10 Questions With... Yetta Banks

She’s an architect, interior designer, and executive at a global entertainment conglomerate. This rare combination of talent would be Yetta Banks, vice president of design and construction at Viacom, where she has been a force of nature for the past 18 years. During that time, she has overseen about 3 million square feet of projects, new construction and expansion included, at a dozen domestic sites, in Warsaw, and in Paris.

An Atlanta native, Banks earned degrees in architecture and interior design at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the American Intercontinental University in Los Angeles, respectively. She completed the last year of her architecture training at Ecole de la Villette in Paris. Prior to Viacom, she worked as an architect at Carlsten Associates, Atlanta.

Giving back is part of her ethos; it’s embedded in her DNA. A board member of Housing Works, she is co-chair and a designer for its fundraiser Design on a Dime. She also participates in DIFFA’s Picnic by Design. She is the first recipient of Viacom’s Viacommunity Day Award and is a member of IIDA. Banks chats with wit and wisdom.

Interior Design: You are an executive and a designer. How does each role inform the other?

Yetta Banks: As an executive, I am the business. I am the leader of this team. I make sure we get results; I am the driver; I analyze the facts; I ask the tough questions. As the designer, I am the storyteller. I get to use my imagination to solve the problems.

ID: What was your "a-ha!" moment prompting you to enter the worlds of architecture and design?

YB: At 16 years old in the 11th grade, I discovered I could draw in my first formal art class. I told my mom I would be an artist. She told me I would starve and roared with laughter. So, she and I went on a hunt and discovered the business of architecture and design. Still not really understanding what it meant, I learned about architecture through Norma Merrick Sklarek and Paul R. Williams. They were both pioneers and the first black woman and man to become registered architects.

ID: How did growing up in Atlanta influence you?

YB: Atlanta’s pride is undeniable. If you were a native to “The ATL,” you made sure everyone knew: the grit, the swag-sophistication, the weird dialectic, the music, the creativity, the weather. It influenced everything that I am today. The eclectic small neighborhoods that welcomed most anyone, the openness and diversity. All influenced the way that I work today. My style is never my own but it belongs to the folks I work for.

Near conference rooms at Viacom's Los Angeles office, a lounge centers on a table by Marc Thorpe Design. Photography by Eric Laignel.

ID: What were your takeaways from living in Paris?

YB: It influenced my love of history, culture, and texture. It helped develop my sense of wonder and curiosity. I spent many hours walking the arrondissements and exploring. My roommate and I coined this term “dereiving,” the art of aimlessly adventuring out with no goal in sight.

ID: What are your primary influences now?

YB: As early as I can remember, I have been influenced by fashion, music, and travel.

ID: You’re passionate about giving back. Was there a catalyst?

YB: My mother. As a kid, I remember watching her write small checks month after month to different organizations. It wasn’t until I got older that I understood she was donating back to our community. My mom also made us volunteer in our community. Today I get to combine my passion for design and community.

An office on the 32nd floor of Viacom's Manhattan office. Photography by Eric Laignel.

ID: What do you do to unplug?

YB: The honest answer is that I am a work in progress so I find it difficult to unplug. Every year in August, however, I take a week or two for vacation in Martha’s Vineyard with about 50-65 friends. I purposely flood my system with good food, great friends, sweaty workouts, enriching conversations, beaching (even if I hate it) and some belly-aching laughing.

ID: Of course, we ask: What are your favorite TV shows?

YB: It is really a great time for TV; it’s having such a moment now. I binge watch everything. Favorites on the list are Queen Suga, This is Us, Atlanta, NCIS, and Blue Bloods.

ID: What's your most recently downloaded app?

YB: Unun. It helps you organize and schedule your photos and post on Instagram.

Work space on the 32nd floor of Viacom's Manhattan office. Photography by Eric Laignel.

ID: Best thing about your job?

YB: I get to create spaces that are “choose your own adventure” storytelling experiences. Each day you can interact with a new element of our design, feel something different, and have a unique outcome. 

ID: What else are you passionate about now?

YB: I am passionate about women and girls. Also “The Experience,” hospitality design, brands, dinnerware, and magazines. 

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