Woodbury University Interior Design Program Goes “Inside OUT”

Applying COVID-19 design lessons learned to help small businesses thrive — both now and in the future

In May 2020, The Los Angeles Times published the staggering results of a survey related to the COVID-19 pandemic: About half of all small businesses in L.A. were in danger of failing.

Foreboding announcements like this one abounded, leaving a concerned cohort of students and teachers in the Woodbury University School of Architecture (WSOA) Interior Design program wondering, “What can we as designers do to support these independent brands and help them survive during such challenging times?”

From those concerns grew Inside OUT, a 3-year project that serves as the current focus of Woodbury’s Design Studio 6: Branding course, thanks to a generous grant from the Angelo Donghia Foundation.

How does it work? Inside OUT pairs students with small businesses in L.A. area neighborhoods — particularly those that are minority-owned and disproportionally affected by the pandemic. Leveraging intense observation and analysis techniques, the students collaborate with the entrepreneurs to determine how their operations and interior spaces can quite literally be turned “Inside OUT” and converted into functional and COVID-safe exterior spaces while preserving their unique personalities, characteristics, and brand touchpoints — right down to designing new pieces of furniture and incorporating key colors, fabrics, textures, and other design elements.

“Our students are studying the interiors of local businesses and bringing those businesses out on the sidewalk so they can be used and enjoyed by people during the pandemic,” says WSOA Professor Todd Erlandson.

In Spring 2021 — during the program’s first year — a group of Woodbury undergraduate and master’s students, guided by Professors Erlandson and Lara Hoad, focused their efforts on helping a variety of businesses within a small area of Washington Boulevard in Mid-City. By Fall 2022, the COVID rules had begun to relax, but some businesses like restaurants and entertainment venues were still very affected so the program turned its focus to helping five artists, theaters, and restaurateurs within L.A.’s Inglewood neighborhood.

“Before COVID, we had never envisioned the outdoor space in the back as a performing space,” say Mariana and Owen Smith, co-owners of The Miracle Theater, an Inglewood-based cultural event center. “We had to start thinking, how are we going to reinvent ourselves? We had to be creative in order to survive.”

“We were able to build pieces of furniture — actually take the ideas developed in the conceptual part of the studio and transition them into built objects. We’re currently in the fabrication phase, and these pieces of furniture will be gifted to the business owners. These objects hold and express the identity of the business.” — WSOA Professor Todd Erlandson

According to Woodbury Interior Design Chair Dr. Branka Olson, the groundbreaking Inside OUT project epitomizes the mission and vision of the WSOA program by addressing some of the most pressing topics facing built environments today, including community building, collaboration, human flourishing and well-being, customer service and engagement, and operational problem-solving through spatial exploration.

In the process, it has altered the outlook for the businesses, students, and professors alike.

“This class has changed my perspective and altered my approach to design,” says Interior Design student Lauren Benton.

“This project will be something we can look back on. It’ll be a reflection of what it was like to be in school during the pandemic and how projects and communities were affected by that,” echoes Professor Hoad.

In a bigger sense, says Dr. Olson, the project is illustrating how the students and business owners have learned how to work within the limitations of a real-world problem and come up with realistic, implementable solutions that truly work.

Going forward, the Inside OUT cohort hopes that they will inspire other small businesses and cities around the world to create authentic exterior experiences and encourage the communities that these businesses reside in to support them and recognize their importance in contributing to the unique character and culture of their neighborhoods.

Have questions about the Inside OUT project or want to learn more about the Woodbury SoA Interior Design Program? Contact Chair Dr. Branka Olson at [email protected].


The Woodbury School of Architecture (WSOA) Interior Design STEM-designated and accredited professional degree equips students to enter the profession of interior architecture and design with the technological skills and holistic critical thinking mindset to succeed and contribute positively to the human condition in the built environment.

The Interior Design program faculty believes that good design is a measure of user experience. To that end, they teach students how to define, plan, design, furnish, illuminate, and deliver residential, commercial, and institutional environments that meet the needs of people and communities.


Founded in 2001, the Angelo Donghia Foundation is a private foundation based in New York, NY. The Foundation is part of Donghia Inc., a world-renowned name in home furnishings founded by the late American interior designer Angelo Donghia. His vision lives on through the Foundation, which has provided scholarships each year to promising interior design students throughout the United States. The Foundation has made such donations as the Angelo Donghia Materials Library and Study Center and the Angelo Donghia Studio for Interior Architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, as well as smaller donations to organizations for research.


Last Updated on February 2, 2023.

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