September 26, 2023

La Couleur des Mots: A Project That Bridges the Gap Between Literature and Interior Design

This real life story is a translation of a text first published in Eductive’s French edition.

Together, we linked the 1st French course in general education (a challenging course) and the Couleur 1 course in the Interior Design technical program:

  • First, Caroline’s French students analyzed the letters of Madame de Sévigné.
  • Next, Stephanie’s interior design students reinvested the information they had gathered about the writer’s inner world, creating rich settings for the woman who turned out to be their mystery client.

Who hasn’t dreamed of making an imagined universe tangible? Who hasn’t dreamed of extending themselves into someone else with talents they don’t have? Who doesn’t have unfulfilled passions in bank?

Our project was born of a shared desire to collaborate and constantly rethink our teaching. It was a return of sorts to the roots of CEGEPs: the idea of combining general and vocational education. This interdisciplinary project led us to explore new worlds both in literature and the visual arts (as a contributing discipline in interior design).

Presentation of our project in the form of an interview [in French]

A 1st word, a 1st touch of colour

In the winter of 2022, Caroline was chatting with 2 visual arts students and learned that one of their teachers, Stéphanie, was having them paint figures of speech. This piqued Caroline’s curiosity, and she contacted Stéphanie to find out more about this teacher who linked images to literature in her classes.

This meeting enabled us to break down the silos that can exist between different disciplines.

Madame de Sévigné in all her colourful splendour

In Caroline’s class, Madame de Sévigné’s correspondence was used to explore the constituent elements of a literary text. Working as a team, students produced a creative literary analysis of the texts.

Caroline’s students’ analysis was then reinvested by Stéphanie’s students. They worked on colour harmony and chromatic effects, creating a décor for Madame de Sévigné.

A large-scale experiment

A large pool of students took part in this 1st iteration of the project:

In Écriture et littérature [Writing and Literature], Caroline’s 3 groups (105 students) as well as 1 group of her colleague Émilie Cantin (30 students) analyzed Madame de Sévigné’s correspondence.

In Couleur 1, Stéphanie’s 4 groups (85 students) as well as 2 groups of her colleague Andréanne Godin (40 students) imagined the colours of Madame de Sévigné’s interior.

From words to colours

Our La couleur des mots project took place in 2 stages:

  • First, the “Pantone file” was assigned in week 4 in the Écriture et littérature course. Students had to translate Madame de Sévigné’s inner world in teams of 4 or 5 (for 15% of their final course grade).
  • Then, the “client file” was assigned in week 11 in the Couleur 1 course, where each student had to individually create an ambiance through colour (for 35% of their final course grade).

The Pantone file

In Caroline’s class, students had to transpose the key points of a literary text into other forms of language. They had to plunge into a literary text to go beyond its surface and reach its backbone.

All in all, the assignment was quite short and came early in the session. It challenged students to demonstrate creativity and intellectual curiosity, elements sometimes neglected in general education. Engagement, versatility, listening, and fun were also important characteristics. In fact, this project was an empowerment opportunity for the students. The innovative, more creative elements were added to the learning activities aimed directly at achieving the competency, which was fully respected.

The primer

The inspiration for the Pantone file assignment came from multidisciplinary artist Sophie Calle’s work Take Care of Yourself (2007), in which the artist asked 107 women from different backgrounds and professions to interpret in their own way, using whatever medium they wished, the breakup e-mail Sophie Calle had received. The result was an installation featuring text, photo, video, song, dance, and more. The break-up was revisited in 107 different ways.

Introducing Sophie Calle’s work in week 1 is evocative. Suddenly, the literary text is no longer the only option available to students for translating a person’s feelings and emotions. The possibilities are endless and vary according to the interests of each individual. Caroline found that, paradoxically, the more she agreed to break down the walls of her discipline, the more meaning it acquired in the eyes of her students.

Using Sophie Calle as an example, Caroline introduced the work of Madame de Sévigné, without naming the author. Biographical and sociohistorical elements were not given centre stage, in favour of what the epistolary correspondence between mother and daughter had to reveal in terms of both meaning and the formulations used.

Starting the session with letters from 17th century France is a challenge in itself. The turns of phrase are complex and convoluted, which is a challenge for many students. However, since the letters are not too long, and the students work in teams to dissect the text, it all works out quite well.

The creative part of the Pantone file

The 1st part of the assignment was creative, involving writing a 1-page text focused on emotions. For this part of the assignment, Caroline proposed different scenarios to the students:

  • Exploring the text and making it their own, according to their program of study.
    For example, one student translated Madame de Sévigné’s inner world on electric guitar.
  • Transforming Madame de Sévigné’s letter into a non-literary text.
  • One team created a 5-course menu that reflects the different nuances of the text, explaining the choices and the links between the dishes and the text.
  • Rewriting Madame de Sévigné’s letter, changing its form to:
    • an exchange of text messages
    • a song
    • X’s (formerly tweets)
    • etc.

These different scenarios for the creative text encourage all students to explain their choices. Since explanation is a key component of literary analysis, this exercise is highly relevant.

Réunion de captures d'écran de 4 tweets, fait par «Celle qui se permet des lanter…». Le premier dit: «Fausse alerte, le feu est chez Guitaut» avec un emoji de visage apeuré. Le second dit: «Le feu est enfin fini. Pauvre Guitaut, il a tout perdu» avec des symboles de ponctuation représentant un visage triste (deux-points suivi d'une parenthèse ouvrante). Le troisième dit: «Avec recule, c'était quand même drôle comme moment, tout le monde dehors en pyjama XD». Le dernier dit: «J'aime ma fille et j'attends de ses nouvelles.» avec un emoji de visage pensif triste.

A team created the X (formerly Twitter) account “Celle qui se permet des lanterneries”. [She who allows herself to be frivolous].

The descriptive part of the Pantone file

The assignment also included a more descriptive part. In about 1 page, the students had to bring out the emotions in the text by associating them with different stimuli linked to the 5 senses. For example, one student associated Madame de Sévigné’s pain with sandpaper, which has a rougher side and a softer side.

Students also had to give their work a poetic title inspired by those given to different paint colours (“sparkling praline,” “comforting dawn,” etc.). We created our own colour chart!

Visit to the materials library and written presentation of selected materials

As the icing on the cake, Caroline and her students took a trip to the college’s materials library. (The simple act of walking to the materials library during a literature class feels like going on a mini “field trip” and makes the activity fun for the students). Students had to choose the most appropriate materials (tiles, wallpaper, etc.) to represent the spirit of the letter analyzed, and explain their choices, of course!

Photo d'une salle dans laquelle on voit 2 grands îlots de tiroirs surmontés d'un comptoir. Une table ronde entourée de 5 chaises est placée entre les îlots. Le mur du fond du local est une grande bibliothèque garnie de livres.

The college’s materials library


Photo montrant 3 présentoirs garnis de périodiques. Un grand banc rouge ondulé est placé devant eux. À côté, de grandes plaques montées sur des rails coulissants supportent des échantillons de couleurs (des nuanciers). À l'avant-plan de la photo, on voit le coin d'un meuble qu'on devine être l'un des deux îlots de la photo précédente..

Another view of the college’s materials library

The visit to the materials library was an opportunity for many to reach a deeper level of understanding: just because there’s talk of a fire in the letter doesn’t mean you have to choose an orange motif; you have to go further, think harder.

Finally, the students also had to choose a piece of furniture that represented the author.

Shine in speaking also

Once the written assignments had been submitted, Caroline’s students led a class debate to determine the best materials and furniture to represent Madame de Sévigné. The final choices were shared with the interior design students. There was even an impromptu drawing competition on the blackboard, so that students could more confidently sell their choices and ideas. The students were really engaged in the project!

Make students want to come to class

Our project has the power to make concrete a text that might at first seem far removed from students’ reality. The text becomes 3D objects, colours…

Moreover, the fact that the work is done in teams is motivating for the students. Everyone has to pitch in and add a personal touch to their teamwork.

But the great strength of this project is that the students are aware that their work will be reused by the interior design students. This gives the literature students a sense of pride.

These are the keys to creating motivation and engagement in our courses!

Testimonials from literature students [in French]

At the junction: a meeting

About halfway through the session, we sat down together to write up the mystery client’s profile and to take stock of the literature students’ work. The idea was to see which elements were relevant (and realistic!) for 1st-year interior design students.

We established that Madame de Sévigné loves:

  • interlaced motifs (whether for wallpaper, draperies, or the fabric covering a piece of furniture)
    This choice is linked to the almost fusional relationship between Madame de Sévigné and her daughter.
  • terrazzo
    The small stone fragments represent the microemotions that Madame de Sévigné experiences.
  • a rocking chair
    The rocking chair symbolizes the comfort she needs to cope with the loss of her daughter (who has moved away).

The client profile sheet given to interior design students [in French]

The client profile

In Stéphanie’s class, the 1st-year interior design students were asked to create a contemporary loft for a mystery client. Throughout the project, the students tried to guess who she was: Rihanna? You, miss?… It was only at the end of the project that Stéphanie revealed the identity of this 17th-century author.

More concretely, students were asked to create 2 boards (1 inspiration board and 1 presentation board) and pitch them in speaking to their peers.

The project guide enabled interior design students to apply their knowledge of drawing and colour to the extent they had learned since the beginning of the session, so as to give them a professional experience.

Planche d’inspiration d’un salon. Un collage rassemble différents objets: vases pourpres, plafonniers en verre soufflé dans les teintes de vert forêt, orangé et blanc, 2 cactus, un sofa en velours orange, un récamier berçant orangé avec des accoudoirs en bois foncé, un large miroir, une image de terrazo, un grand échiquier sur socle, une peinture d’une femme avec un chapeau orange et un verre de jus d’orange, une tapisserie foncée avec du feuillage, un gramophone antique, des poignées en forme de pan dans les teintes de bronze, un mur de brique avec des fenêtres en arche, des coussins en velours bourgogne, l’image d’une tablette de bois avec un bâton d’encens fumant et un bouquet de fleurs séchées, une toile antique illustrant un panier de prunes et un morceau de pain, un manteau, un heurtoir en or brossé et une peinture représentant le visage déconstruit d’une femme.

Student Karalie Juste’s inspiration board

Planche de présentation d'un salon. Un collage rassemble différentes images. Dans le coin inférieur gauche, il y a un dessin d'un salon où l'on voit des meubles, accessoires décoratifs et textures qui sont représentés en photo ailleurs dans le collage: un sofa semi-circulaire, un récamier berçant (le même que dans la planche d'inspiration), un miroir (le même que dans la planche d'inspiration), une table basse, des tapisserie, du terrazzo, une étagère, une plante, un tapis, des plafonniers en verre soufflé (les mêmes que dans la planche d'inspiration). On voit aussi au centre 5 rectangles de couleurs, reprises ailleurs dans l'image.

Karalie Juste’s presentation board

By creating a living space for a mystery client, interior design students were placed in an authentic situation they would encounter in their future work. Students were also able to evaluate the effects of colour in the living space they were creating. (Their objective was to brighten up the life of the mystery shopper, who was in dire need of a change of scene after her daughter’s moving out).

The students then presented their project to their peers by answering 5 questions:

  1. Can you describe the mystery shopper’s profile?
    • Name of interior designer (student)
    • Customer name (descriptive portrait of customer)
  2. What are the project’s terms and objectives?
    • Presentation of the proposed triad harmony (exact name, dominant hue/tonic hue)
    • Colour chart presentation (5 colours, proportions)
  3. What interior design elements are associated with this colour palette?
    • Mention of elements in the room (textile, wallpaper, decorative object, etc.)
    • Is the rocking chair new or refurbished?
    • How do you use the interlaced pattern?
    • How do you integrate terrazzo in the room?
  4. Why will the client love her new space? How will it improve her daily life?
  5. What will you say to your client if she wants to change the colour of the room? How will you convince her that this is the best colour choice? (Think about the symbolism and psychology of colours).

Showcasing the colour of words

We organized an exhibition on the wall of the entrance hall of one of the college’s pavilions to showcase the work of our students. 1st-year students are often overlooked, and yet they are so engaged! It gives them confidence in their abilities (confidence in themselves and their skills, a sense of recognition within the program, pride). This is all the more true given that our exhibition took place at the entrance to the Champagnat Pavilion, which houses around 650 people, including those from the Interior Design, Graphic Design and Visual Arts programs.

The exhibition poster


The exhibition

The exhibition

The exhibition

Students living the experience from A(zur) to Z(innia)

There are a very large number of students in the Écriture et littérature course, but as luck would have it, some of the 1st-session interior design students were in Caroline’s or Émilie’s groups. They therefore experienced both aspects of the project. At our request, they were discreet and didn’t spill the beans to the others.

We interviewed one of these students at the end of the project to get her impressions. She told us that it had given her a new perspective on literature. Surprisingly, she liked the extra constraints it gave her in design. She told us that it increased her motivation in both courses. She also said that the project had given her a broader vision of possible transfers between disciplines.

Endless links, for life

We feel that our project was a success. It led us to dream. What if our project could spread to other possible links between other disciplines?

For us, a creative approach to the learning process is paramount for student success. In the age of generative artificial intelligence, isn’t this key to keeping up with a changing, plural world, in which adaptability and openness are increasingly in demand?

About the authors

Stéphanie Granger

Stéphanie Granger teaches in the Visual Arts program at Cégep Marie-Victorin. Since 2013, her teaching methods have been inspired by the flipped classroom. She has developed a cell phone-based evaluation method using digital forms (Eductive [in French], Journée du numérique en enseignement supérieur [in French], CRIFPE [in French], AQPC [in French], SALTISE). She also implements interdisciplinary teaching methods for visual arts in partnership with other college teachers (Eductive, APFUCC [in French], AQPC [in French], SALTISE).

Caroline Chouinard

Since 2006, Caroline Chouinard (M.A. in French Studies, Université de Montréal) has been teaching French literature in general education and in the Arts, Letters et Communication program at Cégep Marie-Victorin. Her aim is to liberate her discipline from its ivory tower, infuse it with a socially inclusive scope and restore everyone’s love of words. Her research invariably brings her back to the approach of bell hooks (Teaching to Transgress: Education as a Practice of Freedom) and to interdisciplinarity, which is what originally inspired the creation of CEGEPs.

Caroline often reads Annie Ernaux and loves lemon yellow.

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