Samuel Hoi, the new president of Otis College of Art and Design, started out as a lawyer who dabbled in art. But his hobby ultimately became his passion, and now it's his life's work.
Otis is one of the country's top schools for young artists and designers, with a curriculum that includes fashion design, digital media, environmental arts and toy design.
After graduating from law school at Columbia University, the Hong Kong-born Hoi went to work as an attorney but quit the legal profession and began taking art classes at Parsons School of Design in pursuit of an associate's degree. To help pay his tuition, he took a job in 1983 in the school's continuing education program and began moving up the ranks as an administrator.
In 1988, he was appointed director of the Parsons campus in Paris. Three years later, he was named dean of the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. There, Hoi expanded the college's continuing education department and made an alliance with the Delaware College of Art and Design.
One of the hallmarks of his tenure was the creation of programs that reach out to young people, something he plans to do in Los Angeles.
Hoi was named president of Otis on April 20 and officially took over his new position on July 1.
Question: What attracted you to this job?
Answer: We are in a golden age of art and design, and there is a synergy between Los Angeles and Otis. L.A. is founded on the entertainment industry, but there is a growing presence that is drawn from the design industry here toys, cars, multimedia games, and also industrial design. In fashion, Los Angeles has surpassed New York in activewear and sports clothing. Los Angeles is booming in digital-media expertise and its people are in great demand for special effects, game design and general Web developments.
Q: What about Silicon Valley?
A: Silicon Valley has created the infrastructure, but Los Angeles is much more sophisticated in supplying the content. The fine arts community is the most vibrant and significant in the world, and Otis is one of the most significant contributors to that community. Otis is also very aggressive and creative in responding to the needs of society, and I like working for an institution in a growth phase.
Q: What is the social importance of fashion and design?
A: Fashion is important because it helps define our values and culture. We are a very visual culture. Fashion is seen every day, and it helps us define the knowledge of our civilization. When we look back at prehistoric cave paintings and murals in ancient Rome, we often learn how people lived through their costumes and fashions. Our fashions will reflect our culture.
Q: How much of the world fashion scene is now being driven by Hollywood and its stars?
A: A large part of it is driven by Hollywood because of the equalizing cultural force of American films, which are the top in visual media. Hollywood has the power to define the visual sense of the world today.
Q: How are Angelenos dressing these days?
A: One judges fashions by the current culture, and right now we are in the age of a tech industry that is more casual and more relaxed. The style of L.A. has become the model.
Q: How do you see the dot-com world affecting fashion? Will everything become relaxed, or will these new millionaires start spending money on custom-made suits?
A: In any kind of artistic movement, what emerges is something that is part old and part new. There is a swing, a kind of casual elegance. People pay attention to fashion when they have new wealth, but there will be a reluctance to give up the comfort and the ease, which is why L.A. will be the leader in activewear.
Q: What artists and designers do you admire?
A: Those who are able to uphold their own vision and bring the world around to appreciate what they stand for, like (architect) Frank Gehry, who is uncompromising in his artistic vision. He brought people around to see a unique view of shape and lines. He brought people together rather than turned them away. Philippe Starck is an architect and industrial designer who has a whole line of household utensils, from chairs to bottle openers, that are very affordable. He has democratized good design. Giorgio Armani is a successful fashion designer, but if I have to name one, it would be Issey Miyaki. He combined fine art and good design. Versace has a boldness, and he redefined the way fabrics fit the body for men and for women in a flamboyant manner. Once in a while, visual shock is good.
Q: You were trained as a lawyer. What attracted you to academia?
A: It was purely by accident. I always loved art. Art was always in my life, and I continued to take art classes after I graduated from college and law school. Intellectually, I was satisfied with the law, but I was missing the passion, and I went to art school and began working as a practicing artist. I began studying at Parsons in New York, but I had spent so much money on tuition in law school that I wanted to study tuition-free, and I got a job as an office assistant.
I went through a series of promotions and I got an associate degree at the same time. I stayed on that course and I am now a retired attorney.
Q: Where do you plan to take Otis in the new millennium?
A: Otis has a lot of internal strengths, and I would like to form a partnership with the city of L.A. itself and explore the culture and the community. I want to see the resources of the city and the college come together. I would like to help Otis define its mission broadly and maintain a deep commitment to artists and designers at the same time as creating programs and services that will extend Otis widely into the city. Art is not separate from society. I want to create alliances with Otis and other citizen institutions.
Q: After living in Washington, D.C., what do you think about moving to Los Angeles?
A: I am looking forward to it. I don't know L.A. yet, but I am fascinated by the vibrancy of the city and its many cultures.
Q: What do you see as the Asian influence on the L.A. fashion scene?
A: L.A. is the gateway to the Pacific Rim. It has a strong Asian presence, and its aesthetics will be infused with Asian-American sensibilities. Fifty years from now, the dominant race will be Chinese and Spanish. Los Angeles is the model of the future, and that is one of the reasons why I wanted to come to L.A. and explore it and help Otis gain the leadership in this new tradition.
I believe in the social equalizing force of fashion and design. It is like sports. It can help the immigrant population and their ethnic roots come into the mainstream.
Q: One of the hallmarks of your work at the Corcoran was extending the school into the inner city, especially aiming at young people. Why?
A: My drive to work with inner-city youth comes from my belief that art and design are equalizers in society, and also can be used as community building tools. You can reach a common ground through which people can come together.
I also believe in the expansion of art and design. They can move from inside the studio and into the broader society. The best art and design is a statement of our time and a comment on our society. The issue is always, how do you make them accessible and emblematic?
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