9 Black Design Professionals Share Their Thoughts on Diversity in Design

published Feb 24, 2020
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Credit: Jazmyne Simmons by Quantized Pixels, LLC; Brandy Brown by Julia Manchik; Tavia Forbes & Monet Masters by Janet Howard Studio; Ashley Butler by Jack Poohvis; Barry Johnson by Che Sehyun; Sean Qualls by Deborah Feingold; Elle Gibson by Jonathan Clarke; Angela Belt courtesy of Angela Belt

Google’s 2020 Black History Month commercial shows how often you can do a Google search for people, achievements, and milestones, and a black person turns up as the top result. Most searched talk show host? Oprah Winfrey. Most searched EGOT winner? John Legend. It doesn’t boast about the search engine so much as it celebrates groundbreaking black people—the firsts and bests and greatests who make up Google’s most popular searches. A search for “top interior designers”, on the other hand, shows 51 people, just two of whom are black women. Searching for “top black interior designers” pulls up plenty of articles, some in celebration of Black History Month and some not, that dig into the diversity of the interior design industry. The resounding refrain: Lack of visibility should not be connoted with nonexistence.

I’m no stranger to this concept. As the cofounder of a company building an online shop for black-owned brands, I’ve made it my job to seek out black talent in even the least diverse of industries. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the hours and hours spent stumbling upon brands and firms I’ve come to admire, it’s that in areas suspiciously devoid of racial and ethnic diversity, the extra searching is more than worth it. As I wrote late last year, some of my favorite items tucked around my apartment were made by black-owned brands, not because they’re black-owned but because of their quality and the rich stories behind them.

But make no mistake: The act of hunting is necessary in the design world because of a complex web of gatekeeping and double standards. I spoke with black artists, makers, and designers to get their perspectives on visibility in the industry, and each shared a bit of their own experiences navigating the world of design.

Credit: Quantized Pixels, LLC

Jazmyne Simmons

In professional circles where people of color are few and far between, it’s not uncommon for the words “access” and “pipeline” to come up in conversations around diversity. The interiors industry is no different. Take interior designer Jazmyne Simmons, a D.C. transplant, for example. Her love of design began at age 12, when her parents allowed her to paint their Texas home’s living room walls. Now a senior designer at M.S. Vicas Interiors, she sees just how unique that experience was for a little black girl. But she didn’t come to that realization until she went to the University of Pennsylvania to study architecture.

“I thought [design] would be a little more visible, especially going to Penn, this amazing university where we’re offered a lot of studies,” says Simmons. “But I was still in a de facto segregation type of struggle—only myself and one other black-identifying person were in the program. And he was two years older than me, so throughout my studies it was a pretty isolating experience as far as being visible within the community. Even among the black community at school, not many people even knew—unless they knew me—that architecture was even a program at our school.”

“Right now interior design is ostracized within our community. I want to debunk that so others recognize that interior design is just like painting, graphic design, photography—it can be a means of exploration, it can be a means of healing.”

Simmons’ isolation didn’t rest solely along racial lines though. She studied architecture with the intent of going into interior design, which undoubtedly contributed to her rise through the ranks at M.S. Vicas, where she and the team often work side-by-side with architects and clients. But, she says, “I still haven’t met anyone with an architecture background that has intentionally gone into interior design. And that’s across the board, that’s not just within [the black] community.”

Mentorship and career path aside, Simmons is keeping an eye on the trajectory of the entire design world. “The architecture, design, and construction industry is very analog, even with all the technological advances and technological wants within the homes we design,” she says.  

Her hope is that, in addition to further embracing technology, the industry will become more respected, leading to better black representation in the future. “Right now interior design is ostracized within our community, but also in general, because it’s had these long-held traditions of being a very affluent discipline,” says Simmons. “I want to debunk that so others recognize that interior design is just like painting, graphic design, photography—it can be a means of exploration, it can be a means of healing.”

Credit: Che Sehyun

Barry Johnson

For Seattle-based visual artist Barry Johnson, using art as a tool for communication is a no-brainer, but it took him some time to figure that out. As a first generation college student, he felt pressure to study something less creative and more stable—even though, as he says, “Naturally everyone is born as an artist.” While he leaned into that notion throughout his childhood, everything changed when he began considering higher education. “I was doing so much art,” says Johnson, “And whenever it came time to go to school, I just remember thinking, ‘You know what, I’m this young black kid, nobody in my family’s ever went to college, so I think I’m just gonna go for business—I’m gonna be a businessman.’”

After studying business in school, Johnson went to work for a consulting firm, where his days were, unsurprisingly, consumed by spreadsheets. But that began to change when he picked up Mason Currey’s book “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.” He found himself doodling all day long—so much so that his bosses at the firm would ask him to do large whiteboard and chalkboard illustrations for clients. This awakened his spirit for art.

“I decided to do more painting and more drawing and eventually I was like, I’m getting paid to do work outside of here—and inside of here, I’m not getting paid for the murals and everything that I’m doing, so I think I’m just gonna head out,” he says. So he left behind the consulting career he had spend his entire adult life building. But he didn’t exactly set out to “make it” as an artist. “I never wanted acclaim,” he says. “You need to just make good work. That’s all I wanted to do.”

So instead of trying to find clients and customers, Barry sought out artists he admired. As a consultant, he was keen on following threads. And as someone that had a range of jobs as a kid, he didn’t mind hearing ‘no’ a lot. But in every ‘yes’, he found a new guidepost for some facet of his creativity. “I took everyone that I could and made them a mentor,” he says. “The same artists whose books I read, I would be emailing them and tweeting them obsessively.”

Connecting with mentors and taking art classes, this self-taught, multi-disciplinary artist amassed a supportive network and a deep portfolio over time. And while any artist’s body of work usually doubles as a resume of sorts for potential buyers, Johnson’s also stands as a snapshot of moments in his life.

“I’m gonna share something with you that I haven’t told anyone: Every time I’m making a piece, I always will have a diary that is attached to that piece,” says Johnson. “I write down the time that the piece started, directionally where I wanted to go with it, what mentally I was going through. And I get so minuscule—I write down what I was watching, what I was feeling, as I was going through that piece. Once you go through the emotion of creating something, it’s a release.”

Credit: Deborah Feingold

Sean Qualls

Sometimes the release that comes from creating something isn’t just about working through your personal experiences—it can also be a medium to express societal issues. Artist Sean Qualls’ paintings, inspired by vintage advertising graphics, do just that. “I started to think about the effect that advertising has on us,” says Qualls. “Specifically, what happens to us when we encounter words and imagery together and how that may inform how we see ourselves.”

In addition to full-sized paintings, Qualls has illustrated a number of children’s books, many of which explore identity and black historical figures. While he enjoyed that work, he has also sought to expand that visual dialogue used to explain things to children to a more arresting symbology in his own personal art work.

“I took it upon myself to sort of start changing the social dynamic by putting more imagery into the world that I thought would not only empower people but also help to reshape the way people see themselves and reshape the way people find themselves,” says Qualls. “My subject matter, for the most part, focuses on the black experience. However, I don’t see my work solely focused for a black audience because I think these perceptions and portrayals affect all of us.”

That said, Qualls has encountered some non-black potential buyers who feel uncomfortable displaying his art in their home, out of fear that guests might not understand the intentions behind it. But Qualls feels that repeated exposure to art is powerful. “Your reaction to it becomes less conscious as time progresses, but that doesn’t diminish the connection or the power of it,” says Qualls. “Your relationship with it starts to work on a different level. And I think that makes it more powerful. Your ability to notice details and hidden meanings becomes stronger over a period of time. And I think that’s the beauty of having art in your home, and visiting museums, is that sort of repetitiveness really becomes a powerful way of interacting with art.”

Credit: Jonathan Clarke (@jonclarkewrites)

Elle Gibson

While most visual artists don’t get a chance to see their work hung in buyers’ homes, Elle Gibson, a wallpaper and textiles designer, makes a point to connect with her patrons—designers and homeowners. “I try to show up when I can on the install day,” says Gibson. “And when I do, the designer invariably asks me to explain the pattern to the client. And they loved it before, but they love it after. Because now if that pattern is on the walls in their dining room, when they have Thanksgiving dinner, it becomes a conversation piece to pass stories down.”

Like any other finish, Gibson’s wallpaper is chosen mostly because it looks beautiful and fits a particular vision for a space. But one of her most popular wallpaper patterns, Curls and Pearls, has a special meaning that resonates with designers and homeowners alike. “It’s a classic French damask pattern—I’ll take a classic pattern and make it my own,” she explains. “The curls represent the curls in a black woman’s hair. Pearls symbolize womanhood in the South—it’s a rite of passage gift for a woman. But black women weren’t a part of that because we didn’t have the wealth to be passing down pearls. And so the pearls in that pattern symbolize the wealth, the maturity, the experiences, the knowledge that we as black women pass down in a family to each other.” 

“The world is quite often hostile to us. So home is one of the few places where having somebody who understands you, that can relate to your story, and can help you fully embrace it is important.” 

For Gibson, this kind of representation is the responsibility and gift of having a hand in helping people—especially other black people—design their homes. Patterns like hers shape the conversations they have, the memories they make, and the realities they create inside their four walls. “Our homes in particular are one of the few places that we really get to be ourselves and embrace that without having to put a filter on it,” she says. “The world is quite often hostile to us. So home is one of the few places where having somebody who understands you, that can relate to your story, and can help you fully embrace it [is important].” 

Credit: Julia Manchik

Brandy Brown

Seattle maker Brandy Brown was faced with the complicated choice of opening her home up to the world when HGTV approached her to film at-home DIY videos for their web audience. While she eventually did just that, a lot of thought went into her decision. “I don’t feel comfortable putting myself out there publicly—I’m a really private person,” Brown says. “But I felt like it was important to share and to let people see my space, my color, [me] doing something that I love.” Furthermore, she wanted to offset the narrative of a black woman being secluded and only feeling comfortable in her own minority group. “I feel comfortable everywhere I go because I am a confident woman and I know what I bring to the table,” says Brown.

Her work runs the gamut, from gift wrap to party decor to graphic art prints. While Brown has clearly been established as a design tastemaker, she doesn’t exactly call herself an interior designer.“Brandy of all trades” is her preferred title. “I’ve done interiors before, but I just consider myself a creative,” says Brown. There’s really nothing I can’t do, from painting to design and program work to anything.” To that end, Brown finds herself frustrated by the fact that black professionals across industries are often only tapped in February or for roundups specifically focused on black people.

“I would like to see creatives’ works highlighted based on merit and just their perspective,” says Brown. “I feel like minorities are the trendsetters of all things gorgeous. I’m talking from music to fashion to lifestyle. I think that we are at the helm of that ship of creativity and self-expression. And I love it.”

Credit: Leon Belt

Angela Belt

Getting year-round attention and acclaim is partly an exercise in combating issues with gatekeeping and visibility. Interior designer Angela Belt is changing this conversation every day through 29 Black Tastemakers, a platform that highlights makers, artists, and designers who might otherwise fall below the mainstream media’s radar. She released the first episodes of her platform’s podcast, The Moodboard Interview Series, earlier this month.

“I think the lists are just the start,” says Belt. “There are definitely black interior designers and artists that are already saying, ‘Okay there are lists—let’s take this further,’ and there’s definitely the next step—like Malene [Barnett] with her Black Artists + Designers Guild. It’s more than just Instagram posts; it’s getting those designers in different publications and really sharing that this is what we’re doing and taking it to the next level.”

One challenge black designers and other minorities face in this area is tailoring their work, which often includes cultural elements, to a mainstream audience. Belt first dealt with this when she worked at Room & Board early in her career. “When I was at Room & Board, I had two different mentors, one was Durell Lewis,” she says. “He was really great at showing me how to create these big lifestyles that didn’t really resonate with me—but kind of understanding the appreciation of mid-century modern design, understanding how to curate for your target brand, which may not personally connect with you, but how do you find something that will sell to lots of people.”

“It’s more than just Instagram posts; it’s getting those designers in different publications and really sharing that this is what we’re doing and taking it to the next level.”

For her own home, featured on Apartment Therapy, Belt designed with an emphasis on combating the negativity that often enshrouds black life in America. She believes it’s important to weave in cultural and familial elements and showcase them on platforms like this website, so the positive aspects of blackness can be seen as beautiful. “If the only imagery we keep seeing of ourselves is the negative and not showing even a balanced representation of the good that’s happening with black families, black culture, and black life, it just starts to make us feel like we don’t have anything else to really share,” says Belt.

Credit: Jack Poohvis

Ashley Buttercup

If negative imagery can infiltrate our homes, it can definitely impact our lives. Artist Ashley Buttercup left the corporate world to pursue visual art when she realized she was stuffing herself into a mold that wasn’t true to her. “I think authenticity is really important, regardless of whether it’s race or it’s not about race,” says Buttercup. “I was going to the office wearing pencil skirts. And that’s not me. I’m not a pencil skirt-wearing girl. I’m a tomboy. I was spending the majority of my day pretending to be someone else, and I just mentally couldn’t do it anymore.”

But long before she got off the corporate ladder, she took a deep dive into the art world—not so much as a working artist but as an admirer and curator. She started Snax Magazine, an art journal, almost a decade ago, where she promoted underrepresented artists. “It was a printed magazine, and we did pop-up showcases,” says Buttercup. “And as of the last two years, I just decided that I needed to start investing in myself.”

That meant a lot of things, namely quitting her job. About six months after quitting though, Buttercup went back to work. And while she could blame it on the challenges of making it as an emerging artist or the shift in lifestyle, she realizes it all rests with her. “The biggest thing that I’ve learned throughout my career is believing in myself,” says Buttercup. “And I’m still learning it. I’m in my thirties now, and I’m at a point where I feel like I’m getting closer to understanding who I am. Because for years I’ve been just pretending, conditioned that this is how I have to live my life.”

Credit: Janet Howard Studio
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Forbes + Masters 

For Tavia Forbes and Monet Masters of Forbes + Masters, some of the challenges with black design access involve racial wealth disparities and the physical environments in which many black Americans are raised. “[Interior design] is a luxury service,” Forbes says. “We’re not exposed to the beauty of art and design and architecture. Growing up in New York [City] is a little different—I grew up going to museums for free because that’s what you get to do in New York. But from what I understand, you don’t know what you don’t know.”

According to Forbes and Masters, this issue is often exacerbated by the fact that many people lack an understanding of the cost of even small design projects. This plagues the industry in general, though, because pricing isn’t standardized. “That can go across the board and almost level the playing field in a sense for a lot of people that essentially undervalue themselves,” Forbes said. “In the industry as a whole, there are so many different ways to value your service, but I think we don’t know it yet. We don’t have the standard, and we don’t know if on the other side, there is an understanding or there is something that makes sense for the entire industry because we’re not part of that community.”

While Forbes and Masters have an extensive list of clients and colleagues in Atlanta, they’ve still felt isolated in the design world at times. The Black Interior Designers Network (BIDN) has been a wonderful source of support for them, but they acknowledge the need to share across racial lines. “We do have all of these communities that are essentially race-based,” Forbes says. “There are tons of seminars and so on, but you’re really going to the seminars with people who look like you, and so we’re not getting information across lines. And everything still feels up in the air and a mystery in terms of how you should be conducting your business.”

The trajectory of black professionals in the interiors industry is not unlike the trajectory of black people in America as a whole. Acceptance, representation, and community are fundamental building blocks of success. But the next step means branching out not just to further the scope and impact of black work but to also unlock a level of prosperity in a space that was once reserved for a specific race and class of people.