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Class of 2020

Class of 2020: How Malene Barnett Called Out The Design Industry—And Made It Listen

published Nov 5, 2019
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Who: Malene Barnett, artist and designer
Nominated by: Grace Bonney, founder of Design*Sponge and author of “In the Company of Women
Where to follow her: Instagram

Apartment Therapy’s Class of 2020 Design Changemakers is a specially-selected group of the 20 people in the design world everyone should know about by next year. We asked experts (and you!) to tell us who they think should be included—see the rest of the nominees here.

Why Malene is part of the class of 2020: “Malene Barnett is working hard to ensure that black artists and designers are represented and supported in the design community. Through her work with the Black Artists and Designer Guild (BADG), Malene is shining a light on an incredibly talented community of designers that have been too often overlooked or under-supported in traditional design circles. Our design world has done a poor job of supporting (both in terms of representation and financial support) artists and designers of color, and I’m hopeful that the work Malene and the designers in BADG are doing to ensure equity in the community is something all of us (myself included) will take action to support.” —Grace Bonney, founder of Design*Sponge and author of “In the Company of Women

Credit: Courtesy of The Astor

Malene Barnett is not someone who shies away from making waves. “I met with the creative director at Herman Miller to bring awareness, like, ‘Look at your roster. Look at all the designers you license with. How many of them look like each other? This is a problem,’” she tells Apartment Therapy. “You got to expand your circles. If we’re not in the room, then you need to say something is wrong.”

That’s precisely what she did when she called out the staggering lack of diversity during a series of panel discussions at a major industry event in 2018. She took to Instagram to recount the experience, which led to a flood of responses that echoed her sentiments. Not long after, she launched the Black Artists and Designers Guild, which Barnett describes as a necessary step to bring about the change that the design world is so desperately overdue for.

“It’s making people conscious,” she says. “I didn’t realize how people were so hungry for something like this, for black designers wanting a space where they know they belong. And it’s not just here in New York. We were just in Houston, and they were saying the same thing. They had the same issues—it’s global.” 

Frequently described as a modern renaissance woman for her command of many mediums including textiles, ceramics, and paintings, it’s not exactly shocking that she found herself at the intersection of activism and design. It’s simply a natural evolution of her philosophy as an artist—that is, to keep progressing and questioning. 

“The industry has changed,” Barnett explains. “People are not as savvy and educated about how things are made and where they’re coming from. What has happened is that art and products have just become these commodities, and we’re collecting them without really honoring the craftsmanship.” We sat down with Barnett to hear more about her inspirations, her future plans, and more.

Credit: Courtesy of Malene Barnett

Apartment Therapy: What do you remember as being design inspirations growing up?

Malene Barnett: It started with my mother. She always changed the interiors of our home. It was always very colorful—lots of patterns. It’s no surprise that I live in a house with teal floors and teal walls. My house is very colorful. Pattern has always been in my DNA. I would always look at textiles like Kente cloth from Ghana, mud cloth from Mali, and Adire cloth from Nigeria. I would study the techniques. I’m the type of artist where I like to understand process and technique, and then I apply those processes to my work. I’ll come up with my own pattern, but I just want to know, how does Batik work? You get wax, you get fabric, it creates a resist. So then I’m like, “Okay, now let me apply it to what I do.”

AT: Who do you look up to?

MB: It’s never one person. I look at the community. I give much respect to our ancestors—whoever those ancestors may be. There are many. It goes from my grandmother, and people like Augusta Savage, Elizabeth Catlett, Barkley Hendricks, Lois Mailou Jones. These are bigger names that people will know. But then it’s my next door neighbor, my elderly neighbor. It’s the little girl walking down the street. I don’t hone it to one or two. And of course, my mother. She’s always in there. It’s the community that continues to drive me.

AT: Is there a specific piece or design of yours that you think is particularly indicative of who you are or what you’re trying to do?

MB: The work I created during my residency at Greenwich House—I think it starts the story for me. It’s like the first chapter. It combines the pattern work I am really very interested in and using pattern as a language to communicate. Even my latest vessel work—it’s hand built, but it’s all in strips. It’s, in a sense, mimicking fabric and textiles. And it’s a very organic way of representing life—you have all these turns, ups, and downs. Nothing’s perfect. We’re all trying to rise up to a point, whether it’s to rise to the top, or just rise in general. And then I painted it with a metallic finish, because when you’re looking at it, you’ll see your reflection. The whole idea was to reflect. 

AT: What would you say sets you apart from your peers and what do you see as being your special thing?

MB: I’m not afraid to explore ideas and topics, and make people feel uncomfortable. I say that with confidence. I look at being uncomfortable as a positive thing, not a negative thing. We’ve been so comfortable for so long. I’ve been out of school for more than 20 years, and I keep seeing the same story, hearing the same story, seeing the same people. I’m not afraid to open my mouth. I’m not afraid to create art that’s specifically for Black women. I’m a Black woman, so I’m not afraid to say that, and then do it. I’m not afraid to touch on issues that question why we love designer art, or why we create. I’m not afraid to question the way we talk about things because language is very important. I’m not afraid to challenge people on it. And I’m not afraid to say that I don’t know, and I’m willing to go and do the research so I do know. That’s a really big thing.

Credit: Courtesy of Viacom

AT: What legacy do you hope to leave?

MB: At this point in my life, the decisions I make are all about creating legacy. Because we know we’re not going to be here forever. I would want people to know I wasn’t afraid to try. If I didn’t succeed, I got up and tried again. And that when I saw an opportunity, I couldn’t just take advantage of it by myself—I brought people along. That is important to me because that is the only way our group is going to advance. I want people to understand that nobody is successful by themselves. Nobody. That’s not how success happens. I want the path to be a bit smoother, because that’s what our ancestors did. I’m just continuing it. They passed the baton to me. All I’m doing is carving the path a little smoother, then I’m going to pass it behind me. 

AT: Any big plans for 2020 or beyond that you can share with us?

MB: For the Guild, we’re planning a trip to Paris, as well as Dakar. But Dakar is the bigger trip. Dakar is going to be a way for a lot of the members to connect with their ancestral roots. They’ve never been, most of them. We’re going to go to the Biennale Art Fair, as well as visit with artists and designers. We’re also working on planning our own big type of exhibition. I don’t have all the details yet, but it would be something like what we just did with “Beyond the Mask” in High Point, North Carolina. We’re working toward bringing that to New York in the springtime.

AT: How do you define success in the design world? What makes you feel successful?

MB: What I’ve learned is that it’s not about having all the money. You have to have other benchmarks. I think it’s that I have this freedom right now, which is so refreshing. I’m not out there chasing like I used to. I’m actually doing the work I really want to do. That’s meaningful for me and the community. For me that is a success—that I get up every day and I get to go and create. Why am I creating? It’s not because, “Oh, I have to make this sale.” It’s because I’m creating a legacy, and then I’m creating impact on the community. That is success to me.

AT: What makes you feel at home in your own space?

MB: Oh, gosh. To be able to just sit back and chill. I have this caftan-type dress that I put on. I’m a magazine and internet junkie. So, if I have those moments where I could get on my lumpy couch and just chill, read my magazines, surf the internet, have a cup of ginger-turmeric tea next to me—especially at this time of the year—I’m so happy.