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For Black Designers, Opening Doors That Have Been Shut

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This article is part of our latest Design special report, which is about taking creative leaps in challenging times.

Two decades ago, when the designer Stephen Burks was beginning what would become a renowned international career, there were virtually no African-American role models for him to look to.

After breaking out with a furniture collection for Cappellini in 2000, he has gone on to design for Roche Bobois, Dedon, Missoni and Moroso, among numerous other top companies.

Recently, when it was noted that he was the first Black designer to work with most of the design houses that hired him, he interrupted. Framing it that way, he said, actually “softens the blow a bit.” For many of these companies, he pointed out, “I was the only Black designer.”

While he is no longer alone in the business, there remains a dearth of Black designers — a fact that has taken on new urgency in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the protests that have followed.

Expressions of solidarity with Black Lives Matter across the design industries have poured out on social media. Black-owned design companies and studios are being singled out for support, and larger design firms are pledging to improve diversity and equity.

ImageMalene Barnett in her Brooklyn studio.
Credit…Kelly Marshall

“I do think the moment is significant because it has woken up a group of people that have been sleeping for a long time,” said Malene Barnett, a Brooklyn-based artist and textile designer who founded the Black Artists + Designers Guild in 2018. “Ultimately to change, the system has to be demolished and started from scratch. It’s time for everyone to figure out how to create a new foundation so we can build a society that supports people and is truly inclusive.”

For many Black designers, it is a complicated moment. While eager to seize the momentum, some see little reason to trust that talk of greater inclusiveness will translate into results, or that even well-intentioned incremental steps toward diversity will produce substantive change.

It doesn’t take a great deal of research to recognize that Black designers are poorly represented in the world of high-end furnishings, a business with estimated global sales of roughly $25 billion last year. Just visit marquee industry trade shows, or flip through leading design magazines (some of which this white reporter has worked for both as a writer and an editor). You can also go online and look at the rosters of designers promoted on the sites of major international furnishings brands.

That is exactly what Jomo Tariku, a Virginia–based Ethiopian-reared designer, did to compile a report that found that less than one percent of all furnishings produced by top international brands are by Black designers. (He first presented his findings at a seminar on Black design hosted by Princeton University last winter. They were later reported by the interiors publication Business of Home and the design website Dezeen.)

In addition to running his studio, Jomo Furniture, Mr. Tariku works as a graphic designer and data scientist for the World Bank. He initially undertook his research to put some numbers — which he concedes are scientifically imprecise — to his own experience of feeling like the only Black person at many industry events.

“I’d go to trade shows, but people don’t take you seriously as a Black designer because they don’t know — they’ve never met one,” said Mr. Tariku, whose work marries traditional African forms with digital modeling and a crisp, minimalist aesthetic. “When I’d ask for the name or the contact info of a company’s creative director, what I’d get is a blank stare or, ‘He’s not available.’ I don’t know if white designers face the same thing.”

As Mr. Tariku found, if you scan the designer pages of top furnishings companies you might see two or three Black faces out of dozens — or none at all. Herman Miller, a leading American brand based in Michigan, for example, shows just a single Black designer: Bibi Seck, a New York–based Senegalese designer who heads the firm Birsel + Seck with his wife, the Turkish-born designer Ayse Birsel.

Mary Stevens, the senior vice president of global product development and advanced innovation at Herman Miller, said the company is aiming to do better. Prompted by recent events, it is founding a Diversity in Design program, for which it hopes to build a consortium of businesses — including competitors — to tackle the issue.

“We’re looking at increased retention initiatives, equitable career development, all the things that you would expect,” Ms. Stevens said. “But this is also focused on the funnel into the design field, and that means involvement in education systems, in the communities in which we serve. There’s no question that the Black Lives Matter movement has moved us to be much more proactive than we had been in the past.”

Jerry Helling, the president and creative director of Bernhardt Design, in North Carolina, who has championed many emerging designers, also believes the problem is in the pipeline. “The lack of awareness among young people about being able to pursue a career in design is a challenge that must be addressed,” he said. “I believe supporting design education — and especially, mentoring — is crucial for companies who are committed to supporting diversity and enhancing the design industry.”

Some top design institutions are ramping up efforts to redress the imbalance.

In June, the executive board of the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands issued a statement acknowledging the school’s “lack of diversity that does not accurately reflect the society it exists within, let alone the planet more broadly,” pledging to “do more, and do it now.”

Not long after, Rosanne Somerson, the president of Rhode Island School of Design, released a letter to the RISD community, taking responsibility for allowing a culture of systemic racism to persist and outlining steps to advance social equity and inclusion. Among the changes are revisions to the Eurocentric curriculum; a cluster-hire of 10 new faculty members committed to “issues of decoloniality, race, racism, and ethnicity”; and admitting more students of color. According to the school’s enrollment figures, the percentage of Black or African-American students rose slightly from 1.9 percent in 2012 to to 3.8 percent last year.

“RISD is not a terribly diverse place, and people are realizing their complicity in these inequities,” said Christopher Specce, head of the school’s furniture department. “Student activism has been really a primary force in confronting inequities and racism. Everyone is approaching this with a sense of urgency.”

Of course, the underlying systemic issues that perpetuate the design world’s diversity problems start well before college. As for the question, Why aren’t there more Black designers? Mr. Burks, for one, has little patience. “I mean, come on. Design is a luxury to begin with for most people. A majority of African-Americans in this country are living at the poverty line,” he said. “It’s about education. It’s about opportunity. It’s about choices. You’re looking at a population in this country who 60 years ago were fighting for basic civil rights. We have to fix this country first.”

For his part, Mr. Burks collaborates with artisans in developing communities around the globe, in some cases partnering with nonprofits like Aid to Artisans and the Clinton Global Initiative. He recently conducted workshops in craftmaking at Berea College in Kentucky, which is tuition-free and was founded in 1855 as the first interracial college in the South. Mr. Burks noted that the vision behind his work, which emphasizes craft and often incorporates recycled or repurposed materials, has never been solely about being a Black designer. His goal is to cast off Eurocentric biases and embrace the idea that “anyone and everyone is capable of design,” he said. “I don’t want to just make the design world open to people that look like me but to everyone.”

He is also launching a program called Designing Diversity, whereby companies he works with would donate the proceeds from sales of his designs to a nonprofit of his choice, benefiting racial equity. “I haven’t had any takers yet,” he said. “Companies don’t necessarily want to give up their profits to try to fix the problem.”

That skepticism is shared by Ini Archibong, an American designer of Nigerian descent who lives in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. “I’m not going to pretend I’m necessarily hopeful that the structures in place will all of a sudden change their objectives to be about righteousness over the dollar,” said Mr. Archibong, who is known for exquisitely crafted furnishings that combine luxurious materials with a surreal, even mystical sensibility. “This moment does make me hopeful about the level of consciousness and awareness of humanity.”

Credit…Julian Anderson
Credit…Courtesy Sé

Over the past decade, Mr. Archibong has worked with Knoll, Bernhardt Design, Lapicida, Sé, Hermès and the New York gallery Friedman Benda. Like other successful Black designers, he has often been the only person of color in the room. “You end up thinking about yourself not only as who you actually are but also as how a white person is perceiving you,” he said.

Once, when he was a student at Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, Mr. Archibong presented a table inspired by the lowrider cars he grew up around. “The instructors were like, ‘I don’t get it. And I think that it’s over the top and garish,’” he recalled. “But I show that table to anybody who’s Black and they get it.”

These days, Mr. Archibong is busy with his most ambitious project to date, the Pavilion of the Diaspora, to be unveiled at next summer’s London Design Biennale. The design concept is based on the conch shell, referencing an organic horn for symbolically summoning Africans who have left the continent and — more generally — people who have been displaced from homelands everywhere. The pavilion will be a space for contemplation, with visual, auditory and haptic components, and it will also host community events and performances. The aim is to give voice to the diaspora, in all its rich diversity, on an international stage.

Credit…Alice Asafu-Adjaye, Chrissa Amuah and Mustard Architecture
Credit…Benjamin Adu

Also contributing to the biennale is Chrissa Amuah, a British-Ghanaian textiles designer who is partnering with Alice Asafu-Adjaye, an architect based in Accra, Ghana, on an installation that will address Ghana’s long colonial relationship with Britain and Denmark. Ms. Amuah, whose London studio is called AMWA Designs, incorporates traditional Ghanaian symbols known as adinkra into her textiles, including a collection she created for Bernhardt Design that will debut next year.

Ms. Amuah is equally well known as the founder of Africa By Design, a three-year-old online platform and series of roving exhibitions that showcases the work of sub-Saharan designers, both on the continent and living abroad. With a roster of nearly 40 designers from several countries, Africa By Design was born out of a recognition that there are “so many African designers whose work is incredible but they just don’t have a platform to show and promote it,” said Ms. Amuah. “They know their craft, but they wouldn’t know how to necessarily communicate with a Western market.

For Ms. Amuah, shining a spotlight on design talent across Africa can also help debunk stereotypes. “When we took Africa by Design to Dubai,” she recalled, “I remember one Emirati man walked in and said, ‘Oh, this is a great exhibition. But you know what’s missing? A lion skin.’ His instinctive perception of Africa and design was, you know, an animal skin.”

Patrizia Moroso, the creative director of the Italian furnishings house Moroso, noted that global interest in African art has taken off and believes design will follow. “When creativity starts blowing, art is the flag that you see before other things,” said Ms. Moroso, who is married to a Senegalese artist, Abdou Salam Gaye. “Design was not so important in another Africa focused on other issues. But now it is starting to be important, because there is a new consciousness around creative potential and quality of life in Africa.”

Ms. Moroso, who said that she has always sought out designers with different backgrounds and nationalities, lamented that “it’s not easy to find a lot of designers coming from Africa.” But she conceded that, as an industry, “we probably have to do more, to develop better ways of scouting new talent.”

Credit…Omar Victor Diop

A decade ago, Moroso launched its M’Afrique collection of exuberant outdoor furniture. The concept was to have company designers — most of them white — travel to Senegal to collaborate with local craftsmen on pieces that would “underline the beauty and soul and energy of Africa,” as Ms. Moroso put it. “We saw the possibility to create a meeting point for our designers and these fantastic craftsmen who were able to do things that we are no longer able to do in Europe, like making these beautiful woven objects.”

A few of the subsequent M’Afrique designers have been Black, including Mr. Seck and Mr. Burks, who oversaw the collection’s first exhibition in Milan. And this spring Moroso is unveiling new additions by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye.

All of the designers interviewed agreed that while solutions are challenging, a reckoning over the design industry’s diversity problem was overdue. “I’m glad people are talking about it,” Mr. Tariku said. When he posted his research on diversity online, some commenters argued that design should be only about design and not skin color, to which Mr. Tariku said, “Look, I wish it was.”

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