Deborah and Frank Rispoli.

Dynamic Duo

This alumni couple met at FIT, years after graduating. Their relationship dovetails with decades of service to the college

A piece of chalk: This humble writing implement helped initiate the  28-year relationship of Deborah Klesenski-Rispoli, Photography ’80, now an FIT administrator, and Frank Rispoli, Interior Design ’69. Though they graduated more than a decade apart, both were teaching at FIT in 1993 when Frank spied Deborah in a classroom. “I immediately wanted to meet her,” Frank says. When he came in and pretended to need chalk, Deborah saw through the ruse: “I knew it wasn’t really about that.” They went out for coffee; two years later, they married.

photography program students at FIT in the 1970's
Professor Irving Schild hosted a party for Photography students in 1980. Deborah is in the back row, just right of center.

When Frank attended FIT in the ’60s, it was just two buildings—the C Building (now Feldman Center) and Nagler Hall. People could smoke in the classrooms, and Frank’s rendering professor went through half a pack per class. One memorable assignment was to represent an entire room in pink and orange watercolor. Robert Gutman, who taught the history of interior design, and Julius Panero—“he helped put the program on the map”—both made an impression. At the time, FIT only offered an associate’s degree, so after a summer stint as a renderer for Bloomingdale’s, Frank completed his BFA at the Pratt Institute.

In the early ’70s, when his career began, “the world was exploding—politically, socially, and artistically,” Frank says, and he found he was interested in all facets of design. He got his start at Henry Dreyfuss Associates, an industrial design firm, and then moved on to consultancies with various companies. For Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, he worked on the graphics program for the new airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and he consulted with I.M. Pei on architectural graphics projects. He took on a wide variety of multidisciplinary projects, including interior, retail, showroom, and exhibition design, working with a wide array of methods and materials. In the early ’90s, Panero suggested he apply to teach at FIT in what is now the Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design Department; Frank got the job.

Frank’s first book captures NYC’s downtown scene via edgy footwear and nightlife.

Deborah came to study at FIT in the late ’70s. Photography faculty member Steve Manville, she says, “encouraged us to experiment; a lot of commercial photography at that time was formulaic.” After graduation, she apprenticed for a few years, and by 1986, she had her own studio on West 25th Street, shooting still life for corporate clients including Avon, Coty, Olympus, and Revlon. After about 10 years, she shifted to on-location food photography for Bon Appetit, Newsweek, and Hearst publications, among others. She began teaching in 1990 at New York University in the International Center for Photography—and at FIT, where she came to serve as chair of the department for six years, overseeing the transition to digital formats. In 2016, she became FIT’s assistant dean of curriculum, providing guidance and support to faculty, department chairs, and deans. She is currently the interim associate vice president of academic affairs. Though she loved commercial photography, she’s been happy “to focus on helping students achieve their goals.”

Wanda Klesenski, Deborah’s mother, earned an AAS from FIT in 1977; she assembled this vest out of Frank’s old ties.

“The twist,” Deborah says, “is that I became less of a photographer while Frank became more of one.” Since the ’70s, Frank loved going out in the wee hours to clubs like Area, Mudd Club, and Danceteria and taking photos of women wearing high-heeled shoes. “New York was in terrible condition—drugs, crime, squeegee guys,” Frank says, but despite (or perhaps because of) the grittiness, he was inspired. He maintained his practice throughout the disco/punk/new wave era, and he documented the vintage heels craze. His photos appeared in i-D Magazine and Dazed, and NYU’s Fales Library has asked for his archive. Through Instagram, a publisher found these gloriously outré images, captured on lurid (and now discontinued) Kodachrome. In September, Circa Press in London will release his first book, High Heels, with two more to follow. “That’s a big step for me,” Frank says of the attention these publications may draw. “My work is so personal.”

Deborah says, “When I met Frank, I never realized he was doing all these photographs. He’s been true to his muse for a long time.”