7 African American Designers on How They're Pushing The Design Industry Forward

Lawrence Berkeley National Lab – Wang Hall. Photography courtesy of R.Skaltschmidt.

Thanks to the efforts of more than a century of blood, sweat, and tears—not to mention legal battles, aesthetic genius, and spectacular projects—African American and black members of the architecture and design professions are more fully integrated and prominent in this country than ever before.

And yet, only five percent of architecture students identified as black or African American, according to the National Architectural Accrediting Board’s 2015 Annual Report, the same rate as five years prior. A 2016 AIA report found that both people of color and whites in the field of architecture overwhelming agree that people of color are underrepresented in the industry, do not receive equal pay, and are less likely to be promoted to more senior positions.  

The situation is perhaps even worse in the field of interior design. As IIDA Executive Vice President and CEO Cheryl Durst recently reminded us in a 10 Questions With... interview, less than one percent of the IIDA’s members are women of color. Worse, she says, “those same stats hold true for the profession as a whole.”

What’s to be done? We sat down with seven architects and interior designers to talk about their achievements, struggles, what’s changing, and the work ahead for all of us.

DANI ARPS

SeatGeek Office. Photography courtesy of Aaron Thompson. 

The tech sector might not necessarily be known for its racial diversity, but that hasn’t stopped Dani Arps, who in a few short years has become the go-to interior designer for more than a dozen tech start-ups like Venmo, Fashionista, Gilt, and General Assembly. “There were no other black students in my class,” throughout high school in Connecticut, and few while earning a Master of Science in Interior Design at the Pratt Institute. “And most of the CEOs of the companies I work with are white men, while the point person is usually a white woman. I’ve only had one client who isn’t white. But that’s how things are.”

Things were tough during the Great Recession when Arps entered the design field in 2009; she did some work with Tony Chi and also scoured online resources like Craigslist for freelance opportunities. “It just has to happen once,” she says, and for her it happened with CodeAcademy, who asked her to design their offices. They loved her airy-yet-industrial aesthetic and spread the word about her talent. “Look,” she says, “I’m a black person, I’m a woman, I look extremely young—people are like who is this? So having a referral really helped.” And while she might not be able to change who’s running the tech companies, she’s changing how they work, designing major workspaces for SeatGeek and Daily Harvest and her own seating, the Dani Chair, to pull up to the table.

MALENE BARNETT

Abuja by Malene B. Photography courtesy of Malene Barnett.

For over a decade, Malene Barnett has been an unmistakable voice in interior design, first via her Malene B. range of bespoke carpets, launched in 2009. Her art and design studio quickly introduced a range of ceramics, which found homes alongside her textiles in projects for clients including Viacom, Marriott, and Saks. Recently, though, her voice became downright essential after a post on Instagram decrying the lack of black participation in design fairs went viral.

“I wanted to change the narrative,” she says. “After years of [a] system designed for African American and black designers not to succeed, it’s going to take some time. But when you start to see the breadth of talent and expertise, you start to think, why didn’t I know about these artists? The industry does not have enough research presented to designers and architects, so that decision-makers can ask: What can I do at my firm, my educational institution, to work toward change? No act is too small.”

Her act? Founding the non-profit Black Artists + Designers Guild, an online resource and directory with IRL talks, dinners, and a forthcoming Design Week, all invaluable proof of the existence—and brilliance—of contemporary black creators.

ALLISON WILLIAMS

Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University. Photography courtesy of Bob Lyons. 

“We have to be our own advocates for excellence,” says Allison Grace Williams, FAIA, NCARB, LEED AP. And few are better advocates than Williams, with a CV that reads like a who’s who of major architecture firms. As senior associate partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, she says, “I was the only person of color across the whole firm. But I’ve always felt pretty comfortable in my skin.” After a stint as director of design at Perkins and Will, and then as vice president of AECOM, in 2017 Williams founded her own firm, AGWms_studio.

Major projects followed, including the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburg; the Center for Research and Technological Enterprise for the National Research Foundation and National University of Singapore; the Shyh Wang Hall Computational Research and Theory Facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs; and the Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University in Riyadh. Among her many honors are the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard Graduate School of Design, status as a fellow of the AIA, and a member of the Harvard Design Magazine Practitioners Board.

“If you start feeling like people don’t understand you because you’re different,” she says, “you’re going to spend a lot of your creative juices and brain cells on that, instead of excelling and enjoying what you’re doing. I don’t like the word assimilation. There’s no question I’m black. But somebody can look and say: ‘Oh my god, she’s black, and she did all this.’”

MARK L. GARDNER

Tanzania Beekeepers Asali & Nyuki Sanctuary. Photography courtesy of Jaklitsch/Gardner Architects.

“Black Architects make up only two percent of all licensed Architects in the U.S., although we represent 12.7 percent of the U.S. Population,” says Jaklitsch/Gardner Architects principal Mark L. Gardner, AIA. What can be down to increase those numbers?

“Diversity does not just happen,” he says. And neither does a portfolio as accomplished as that of his firm, with projects ranging from a Marc Jacobs showroom (a 2012 Best of Year winner) to the Tanzania Beekeepers Asali & Nyuki Sanctuary in Dodoma. Both take hard work and good connections. “I didn’t get to know a black architect until I was in college, and it wasn’t until I started working that I was mentored by amazing architects including William Stanley and Ivenue Love-Stanley.”

As director of the Graduate Architecture Program at Parsons School of Design, Gardner says, “I offer the words of the late Toni Morrison. ‘When you get those jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.’”

LOU SWITZER

Wells Fargo offices, New York. Photography courtesy of Garrett Rowland. 

Interior Design Hall of Famer Lou Switzer started his own firm in 1975, just after graduating from Pratt. Today, The Switzer Group is one of the world’s largest minority-owned firms, with clients around the world including IBM, Capital One, and the Walt Disney Company. 

But just because Switzer is part of the establishment, that doesn’t mean all things are equal. “There’s still a good-old-boy network,” he says. “We can tell when we get an RFP if we’re wasting our time.” Instead of trying to force open closed minds, Switzer leads by example, creating enviable workplaces like the 2019 Best of Year Finalist Hudson Yards offices for Wells Fargo, a 500,000-square-foot, LEED Gold flagship; and 350,000 square feet across 10 floors of 11 Penn Plaza for AMC Networks. For several decades, he’s also run mentorship programs to increase the numbers of minorities in the profession. “It’s up to us to shine. To say we’re better at what we do,” he says. “But also, to be given the opportunity.”



JOMO TARIKU

The Dogon stool. Photography courtesy of Jomo Tariku. 

Born in Kenya to Ethiopian parents, educated in industrial design at the University of Kansas, and now based in Virginia, Jomo Tariku creates furniture that investigates the connections between African and African American design. In 2000 he opened a studio in DC, but closed it in 2008 because, he says, “the timing was off.” At that time, he claims the market was more interested in the kind of tourist-trap Africana than in his approach, which re-interprets forms from his heritage in a graceful minimalism which foregrounds material. “We’re never seen from the modern angle and that bothers me,” he says. “It’s a very Euro-centric view.”

In 2016, Tariku decided the world was ready for another view. “Design is global, but I hate when the industry acts like we don’t exist when it comes to interpreting our own culture,” he says. He relaunched with a collection that explicitly names its references: his Boraatii stool looks to Ethiopian headrests used to protect hairstyles while users sleep; another stool, E’nsera, takes its name and form from water jugs; and the MeQuamya chair reimagines Ethiopian Orthodox Church prayer staffs. “For each object, I give credit to the culture,” he says. “For each one, I’m going to tell you.” And the world is listening. Over 18 months, Tariku showed at four design fairs, and recently joined the Black Artists and Designers Guild.

KAMILLE GLENN

When Kamille Glenn was a kid, she wanted to be an astronaut. But once she got to Brooklyn Technical High School, she fell for industrial design and followed her interest in the built environment to the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she earned a BFA in Interior Design. A portfolio review meeting with Rockwell Group’s Shaw Sullivan led him to hire her on the spot in 2014. “It’s my dream job,” she says of Rockwell, where she’s now an associate interior designer.

Six years later, Glenn is dreaming even bigger. She recently founded The Designer’s Workshop to bring together people of color in maker fields. “It’s a collective with a broad sweep of all 3D design, from fashion to architecture,” she says. “I want to connect us all.” And demonstrate their existence to the next generation. “We’re collaborating with schools to create programs that are long-lasting,” she says. “I knew that I could have been an interior designer when I was eight, who knows where I could be now.”

Read more: 10 Pioneering African American Architects and the Legacy Buildings They Designed       

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