The Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts is comprised of three central units, each of which boasts a rich history:

- The College of Art was founded in 1879 as the first professional, university-affiliated art school in the United States, and is the only art school to have fathered a major metropolitan art museum.

- The College of Architecture was established in 1910, and has the distinction of being one of the 10 founding members of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

- The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum (formerly the Washington University Gallery of Art) was founded in 1881 as the first art museum west of the Mississippi River.

The Sam Fox School as we currently know it evolved over several years. The Visual Arts & Design Center (1997), subsequently named the Sam Fox Arts Center (2002), was envisioned as a hub for interdisciplinary programs among the College of Art, College of Architecture, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Art & Architecture Library, and Department of Art History & Archaeology in Arts & Sciences.

The vision grew to encompass the launch of a new school at Washington University in St. Louis. In January 2005, Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton announced the creation of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, uniting the academic units of Art and Architecture with the University Museum under the leadership of a new dean.

The improvement, expansion, and construction of new facilities for this collaborative unit have been significant accomplishments. Renovations to Bixby and Givens Halls, home to Art and Architecture respectively, were completed in 2001. Two new buildings by renowned architect Fumihiko Maki—the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum and the Earl E. and Myrtle E. Walker Hall for the College and Graduate School of Art—were dedicated in October 2006. The rededication ceremony for Steinberg Hall was held February 22, 2009.

The School is named after Sam Fox, BSBA51, who was integral in the realization of this collaborative vision. One of St. Louis' most active philanthropic leaders, he is also one of the staunchest supporters of Washington University. He is founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Harbour Group, Ltd., which acquires and builds companies for long-term investment. He and his wife, Marilyn, have received many awards for their philanthropy, including the 2004 Excellence in Philanthropy award from the Arts and Education Council.