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Credit: Photo: Aube Giroux; Design: Apartment Therapy

Design Changemakers 2022: Designer Maryline Damour Is Redefining the Concept of the Showhouse, Lifting Up Fellow Creatives, and Championing Diversity

published Feb 14, 2022
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Credit: Apartment Therapy

Apartment Therapy’s Changemakers Class of 2022 is made up of 15 of the most talented and dynamic people (or duos or trios) working in the design world. This year’s honorees are all about connecting, collaborating, and disrupting the industry to steer the collective design conversation towards innovation and a better future. See the rest of the list here.

Credit: Phil Mansfield
Shown here is Damour Drake's room in the 2021 Kingston ShowHouse, which is set off by Flavor Paper's  Enfume paper.

Who: Maryline Damour, designer and principal of the design-build firm Damour Drake and founder of the Kingston Design Connection
Where to follow her: Instagram at @maryline_damour

Maryline Damour has been working as a professional designer for only about five years now, but she’s leaving a mark on the industry that will last a lifetime. Sure, she’s been recognized by the likes of Architectural Digest, Domino, and House Beautiful for her striking design work with her firm, Damour Drake, where she artfully mixes an appreciation for nature, handcrafted objects, and the colors of the Caribbean, informed by her native country, Haiti. But it’s the steps she’s taken to dismantle and democratize the concept of the showhouse, a design world institution, that’s bringing about true change that can be modeled throughout the industry.

Damour found her calling for design a little later in life. A successful marketing and public relations executive in New York City, she always had an appreciation for aesthetics but didn’t really connect the dots toward working as a designer until two things happened. First, she bought a home upstate in the Hudson Valley and began decorating it herself, room by room. While she thoroughly enjoyed the process, that experience simply planted the seeds for a career change. The real catalyst came with the catastrophic earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010. Damour had just returned to New York from spending the holidays with her family at home, and she felt there was nothing she could really do to help with the tragedy; the country needed architects, designers, and craftspeople to rebuild. So she enrolled in Parsons School of Design later that year, eventually formed a design-build firm Damour Drake with construction pro Fred Drake (Mel Jones Jr. is also a senior designer with the firm), and never looked back.

As much as she’s a skilled problem solver with layouts and creative with color schemes, Damour’s also a brilliant communicator and connector, probably due, at least in some part, to her past life in PR. Very early in her professional design career, she realized her fellow Hudson Valley creatives were working in silo, mostly sourcing materials, furniture, and even contractors from the city. The talent to localize design and artistry upstate was there; all that was missing was the infrastructure. Enter the Kingston Design Connection, a project Damour developed “to aid the creative community in the Hudson Valley to connect, collaborate, and support each other’s businesses.”

A chief pillar in the Kingston Design Connection’s portfolio would be the Kingston Design Showhouse, which began in 2018 with 10 designers and has only gotten bigger in scope and bolder in undertaking. “I started the showhouse for economic development reasons — to maintain the dollars in the community and to have all these amazing people connect,” says Damour. In that process though, she created a framework for a showhouse that not only provides a platform to designers of all levels and inspiration to all aspects of society but also gives back to the local community in a more sustainable manner.

Credit: Matt Petricone

From the very beginning, Damour did things differently with the Kingston Design Showhouse, first removing some of the entry barriers for newbie designers, often overlooked in showhouse casting or unable to participate due to a potential lack of resources. “I always had a fund specifically to help with the execution cost,” says Damour. “And I always specifically held two to three spots specifically for junior designers.” Secondly, like other showhouses, Kingston donated its admission proceeds to a nonprofit, but Damour knew she could do better with the showhouse selection, installation, and removal processes as well. Specifically, she wanted to work with as many local craftspeople, makers, and artisans as possible to reduce her build-outs’ environmental impact on the front-end and pick a location where the fixtures, finishes, and installed materials would stay as is (and not potentially be demoed during the “tear down” phase as when a showhouse closes). “For me, the idea of removing all that stuff that people did — that was never going to be part of the way that I structured a showhouse,” she says. “So for the past three years, we’ve always used actual people’s homes, and we never rip anything out.”

For the 2021 Kingston Design House (check out Damour Drake’s room at the top of this page!), Damour took things a step further, partnering with a local land bank to makeover a home that eventually got sold to a first-time homebuyer and Hudson Valley-based veteran for an affordable price. “The closing was at the end of November, so now he owns this house, and he got to keep custom kitchen, two custom bathrooms, all the lighting fixtures, all the wallpaper,” says Damour. “We didn’t rip any of that stuff out.” The Kingston Design Connection just incorporated as a non-profit, so Damour will be looking to make an even bigger impact for 2022. First up is launching a showhouse shop with Field + Supply, a bi-annual fair for makers and artisans held in the Hudson Valley, so online audiences outside of the area can engage with the show’s designers and shop pieces from included makers.

Damour’s own design work hasn’t slowed down either. In between hosting her own radio show, Maryline by Design, and juggling a bevy of projects with her firm, which run the gamut from landscaping commissions to full house renovations, she somehow found time to be a part of the upcoming 5th annual Kips Bay Decorator Show House Palm Beach, where she and senior designer Mel Jones Jr. will be debuting a rainy day retreat room with a special ceiling installation. Undoubtedly, she’ll use her experience with Kips Bay to inform her own Kingston Showhouse later this year, continuing to push the showhouse paradigm forward with “building community through design” as her motto and equitably as her goal. She hopes that in the future, the design industry will become more diversified on the whole. “It’s about connecting with the right people with those same intents and just making much bigger noise,” says Damour.

Credit: Maryline Damour

Apartment Therapy: What got you started in the design world?

Maryline Damour: I bought a weekend house in Upstate New York in Kingston, which is the same place where I am now, a dozen years later, when I was living in the Upper West Side, because I was in Manhattan for what felt like 100 years. I was working in corporate America, so I was doing marketing PR for big global consulting firms. Because I’d always had these tiny little rentals, I never did anything. And plus, who is ever home in the city, right? So I never really paid attention… I mean I watched HGTV, I bought design magazines, but I never really did anything. And then I bought that house, and it had three bedrooms; it had a den, a dining room, and a living room. It had all this stuff, and I didn’t have any furniture, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I just started just paying attention when I was looking at magazines.

I had that house five years, and little by little, I wound up doing every single room. I hired a landscape designer at one point, who helped me with a vegetable garden, and an interior designer friend of mine did bookshelves for me. Somewhere in the middle of that, I was like, “Wow, I’m really, really loving this,” and I kind of toyed with the idea but not seriously about leaving [for a career in design]. Then the earthquake happened in Haiti — I’m from Haiti, so I was born there, and I have a lot of family there — both my parents are there, lots of uncles, cousins. I’d just gotten back from Christmas, and then that kind of pushed me because right when that happened, I have a lot of family and friends who are architects and doctors and nurses, so people were going back, trying to help. And I could do nothing. I was a marketing communications person; there was nothing for me to do. That was my final push. So the earthquake was January; by September, I was at Parsons.

AT: Did you have design inspirations growing up?

MD: Growing up, my mother was very much a beige person. She is terrified of color. So my house, even growing up, was just shades of beige. In fact, we all joke about it because she thinks she actually has 15 different shades of beige, and we’re like, “No, it’s all the same.” But growing up in Haiti — and if you look at my work — there’s a ton of color. Growing up in Haiti, the world around me is full of color, right? All the houses are brightly colored; the sun kind of intensifies every color. We’re surrounded by massive blue water. So that definitely finds itself in my work for sure.

AT: How do you find inspiration now? Is it different for every project, or is there something that you always go back to?

MD: Like every designer, the inspiration is client and their wishes — figuring out what they really want. Sometimes they don’t know, and you help them figure that out: the aesthetics, and then marrying that to wherever they happen to live, because there’s a relationship to the outdoors.

For me, because this year was the fourth year we did the Kingston Design Showhouse, over the past four years, I’ve met 400 or 500 various makers and artists because they’ve all participated in the showhouse, and that has been a huge inspiration for me. I find myself wanting to showcase their work, and it’s amazing. So I will definitely kind of pull from that, because I still see a very different level of design, a very different aesthetic that’s happening up here. I introduce my clients to that. I do a fair amount of collaboration for custom pieces with makers and even fine artists and custom artistic installations. I learn a lot from them, because they come from a different discipline, but they’re still talking about scale and color and all that good stuff.

Credit: Phil Mansfield

AT: What do you think you’re doing to change up the design field?

MD: The design/build industry’s very competitive — you’re trying to make a name for yourself and stand out from the pack. Sometimes, I think that stops us from that natural need to connect. I think that if anybody’s afraid or hesitant about how they can make an impact but also stand out, that’s one of the big things that I would love to change people’s minds about [in the design industry]. Because the fact is: I’ve been out of design school now, for what, five years? The showhouse, for example — for me to have been published in all these places in a five year time-frame and do the work that I’m doing —would not happen. And the way that it happened is because I pulled together a network of amazing individuals that also had a need to connect, and we’ve raised our profile together.

AT: Who do you look up to?

MD: We have a board of directors for the Kingston Design Showhouse; two of the well-known designers are Sheila Bridges and Brad Ford. And from the very beginning, I specifically wanted these two people on my board because Sheila basically was the very first Black person I ever saw with a TV show, with a book, with a design shop, with massive clients. So her being the example, which I know everybody says that, but until you’re a marginalized person, you don’t understand what that means. Because if you don’t know it’s possible, you don’t even know that it even exists. So there’s no trying it because you don’t even know that it’s out there.

And then Brad [Ford], who, I think, I tease him about this quite a bit where I literally am following exactly what he has done in business. Meaning that, when I found out about Field + Supply, I was like, “Oh, how could I not have Brad on my board? Because Field + Supply, Brad did exactly what I’m doing with the showhouse. It was all about that connecting and raising the profile, and he’s an interior designer, and now he has a couple of showrooms — he’s just kind of extending that. So I’m just following in his baby footsteps behind him, you know? I’m definitely taking a page from his book as being an amazing creative entrepreneur.

I wanted to mention one last person, who is not on the board, but she’s become a good friend: Alexa Hampton. I met Alexa Hampton during the shutdown; she was doing these regular Instagram talks. I was tuning in, and on one episode, she was on with her publicist and just talking about access and diversity — just all the issues we’re talking about in 2020. One of the things that she said was, “I am here to open doors, but I don’t know what you need, but please reach out to me; reach out to my publicist.” So I emailed her, and she replied back. I had a couple of conversations with her and her publicist. She is somebody who says what she means and means what she says. To be where she is — and to be that open and available to me — it’s just been amazing.

AT: What three words describe your design?

MD: I will tell you what other people have told me, because I actually never ever thought about it, and I always respond to clients’ needs. But on the whole, my style’s a mix between English country style and Caribbean colors.

Credit: Brian Shumway

AT: Where do you see the design world going in 2022?

MD: The whole 2020 conversation about diversity — there are a lot of important things that happened, like the appointment of a Black person as the editor-in-chief of Elle Decor is huge — massively huge. But at the same time, there are fewer opportunities for new designers of color. Generally, the design/build industry is a very small and very tight knit community. If you don’t know the right people, then you’re on the outside looking in. So I would love to think that going forward, we stopped saying that the work speaks for itself and really address the systematic, structural things that we actually can change. Because we created that, and people who don’t have those connections need to actually find pathways to get to where they need to get because they are that good.

My friends laugh at me because they always say, “Oh, you know, the very second thing you always say about yourself is that you’re Haitian.” I didn’t even realize that I did that, but the reason why I do that is because I moved to America when I was nine. Everyone assumes I’m African American because people just assumed that Black people are all the same. The fact is: English is my third language. People don’t think about that. They just assume I just speak English. I’ve always said that about myself because that puts me in a context that, hopefully, people understand — that you have to have a different conversation with me because I’m a different person from someplace else. Which, by the way, we do that for everybody else: Greek, Spaniards, et cetera. We just don’t do it for Black people. So for me, it’s just that recognition that, “Hey, people are different.”

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

MD: It’s not so much the design; it’s the other piece of it, meaning that you can do amazing design, but if you can’t explain to me — talk to me about what you do — that’s a problem. You’re the one that sets the tone. You’re the one that tells me what’s interesting, what I should be paying attention to. So I think my superpower, weirdly, it’s still design-related because I could never have done the showhouse and have had the impact that I have if I didn’t know how to communicate. If I didn’t know how to clearly, succinctly tell you what the benefits are for you in doing this. So I think that’s the thing for me; it comes back to that marketing and PR, really being able to be your own voice and your own champion.

AT: What legacy do you hope to leave in design?

MD: Coming out of corporate America, doing global marketing and PR, I’m very good at macro issues and then very good at distilling that and focusing it to help targeted groups, which is exactly what the Kingston Design Showhouse does. I’m very a good at finding what the issues are asking the right questions and creating the solution. So I would love to have a hand in changing the way we think about showhouses in terms of their value and how to have that as long-lasting value as opposed to short-term value for the duration of the showhouses existing.

Credit: Maryline Damour

AT: Any 2022 plans you can share with us?

MD: Kingston Design Connection is going into our fifth year. We just incorporated as a nonprofit. Every year I’m looking to impact more and more. I’d like to keep the showhouse — and as you see that there’s a different theme every year to the showhouse that’s very tied to the environment — and the context and where we are. So I definitely always wanted to have some social impact — to just not be a showcase of great design. So we’re definitely going to do something like that this year, for sure. I just don’t know what it is yet.

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

MD: What makes me feel at home in my space is also the thing that’s the most challenging. So I mentioned I was a writer in my life. I was a literature major. I own thousands upon thousands of books. I reread books because I’m constantly trying to explain to people that books evolve as you evolve, meaning that just because you’ve read it when you were 20 doesn’t mean it’s the same story when you were 30. I was once at a panel where Toni Morrison was speaking, and she said that she’s uncovered things in her own books later on.

So what makes me feel at home is being surrounded by my books because it’s a touchstone. I revere them. I’ve been collecting since I was in college. You can see different points of my life, from the topics and subjects. And it’s also very challenging because they’re in every single room, and I have to plan for them to be in every single room. Because I want them all. I don’t want them to be in the attic.

Interview has been edited and condensed.