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Rose Float History Blooms on Campus Thanks to a Senior Project

A student in a black Rose Float polo stands in a computer lounge decorated with Rose Float photos
Written By Robyn Kontra Tanner // Photos by Joe Johnston

On New Year’s Day, millions of viewers around the world watched Cal Poly universities’ award-winning float, “Shock n’ Roll: Powering the Musical Current,” motor down Colorado Boulevard at the 2024 Rose Parade. Now, Mustangs can soak up some storied flower power on campus — thanks to a senior project that recently livened up a study space in the Julian A. McPhee University Union.

When Kennedy Library closed for renovations in 2023, amplifying a need for more computer lounge space on campus, Rose Float Vice President Collin Marfia saw an opportunity to partner with Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) to reimagine UU 221, also known as the San Luis Lounge.

“It was a sterile white room where I used to get my COVID test done during my first and second year,” Marfia said of the space before its reinvention. “Nobody really wanted to work there, and it was always empty, so we really wanted to push for life in that room.”

The redesigned San Luis Lounge with Rose Float memorabilia
Each of the float photos has an ornate frame that serves as a trophy from the Rose Parade.

Marfia combined his Rose Float know-how with his majors in history, anthropology and geography in a two-part project. For the first part, Marfia started by imagining a “trophy room” where Mustangs could gaze upon decades of float designs and grasp the program’s Learn by Doing legacy.

The vision was grand: photos of every float Cal Poly has built since 1949, a timeline of major program milestones, artifacts from previous generations of float builders, and a primer on the origins of the program.

ASI’s lead graphic designer Rayna Farkas, who is majoring in graphic communication, brought the ideas to life by designing the space and creating renderings of the new décor. She also designed custom wallpaper featuring illustrations of unique flora and a program timeline woven with the ornately framed float photos. The frame itself serves as the universities’ trophy from each parade.

Illustrations of flowers on wallpaper
San Luis Lounge now has custom wallpaper designed by Rayna Farkas featuring floral elements used on Cal Poly floats.

“We have 74 gold trophy frames that we ran out of space to display in the UU hallway,” Marfia said, adding that photos from the past 20 years had been sitting in storage.  

Today, the photos, milestones, and memorabilia snake around the room in a chronological showcase of innovation, with more room to hang trophies from floats yet to come.

In the timeline wallpaper, Marfia chose to highlight float designs that pushed the envelope, like 1982’s “Way Out Welcome,” which marked the university’s first use of fiber optics, and 2014’s “Bedtime Buccaneers,” which included the first use of animated decorations. Cal Poly remains the parade’s only student-built float, and Marfia credits the fearless creativity of students for blazing new trails in front of an international audience.

“A lot of these big milestones — like the first use of hydraulics, the first use of computer-controlled animation — those were firsts for the parade as well, not just Cal Poly,” he explained.

While San Luis Lounge pays tribute to the floats, the second part of Marfia’s project celebrates the students who built them.

White Rose Float coveralls in a glass display case
The room also houses unique Rose Float memorabilia, including coveralls donated by alumnus Bob Pettis, who led the program in the 1960s.

Marfia, with design help and photo restoration assistance from Farkas, created a 120-page coffee table book, titled “The Faces Behind the Floats: 75 Years of Cal Poly Rose Float,” which celebrates the creative spirits and core friendships that sustained the program from its early days to the present.

In addition to hours spent poring over old photos, documents, gas receipts, phone bills and hand drawings in the University Archives, Marfia conducted interviews with alumni and the program’s historian, Thomas Mutch, to assemble a “kind of running oral history” of the program. The process helped him build skills in archival organization and capture the spirit of the program through its artifacts.

“I did a lot of archival research as well as writing to pull all this together,” Marfia said.  “I'm very happy with how it turned out.”

Marfia’s early involvement in the Rose Float program centered around construction and hydraulics — helping him learn more technical and artistic skills than he expected to gain as a student in liberal arts majors. In 2023, he was one of four float operators who drove the float in the parade. He calls that experience one of the defining moments of his life.

“It’s the personification of Learn by Doing,” he said of the Cal Poly Rose Float experience. “There are not many other programs that give you that type of experience in student leadership and hands on learning.”

He hopes his work on both the San Luis Lounge and the coffee table book will inspire more people on and off campus to appreciate the legacy of Rose Float. As he begins his last year of Rose Float leadership, he says he will remember the friends even more than the flowers.

“That’s pretty special: putting all these people together from different walks of life and seeing what happens,” he said. “There are so many different personalities merging together into one beautiful piece of art.”

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