“Interior design” and “homeless shelter” don’t often get mentioned in the same breath.

While “design” usually triggers images of celebrity homes, or DIY makeovers on cable TV, there’s far more to it.

“I personally think design is one of the best kept secrets to be a force to affect culture and humankind for the better,” says Jill Pable, associate professor in the Department of Interior Design at Florida State University.

Two of her students have just received a patent for their design of a portable cradle, made especially for the needs of infants in homeless shelters.

Students in her graduate furniture design class in 2007 took a field trip to a Tallahassee shelter, the HOPE Community.

 “My interest and research lies along the lines of social service and the environment, particularly homeless shelters,” Pable says. “I was trying to expose my students to those kinds of needs.”

Their assignment: To create a piece of functional furniture that would allow parents to nurture their infants in small, dorm-like rooms.

The team of Rachelle McClure and Sean Coyne had the yin and yang that combined to create a cradle that is safe, space-saving and made of eco-friendly materials.

“We interviewed families, and measured rooms, and realized it was most important to have a design that would keep the baby safe,” McClure says.

“Sean and I are both parents,” McClure says. And they both had the gut reaction that no parent would want an infant even a few feet away from them in such a public space. Shelter reality is that there are no private rooms, and no locks on the doors.

Because of the natural instinct to keep the baby really close, many parents in shelters sleep with their infant, usually in a single bed. So accidental smothering is a terrible danger. Sometimes the only alternative is to let babies sleep in a car seat next to the bed, hardly a suitable solution.

So McClure and Coyne designed the “Cradle of Hope,” specifically for shelter needs, but useful just about anywhere.

“I’d noticed Rachelle’s really keen sense of persistence in fact-finding and totally understanding the problem,” Pable says. “And I also noticed Sean’s previous experience with millwork, prototyping and actual fabrication. That’s where their partnership was born, and I’m so proud of what they are doing,” she says.

Coyne’s “day job” is facilities engineer at FSU’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. McClure is business manager of the design firm Onyx Group. The two constructed the prototype at Coyne’s furniture shop, Sean Coyne & Daughters Cabinetmakers.

The cantilever design allows the crib to suspend over the adult’s bed. And there are storage areas for diapers and other baby essentials. One piece of the cradle is made out of a renewable resin material from the company 3Form. Another piece is made out of cotton canvas, easy to detach and launder. The structural components are made from welded steel for strength.

As with any product that’s going to be used by infants or children, safety is a huge consideration.

“One of the first things I did was find out what the specific Consumer Product Safety Commission standards were,” Pable says.

The CPSC is working on new safety standards for cribs. And manufacturers are now required to keep buyers informed, by mail or online, of any recall of durable baby items, including cradles, bassinets, strollers, walkers, infant carriers and cribs.

“That’s one of the reasons we really need to find a manufacturer who would partner with us, and move forward and tweak the design as necessary, to answer any of those new standards that may impact us,” Pable says.

In the past few months Pable has shown the cradle design to conferences of homeless shelter staffs.

“That’s one of the most exciting parts of this; I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘When is this going to be produced? Because we want to buy 10 of them!’ I’m really getting the feeling that there is a widespread need out there for this,” Pable says.

Susan Pourciau is executive director of the Big Bend Homeless Coalition, which runs the HOPE Community transitional housing program. She says at any given time her facility has about a dozen children under age 4. Each family room has two sets of bunk beds with about four feet between them. She says babies may be in car seats, strollers or bassinets — leaving little room to maneuver. But beyond the issue of space, she sees another benefit for the Cradle of Hope.

“It’s a good way to keep the infant close to Mom or Dad, so that a bond can be established at an early age. It helps establish that bond, which for homeless families is particularly important. Lots of times the only security a homeless child has is the care of a parent or guardian,” Pourciau says.

As for Professor Pable’s next socially conscious design assignment?

Some of her current students have taken field trips to preschools, so they can design furniture for 4- to 6-year-olds. It will be made of sturdy, inexpensive and sustainable cardboard. The chairs are being styled after specific books, to encourage kids to read. One of her favorites? A chair in the shape of a big hat, like Curious George the chimp might wear.

“There are lots and lots of designers out there who are working in very worthwhile areas, such as hospitals, social services, halfway houses and homeless shelters,” Pable says.

“If you think about how much time all of us spend inside buildings, it’s a lot more time than we spend outside, so you can start to see how important this work is,” she says.

Photos: Rachelle McClure and Sean Coyne; thumbnail photo: Jupiterimages