by Mary Rooney
Where are the people of color in interior design?
As diversity and racial justice issues take center stage in our collective thoughts, this question begs to be asked and is one that has perplexed many over the years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census, a recent count of interior designers in the United States has grown by 11.9% to 68,067. ASID in 2019 reported that black designers account for less than two percent of its membership. A 2016 Design Census undertaken by The American Institute for Graphic Arts (AIGA) along with Google showed that 73% of survey respondents identified as white followed by 9% Hispanic, 8% Asian, and 3% Black. Joel Towers, executive dean of Parsons The New School for Design in New York City states, “For the design fields to be as (ethnically) under represented as they are means that the quality and relevance of the work to a broad and diverse population is really just problematic. You don’t have the richness of ideas and possibilities that are presented by having multiple perspectives going into the work.”
Experts agree that, in part, this lack of diversity stems from early educational experiences. Tower asserts, “… the first thing to get cut when school budgets are cut is art.” Judy Nylen, director of career services at Pratt Institute in New York City agrees saying, “The decline of art programs at the high school level, as budgets are cut and math and science are pushed, means even less understanding of what is possible in creative fields.” To combat this void in arts education, there are some schools beginning to offer weekend enrichment programs and online courses in art and design. Higher education is also examining its course offerings and how they are taught to include ethnic diversity. Other institutions are offering business courses aimed at providing skills that are not always inherent in creative individuals. These courses are intended to help young businesses survive and flourish.
Many designers of color note the absence of their work in the mainstream media. With more exposure, they forsee greater success and believe that their presence in design publications will serve as role models for future designers. To begin to counteract this lack of exposure, many are taking to social media and blogging as a vehicle to exhibit their work.
In recent years, several organizations have been established to support the work of Black designers. In 2011, the late Kimberly Ward, an award-winning interior design blogger responded to the repeated question, “Where are all the Black designers?” by creating a list of the top 20 African American Interior Designers. “The Black Interior Designers Network” (BIDN) was an outgrowth of this initial step. Its mission statement reads, “The Black Interior Designers Network’s mission is to promote diversity and inclusion within the interior design industry by highlighting designers of color and supporting black designers with business development opportunities.” This is accomplished by promoting Black designers with industry leaders and offering to its members’ social media and networking platforms as well as professional development opportunities. Another organization that promotes Black designers is The Black Artists + Designers Guild (BADG). This group was founded in 2018 by Malene Barnett to promote Black artists, makers and designers. It offers to its members an online directory, collaborative projects, exhibitions and help in developing media relationships.
BIDN’s chief development officer Alison Harold points to studies that indicate that when businesses eliminate racial bias, their profits increase. This summer, BIDN started a campaign to urge industry partners to better understand and work with people of color to bring about lasting change.
Here is what the campaign asks:
· Stop colorblindness.
· Challenge your counterparts to stand up and have the uncomfortable conversation about racism.
· Stop denying your privilege and stating, ‘All lives matter.’
· Stop comparing your shopping experiences to those of black designers.
· Stop discriminatory minimum account engagement.
· Include black designers as expert voices.
· Stop pushing Eurocentric design as the design blueprint.
· Donate to interior design organizations of color.
· Partner with interior design organizations of color.
· Challenge your reps to reach out to more black designers in their region.
The interior design profession is constantly striving to grow and strengthen. The encouragement and inclusion of diverse voices offers the industry the opportunity to bring more people and richer viewpoints into design while improving the profession’s overall growth and success. Let us ask ourselves, “What can I do to help?”