Choose Radford: Maddison Kunkel

Maddison Kunkel, junior interior design student.

“This is exactly where I want to be.” 

It’s been a few years since Maddison Kunkel decided she wanted to attend Radford University, but Kunkel – now a junior – has a clear memory of the afternoon that put her on the Highlander path.

That first step happened early on in high school, during a field trip she took to the campus. Part of her visit involved observing teams engage in a problem-solving exercise, and although Kunkel was just watching from the sidelines, a professor had the idea to add her to one of the groups, so she soon found herself part of the activity, right alongside the older students.

“They just brought me in and were like, ‘Come participate,’ and I loved it,” Kunkel recalled. “I walked out and told my mom, ‘This is where I’m going. This is exactly where I want to be.’”

Her enthusiasm didn’t fade. Even before she finished high school, she took courses at Radford under an undeclared major, racking up nine credit hours prior to her freshman year.

Radford held other advantages as well. Kunkel currently commutes from the Blacksburg home she shares with her family – her mom, Danylle Kunkel, was an associate professor at the Davis College of Business and Economics for more than a decade – and the university’s close proximity is an added bonus.

“I’m a huge homebody,” she said. “I have an eight-year-old sister and a 17-year-old sister, and I wanted to be close enough to them that while they’re growing up a little bit more, I could still be with them.”

Starting college during the pandemic, however, made social connections difficult, and at first Kunkel couldn’t find a major that fit. She knew she wanted to do something related to design, but nothing was clicking, and for a while, she considered dropping out altogether.

Kunkel's 3-D tactile mural for the children’s branch of a local YMCA.

Then she decided to give interior design a try.

“I love organizing. I think I reorganize my room about once a month, just doing the layout to see what works better,” she reflected. “I took just one class to see if it would be something I’d be interested in. The first course was drafting, and I spent between 4 to 6 hours every single night in the studio … I have never worked so hard in my entire life on something.”

Her final project in the class was to design a guest house that could be attached to an existing residence. When her work was finally complete, she recalled, “I was so proud of it; I showed my whole family. I was like, ‘OK, this is what I want to do.’”

Holly Cline, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Design, said that was when everything came together for Kunkel.

“She has finally found her people and her place with interior design,” Cline offered. “She’s a superstar. She is always smiling and willing to try new things.”

Now she’s taking part in academic projects with the YMCA at Virginia Tech, including a 3-D tactile mural – a 4-foot tall wooden butterfly for the children’s branch – and, on a much larger scale, proposals for a redesign of the facility’s multipurpose room.

“They’re hoping to expand that to a classroom, a reception area and a private office,” she explained. “We’ll get to present our plans, and then they’ll choose what they like out of everybody’s proposals.”

All this has enhanced Kunkel’s perspective on interior design: “I’m getting over the mindset that it’s not about picking colors and pillows like I thought it was. We choose everything from walls, furniture, lighting, the foundational plan and how it needs to be placed on the land so that it doesn’t concave. We have to do all of the incredibly detailed measurements. There are a lot of ADA regulations, fire codes. A lot more technicalities than I had ever thought there would be.”

Once she graduates, Kunkel hopes to take her work further and study architecture to explore how people interact with spaces on a larger scale.

“I love the idea of creating a space for gathering,” she said. “And I really like the idea of creating a space that can make people happy.”

Apr 3, 2023