After months of planning, the inaugural Black in Design Conference kicked off last weekend, one of the first of its kind in American architectural and urban design history. The focus moved progressively in scale, from the personal to the global. By Saturday morning, October 10, the event was in full swing with a panel discussion dedicated to design at the building scale.
Deanna Van Buren (LF ’13), an architect whose work concentrates on restorative justice, designers Bryan Mason and Jeanine Hays of the interiors company AfroChic, and Mitch McEwen, an architect and urban designer based in New York and Detroit, presented their work before sitting down to a conversation led by student moderators. Each speaker offered their own unique perspective and approach to architecture at the scale of products, individual rooms, houses, and social spaces.
Van Buren told how she had practiced architecture for ten years, working with developers in the US and abroad, when she saw design increasingly fail to address critical issues in the world around her. In 2006, she was inspired by the Restorative Justice movement and took her practice in an entirely new direction.
In contrast to the traditional western judicial approach, Restorative Justice philosophy teaches that any harm committed is a breach against several relationships, breaking bonds with both the victim and the community as a whole. Following these tenets, Van Buren came to believe that–rather than buildings that support and enforce the functions of a criminal justice system–communities needed new spatial prototypes that can facilitate healing brought about by an alternate approach to justice.
As part of this work, Van Buren immersed herself in Restorative Justice philosophy by training as a Circle Keeper, in order to best serve the users for whom she was designing. Following a similar process, she encourages those designing with her to role-play and imagine what it will be like to be in the very rooms they are constructing. Van Buren advocated, “Don’t give people a post-it note, give them a drill and a knife. Design is a therapeutic process,” one that requires physical as well as mental engagement from all involved.
Since beginning this journey nine years ago, Van Buren has designed multiple projects dedicated to Restorative Justice, including the first center for Restorative Justice, Restorative Economics and Organizing in Oakland, California. A comprehensive set of design guidelines also emerged from her years helping schools and communities create their own Restorative Justice spaces at any scale without needing to hire designers. She closed her presentation by asking the audience of students, academics, and professionals how they will collectively design entirely new spaces to accommodate evolving ways of thinking about and rehabilitating relationships that have been broken within our society.
Offering a different lens, Bryan Mason and Jeanine Hays, the two founders of the interior design company AfroChic and authors of Remix: Decorating with Culture, Objects and Soul, took the podium next. With a growing clientele that includes international and national firms like Home Depot, the principals said their original intent was to fill an obvious gap in the market and respond to the dearth of representation of the African American community in showrooms and on design blogs. Mason and Hays showed various products they have designed since their company’s inception, such as headboards whose fabrics reflect the African American Power Movement and pillows with patterns featuring women in head wraps. As they introduced the designs, they described the importance of “using historical African patterns in a modern context.” It’s “all about how do we help the community access design and celebrate cultural heritage,” said Mason.
Seeing the Internet as “the great equalizer,” the duo began their “Homes of Brooklyn” project showcasing African American domestic interiors after asking themselves, “How do we show that black people have lives just like everyone else and have homes just like everyone else?” The online photography project is part of a Mason and Hays understanding that, “When you are black in this country, everything is political.” For this same reason, they choose to work with corporate partners, companies, and brands that want to create spaces that are inclusive, global, and authentic, and that connect to and feature African American culture “by asking, ‘What would a black woman’s walk in closet look like?’”
Mitch McEwen, the final speaker, is assistant professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, a partner at A(n) Office and principal of McEwen Studio. Introducing a Detroit-based residence she purchased through a fellowship, McEwen explained her vision to create a performance space that could house “performances with the community and for the community.” Through a series of architectural cut-outs she “allows folks to fill in that gap,” an interaction she likened to turning the structure into its own dynamic opera. With the Venice Biennale’s upcoming focus on Detroit, McEwen’s design firm A(n) Office has been commissioned to design the U.S. Pavilion, leaving her with the feeling of both practicing and “being at the right place at the right time.”
After the presentations, the speakers were asked if they ever felt they had the agency to say no to a project that didn’t align with their ethics or beliefs. “Definitely,” said McEwen, to the audience’s delight. Mason explained that because AfroChic works with larger companies, there is a lot of opportunity to say “no” because all parties participating must be clear about what they do from a project’s start. However, he conceded, “Sometimes it is very hard to say no once you’re already in a project” and it takes a different direction from what was originally expected. During the writing of their book, for example, “at some point we had to be very assertive and state what was important to us,” that it came from a cultural perspective and that “we are from this culture and we know how it needs to be said.”
Hays added that AfroChic’s work is “less about going to a company and seeing how to align with them to connect to a new audience” and more about seeing “how can we figure out how to market to an African American audience.”
Van Buren offered a different perspective, saying that she often went to clients to suggest projects and worked on grants with them to get funding for those ideas. Today, she is pursuing a role as architect-developer and cultivates clients that are mission based, “so we can co-develop with those who have the same values.”
“For me the idea of going to the client is super important because we are not a field that has paid attention to most of the world. The field has paid attention to a very narrow slice of the world in terms of luxury or cultural institutions . . . so doing the work with people helps reinforce that architecture is valuable, “ she concluded.
As the conversation moved to cultural appropriation and authentically representing African American culture, the members of AfroChic explained the importance of having an intellectual engagement with culture and an understanding of the meaning and significance of objects and icons. They strive always to design things “without apology, without qualification,” and show that African Americans “have money too; this is how they spend it.”
McEwen added, “I don’t know what African American design is at the building scale. Architecture as a profession is always playing catch-up.” The question facing the community now is, “How do we live in the 21st century? I think what’s important is that we’re representing our own realities.”