Designing a Home Will Always Be Political

published Oct 12, 2020
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In Cherub Stewart’s home, a framed Black Panther Party poster hangs along one wall, a custom creation of hers that serves a crucial purpose. 

“This piece is a daily reminder of how valuable and important the Black Panther Party was in raising awareness of police brutality and the significance in caring for our own communities,” Stewart tells Apartment Therapy. “They were a critical force in American history, in helping to eliminate daily injustice and demand equality from racist governing bodies.” 

The poster features a photo of Huey P. Newton, a BPP cofounder, bearing arms and standing under the text “What We Believe,” followed by the 10 points of the party’s official platform, which outlines its core objectives for the Black community. Among their goals: freedom, full employment, and housing and shelter that “is fit for human beings.” 

Stewart, an educator and designer behind Florida Water Interiors, blew up the image of Newton from an old newspaper clipping she found online. She then had it laminated and framed in a vintage Chinese wooden frame she purchased from eBay. 

“When looking at this poster in the frame, it appears as if the image is behind bars—wooden bars—until you open it up to get a clear read,” she explains. “Raising awareness was and still is a revolutionary [act], and the Black Panthers were some of my favorite revolutionaries. Obviously, folks are still fighting the presence of racism in political organizations such as the police. We need all the affirmations we can get—that we will live in and create a just world.” 

Save for the campaign signs that dot lawns across the suburbs every four years, home decor isn’t necessarily considered a conventionally political topic. In the comments on this very site, we’ve seen pleas to “leave the politics out of it.” But how we design our homes is, in fact, inherently political: it’s about where we spend our money, who gets our attention and how they get it, and what trends we favor.

What’s more, our homes themselves are built on stolen land by underpaid workers, items are made by exploiting labor and trade practices, and countless objects are culturally appropriated without so much as the blink of an eye. These are everyday realities that might make some people uncomfortable. And there’s privilege in that discomfort. But for many in racially and ethnically diverse communities, home design has, in fact, always felt political.

“Whether design is political to you would be determined by how you exist in society,” Stewart says. “As a Black person in America, I was born being politicized. Most definitely, design becomes political to me [and] things can get political real quick, if I allow space for it.” 

She recounts an occasion when she was shopping for a client in an expensive home decor store. Upon requesting to see the crystal decanters in stock, the associate questioned her ability to purchase a $600 item. 

“I eased on past him and purchased the decanter, as he continued to exist in his very bleak perception of me,” Stewart shares. “I’m aware of my power, so I chose not to engage the store associate’s ignorance with a response other than, ‘Watch me.’ As a Black woman, it’s not whether racism and discrimination play a role in a particular aspect of my life, it’s when and where racism shows up and how I respond.” 

Whether people realize it or not, what they display in their homes is a clear reflection of what matters most to them. If you’re a diehard thrifter, for instance, those secondhand finds might suggest to guests visiting your home that you value frugality and sustainability. Likewise, if you frequently shop from BIPOC-owned businesses, you’re sending a message that diversity in all aspects of the design process is a priority for you. 

Busayo Olupona, creative director of the Nigerian textile company Busayo NYC, has done just that in her own home. “I have a lot of traditional Yoruba pieces: old fabrics, a chair designed by a brilliant designer, Daapo Reo, that refurbishes furniture with traditional textiles,” Olupona shares. “He brings cultural richness and history into the home. I have a Yoruba fertility goddess, tons of masks and pottery. These pieces remind me of my culture and traditions, and grounds our home as a place that’s representative of me.” 

In the Instagram age, brands often feel pressure to display home photos that look a certain way and that fit an unspoken standard in the design world: the lighting must be just so, the books stacked in color-coordinated fashion, the gallery wall filled with the perfectly calculated mix of modern and vintage frames. And while all that is good and fine, those criteria don’t always leave room for what isn’t captured in a meticulously styled snapshot. Telling the stories of homes, the people in them, and the things they own as honestly and clearly as possible is as much a part of the DNA of a home’s story as pretty pictures of rooms.

As consumers, the task at hand is to continually dig deeper, to go beyond the aesthetically pleasing, and to learn more about the politics that permeate our home spaces every single day. In short: Folks must do the work. 

“Engage in dialogue about the products you buy,” Olupona says. “In shopping for home decor, be open, ask retailers to diversify their sourcing and bring more diverse makers into spaces. At the end of the day, retailers still have tremendous power. Seek out smaller brands, and be more intentional in how you spend money.”