arion Dorfer longed to be a doctor. But she was equally interested in becoming an artist. So she joined the Army and became a photographer and illustrator. After her discharge, she enrolled at Onondaga Community College (OCC) in Syracuse to strengthen her illustration skills. After earning an associate's degree in graphic arts and illustration, she continued her education at Syracuse University, majoring in surface pattern design. "A professor at OCC told me about surface pattern design, and at that time I hadn't a clue what it was," says Dorfer '86, G'93. "When he told me more about it, I was really intrigued."
Surface pattern design involves creating repetitive designs for such mass-produced surfaces as fabrics, wallpaper, dinnerware, and paper products. For more than 10 years, Dorfer worked as a freelance surface pattern designer for clients as far away as India and as nearby as Syracuse. But she developed a love for teaching. In 1992, she joined the faculty of the School of Art and Design in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA), eventually becoming the college's first female African American tenured professor. Today she coordinates the surface pattern design program in addition to freelancing. "I love the variety surface pattern design offers," she says, "and I enjoy sharing what I know and love about this field with my students."
Rick Wolff, professor emeritus and former director of the program, retired two years ago and passed the torch to his favorite pupil. "Marion is a remarkable person with a wonderful sense of style," says Wolff, who taught Dorfer at the undergraduate and graduate levels. "She is a first-rate artist, designer, and teacher, with a wonderful grasp of the classroom and studio environments. Students really respond to her."
Students may respond to her talent, but they come to respect her candor. Dorfer says she is toughest on her second-year students because sophomore year is the time they "really begin to find themselves." If they ask about summer internships, she typically tells them to wait. "At that level of experience I encourage them to explore designing and paint for self-improvement," she says. "I'll be heavier on the mentoring side because it helps them define, strengthen, and build confidence in their talent."
Junior year, the students begin to critique their own and each other's work. "I am the design director and they are designers when they are with me," Dorfer says. "Come senior year, they find their niche."
"She challenges us to take our work a step further as she gives us the freedom to be ourselves," says Warren Smith '99, one of Dorfer's students. "But you still have to make up your own mind about the direction your designs will take. She opens up the class for peer evaluation, but in the end you are responsible for your own solutions."
Dorfer is the author of a surface pattern design workbook on technical information and exercises that is required reading for all her students. "I spent years searching for resources to help my students better grasp the concepts of surface pattern design, but couldn't find a basic operational textbook that did the job," she says. "So, I wrote one myself." Dorfer also rewrote the University curriculum for the major to reflect today's demands on surface pattern design professionals. "Obviously my students must know how to draw and paint," she says. "But I also teach them computer graphics, the business practices, and the importance of studying emerging trends as well as consumers in every age group." When her students are ready to graduate and enter the workforce, Dorfer offers them a book she has compiled of industry references for jobs and internships.
Draped in material she designed for clients in India, Professor Marion Dorfer sits in front of floral wall covering samples she and her junior surface pattern design students created.
Dorfer creates, researches, reads, and travels to keep abreast of the latest developments in trends. She is actively involved with the Graphic Artist Guild, the Computer Integrated Textile Design Association, and Color Marketing Group, organizations that keep her in touch with peers and trends. "This business requires patience and self-discipline," she says. "Continuous improvement is what keeps any professional at the top in their field. That applies to every one of my students, and to me as well."
NATALIE A. VALENTINE