together." The lack of help
from her physical environment, the lack of places
to store things, was making her disordered inside,
countering her dignity, messing with her identity,
Pable: It's not just aesthetics of visual order
but the utility of a place that struck me.
Research I'm doing now is asking what are the
core, fundamental things that people need from
the built environment-things like safety, control
over your place, being able to develop a sense of
community, and, yes, having beauty and order
around you. I can't believe how much I've gained
from meeting people in places of desperation. I've
seen incredible grace, patience, and kindness from
people who literally have nothing but a black
plastic bag next to them.
i+D: What do you always have with you?
Pable: Well, what I always have on my bulletin
board is a photo of some graffiti from Banksy.
It's a person sitting on a sidewalk holding a sign
that says: "Keep your coins. I want change."
i+D: What are you reading?
Pable: I'm teaching a class on design issues.
My students and I are reading Rethinking
Design and Interiors: Human Beings in the
Built Environment by Shashi Caan. And I
love science fiction. And The Outlander series.
i+D - September/October 2020
i+D: You've worked in Britain. Is there
a difference between the way the British
perceive homelessness compared
Pable: I can't speak to perceptions, but there is a
marked difference to the response. The extent of
homelessness, not surprisingly, is less in Britain
because they have a health system that is taking it
on. They believe that shelters and supportive
housing should be smaller in size. For example, you
might have in Britain places with 60 apartments or
serving 30 persons in a house. Here, it's not unusual
to have 500- or 800-bed facilities. That's inhumane.
And frightening. If you've got people who prefer to
live in the woods because they perceive shelters as
scary, where they'll get beat up or accosted, then
we have a problem.
i+D: Who is the person you admire most
who's not a member of your family?
Pable: Barack Obama. An amazing president. He
had a wonderful sense of control and perspective.
i+D: What was your first job when
you were a kid?
Pable: In Daytona Beach my parents ran a motel.
My first job when I was 10 was going up and down
the emergency stairways scraping gum off the
floors. Lovely, as you can imagine.
i+D: Lessons learned?
Pable: The worst jobs still need to get done.
i+D: Guilty pleasures in airports and on planes?
Pable: Easy. Smarties candy. I honestly love them.
Oh, and cake. Yes, I love cake. And Dr. Pepper.
Man, I love Dr. Pepper.
i+D: What's your sport?
Pable: Backpacking. My husband and I did the
Laugavegur trail in Iceland. Oh, incredible. And
we've done trails in New Zealand, Mont Blanc
in Switzerland. The Grand Canyon. Hawaii.
Do you want me to go on?
i+D: What frightens you?
i+D: What elevates you?
Pable: Being outdoors.
is the editor of the Shelter Island Reporter
and a novelist, nonfiction author, and
journalist. His work has appeared in GQ,
The Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.
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