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UC Students Win First and Third Prizes in Prestigious International Design Contest


Students in UC’s top-ranked interior design program recently won both the first and third prizes in a prestigious international retail design competition where professional designers served as the judges.

Date: 8/11/2013 12:00:00 AM
By: M.B. Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Submitted by students

UC ingot   University of Cincinnati students Lauren Hillner, 21, of Cincinnati’s North College Hill neighborhood, recently won first prize, and Samantha O’Connor, 21, of Perrysburg, Ohio, recently won third prize in the prestigious 2013 International Student Store Design Competition.

The contest, held annually since 1972 and sponsored by the Retail Design Institute (RDI), is judged by professional interior designers and this year offered $10,000 in prize money. For their respective wins, Hillner won $5,000, and O’Connor won $1,000.

In this year’s contest, the UC students from College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning’s (DAAP) top-ranked interior design program competed with peers from around the globe to redesign a failing American-fare chain restaurant location and turn it into a local, organic, sustainable restaurant in order to make it unique and memorable. The competitors had to think through not only the interior design – and using sustainable, recycled and energy-efficient materials – but branding challenges as well.
Spice Bar rendering
UC's Lauren Hillner incorporated a spice bar into her winning design.


  • See Hillner’s “Down-to-Earth” and O’Connor’s “OTAMOT!” entries online.
Hillner’s winning concept is a restaurant called “Down-to-Earth.” She envisioned a locale that would serve healthy, local dishes that each customer could make distinctive and very personal by seasoning with the herbs and spices of their choosing.

They could do so at the spice bar after trying out sample dishes with a selection of varying spices and herbs. She explained, “The herbs and spices would change with the season to keep customers returning to the restaurant, as would the interior design. The main design feature of the space is a living wall between the spice bar and the actual bar of the restaurant.”

She states that the best part of the contest is watching how one small idea can grow into a completed project and the confidence her win provides in terms of “believing in my own skills.”  She credits her previous cooperative education terms at Earl Swensson Associates, Inc., a globally recognized architectural firm specializing in healthcare design, in helping to prepare her to understand the necessary phases of the project’s requirements and “how to apply what I have learned in my DAAP classes to real-world applications. I also learned how to better present my ideas in ways such that others will understand my design concepts.”
Render of exterior of Lauren Hillner's design



Hillner plans to use the $5,000 prize to help offset the costs associated with spending part of fall term with other UC architecture and interior design students traveling Europe for seven weeks. The students will visit about 10 countries in order to study a variety of historic and modern built environments.

Hillner and O’Connor, both of whom will enter their junior (fourth) years at UC this fall, worked on their competition projects in a spring 2013 studio course led by Ann Black and Patrick Snadon, both associate professors in the School of Architecture and Interior Design (SAID).

O’Connor derived inspiration for her restaurant and brand design from the life and art of Andy Warhol. Her restaurant, “OTAMOT!”, makes use of crisp, bold graphics and artwork combined with strong colors to convey the fun, healthy food options available for all ages.
Render of exterior of Samantha O'Connor's winning design.



She states that the competition was a challenge because of the strict guidelines, but also valuable because of those same guides. She explains that the guidelines and requirements force the students to fully develop an idea in a targeted, cohesive manner in order to produce a final design that is unique while still professionally structured.

Like Hillner, O’Connor says the most important thing she learned in the contest is about her own growth as a designer: “Until this competition, I didn’t feel that I knew what my full role might be or become in interior design. I’m more confident about that now. I’m proving myself as a designer. I’ve always thought hard work will, in fact, pay off, and the competition showed me exactly that!”

O’Connor – who is currently in Singapore working for award-winning architecture and design firm, Benoy, as part of a an international cooperative education summer semester abroad – will travel to Columbus, Ohio, this fall for an RDI International Conference Oct. 3. She will present her competition work and network with the world’s foremost retail designers. (Because of her planned international travels this fall, Hillner will forego attending the October conference.)
UC's Samantha O'Connor in Singapore.
UC's Samantha O'Connor is currently in Singapore as part of the university's Singapore Experience. In addition to working internationally for an architecture/design firm, she also hikes a park path where the monkeys are quite friendly.


  • See the top rankings earned by UC’s interior design program.