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21 Black Women Changing the Architecture and Design Space

Photo: Forbes Masters

According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, less than 1% of licensed architects in the United States are Black women as of 2023. (There has barely been an increase from the 0.4% that NCARB reported in 2020.) Another survey from Zippia revealed that within a $17.5 billion industry, there are only 2.3% of interior designers in the U.S. who identify as Black or African American. Although the statistics speak for themselves, the number of Black-led design firms and minority-owned studios is noticeably growing by the day, and more resources are becoming available. (During the pandemic, many members of the Black community experienced a heightened level of visibility.) Even though short-term progress is certainly being made, the design and architecture industry still has so much room for improvement in the long run.

As important as it is to honor the trailblazers of the past—like the late Norma Merrick Sklarek and Lisa Hunt—for making this a possibility, we should also give credit to those who are still here shifting the culture in the present. We spoke to 21 designers and architects who are currently breaking barriers. Not only have these women infiltrated a world that has historically excluded them, but they are also taking up space and sharing it for future generations of BIPOC to follow.

“My style and my designs have been called ‘too niche’ and ‘not mainstream’ time and time again,” says Justina Blakeney. “I overcame that by building my own community, so that I could prove to clients and partners that there is a market for my design style and sensibility.”
“My style and my designs have been called ‘too niche’ and ‘not mainstream’ time and time again,” says Justina Blakeney. “I overcame that by building my own community, so that I could prove to clients and partners that there is a market for my design style and sensibility.”
Photo: Jenna Peffley

Justina Blakeney

Like most creative breeds, Justina Blakeney developed an interest in design early in life. The multihyphenate recalls having a passion for arts and crafts, shopping at flea markets, and redecorating her childhood bedroom. This curiosity about the cultural and anthropological aspects of design only deepened while Blakeney was studying at UCLA. After graduating in 2001, she moved to Italy to pursue a career in fashion design, followed by opening a boutique with her older sister, Faith. Once she returned to her native California, Blakeney started a design blog that has since evolved into a design brand known as Jungalow.

“For the most part, I’ve always built my own doors to step through,” she explains. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. And, while there were a lot of people who supported me and believed in me along the way, there was no clear single moment that I would identify as the moment that I ‘got my foot in the door.’ It was a way more gradual process, with my fair share of setbacks and failures and trial and error to finally gain some traction in the design world.”

In addition to providing hundreds of thousands of people with products to enrich their home life, Blakeney has published a series of best-selling books, The New Bohemians: Cool and Collected Homes and The New Bohemians: Come Home to Good Vibes. Last year, she made her official debut on the AD100 list. For Blakeney, design continues to serve as a vehicle to imbue the world with more beauty and compassion. Stay tuned for new products from the Opalhouse designed with Jungalow collaboration for Target, along with some exciting artistic collaborations with iconic brands and cultural institutions.

Architectural Digest: From your point of view, what should the future of design look like? What changes do you want to see and what steps have you taken to build out this vision?

Justina Blakeney: The future of design holds so much potential for positive transformation that is not only beautiful but also sustainable, diverse, thoughtful, and heart-led. I would like to see prioritization of eco-friendly materials, energy-efficient practices, and a commitment to minimizing environmental impact but also innovation of ways to work with Mother Nature, instead of against her.

I would like to see thoughtful design with conscious consideration of the social, ethical, and emotional implications of projects. I would like to see more diversity and more representation…. I also believe in giving back through mentorship and through sharing my experiences and learnings with people openly to hopefully help them avoid some of the pitfalls I ran into and to help folks move with confidence into and through the design world.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in design but don’t know how or where to start?

I would suggest blocking off a couple of hours every single day to practice your art and share it with (at least) one person. That’s what I call planting seeds, and that could mean so many different things—maybe you’re styling a corner in your own home, taking some photos and sharing it with your family or your coworkers. Maybe you’re designing a room inspired by your favorite interior designer and sharing it with them via Instagram. Maybe you are helping your best friend pick out wallpaper for her home and then asking her if you could help her style and shoot it once it gets installed.

Pushing yourself to get out of your head and just create and share, in my experience, is how you grow. Through practices like these you find your voice and you build connections with people who may be future clients/partners/employers or even employees! Then you continue to nourish the seeds, and soon they sprout and, eventually, blossom.

“Never doubt yourself,” says AIA president Kimberly Dowdell. “Know that you have an important perspective to bring to your work. Determine what you want to accomplish as a professional and relentlessly pursue your mission. Find a mentor and don’t be afraid to ask any questions that you have.”
“Never doubt yourself,” says AIA president Kimberly Dowdell. “Know that you have an important perspective to bring to your work. Determine what you want to accomplish as a professional and relentlessly pursue your mission. Find a mentor and don’t be afraid to ask any questions that you have.”

Kimberly Dowdell

From a young age, the academic Kimberly Dowdell recognized the power of design. In fact, it was an art class in middle school that completely shifted her world view on the field of architecture. “Our teacher tasked us with creating a mini apartment model within a shoebox,” she recalls. “The process of making design choices to drive how the mini residents would navigate that small space unlocked a new understanding of how architecture could facilitate larger changes.”

Growing up in Detroit during the early ’90s, Dowdell was constantly exposed to the city’s abandoned and neglected buildings which inspired her to pursue a career path in architecture in order to drive positive change. “I initially aspired to become a doctor, but shifted to becoming an architect in an effort to help heal my community through enhancing the built environment,” she says. After attending Cranbrook Kingswood to foster her aspirations, Dowdell pursued a degree at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning.

Dowdell currently serves as the national president of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). As the first Black woman to hold this position, she’s excited to have the opportunity to hold space for “conversations around what architects can do to improve society.” She’s also driven by a duty to improve health outcomes and health equity, and wants to empower architects to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public amidst other pressing issues. She credits much of her success to the support of her academic community, the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), and AIA.

Architectural Digest: From your point of view, what should the future of design look like?

Kimberly Dowdell: The future of architectural design will reflect the talent that is attracted and retained in the profession of architecture. This is why I believe that it is very important to cultivate a diverse pool of talent that represents the brightest and best creative intellectuals available. One of the reasons why I am very focused on improving the economic outlook for architects is because we need strong talent from all walks of life, not just those who are from backgrounds of financial privilege that can afford to pursue architecture.

The next generation of architects, coupled with yet to be seen technological advances, will drive what we see in the built environment. In an ideal future scenario, the diversity of architects will reflect the communities that are being served (namely all communities), and the future of design will be dynamic, flexible, regenerative, sustainable, equitable and artful. At its best, architecture elevates the human experience. My hope is that the future of design does just that.

What obstacles have you overcome while navigating your career path in this field?

It has been disappointing to see the disparities that exist in the profession of architecture relative to diverse representation. This is part of the reason why I decided to run for AIA President in 2022. AIA was founded in 1857 and had never had a Black woman serve as president. I felt that it was time for that particular milestone to be met, and I hope that other meaningful milestones are met and surpassed as a result. It is more challenging to recruit and retain diverse talent in our field when leaders from diverse backgrounds are not present. Thus, an obstacle that exists to this day is diversifying the profession of architecture, including at the leadership levels, which contributes to some of the challenges that we see not only in our field, but also in the built environment.

What changes do you want to see and what steps have you taken to build out this vision?

A significant change I would like to see is the elevation of the value of architecture. Specifically, I want the compensation of architects to increase in recognition of the importance of quality design solutions for the benefit of our collective built environment. On average, an architect’s compensation is lower than commonly assumed, especially considering the extensive time and expense required for education and licensure, currently averaging more than 13 years to become an architect.

In contrast, professionals like physicians and lawyers, with similarly demanding pathways, often start with considerably higher salaries. For those from under-resourced backgrounds, this financial barrier can be a major deterrent to pursuing architecture as a profession. I believe that it is vital to the future of the architectural profession and the built environment that architects are compensated fairly for the expertise that we offer and the value that we create for our communities.

“Learn the vocabulary, do your research, and learn the art of design,” says Monet Masters. “Most importantly, put in the work.”
“Learn the vocabulary, do your research, and learn the art of design,” says Monet Masters. “Most importantly, put in the work.”
Photo: Forbes Masters

Tavia Forbes & Monet Masters

Despite being the daughter of a furniture maker turned cabinet designer, Tavia Forbes wasn’t fully sold on committing to a career in design until she started watching Vern Yip on TLC’s Trading Spaces. As for Monet Masters, her “innate nature to walk into a space and immediately take notice of its story through details like interior architecture to the choice of pillows” is proof that she was destined to be a designer. As fate would have it, their paths would eventually cross on a client project. After enough professional overlap, Forbes and Masters decided to get into business together and that’s how their luxury interior design studio was born.

Specializing in conceptualizing and planning spaces, managing projects, and sourcing and staging custom furnishings, Forbes Masters has all the bases covered for homeowners and property managers alike. In 2023, they collaborated on a special collection with Ruggable and AD. With another CB2 Black in Design collection on the horizon, this is looking like an even more abundant year for the dynamic design duo. “In 2024 we are looking forward to more collaborations to showcase our unique design point of view,” they share.

Architectural Digest: How and when did you get your foot in the door?

Monet Masters: I was committed to being successful in the industry. I became relentless and while establishing my business and brand I advertised my technical skills like renderings and digital moodboards on social media. I was making passive income creating renderings and digital mood boards for seasoned designers. One day, Ebony magazine invited me to feature a curated look for an article titled “Spring Revival” and in April/May of 2016 Mikel Welch and I were the two designers selected to share our design direction on how to refresh your home.

Tavia Forbes: I had just given two weeks notice and was helping with wedding event design and a book launch event, and that’s where I met my mentor, Myleik Teele. She encouraged me and validated my talent for design and then she hired me to design her townhouse. My business grew from personal referrals from designing her home.

What obstacles have you overcome while navigating your career path in this field?

MM: Partnership and working together was the very first obstacle, but the biggest obstacle is similar to Black women in all industries getting paid your worth. Putting more effort in proving my worth as a Black woman designer. We both have stories of being undervalued and most of our clients have not worked with a designer in the past so we are educating clients on the process, and our journey is not as similar to other designers. As an entrepreneur with a creative mind, handling all aspects of a business is difficult and especially the financial, legal, and contractual aspects.

From your point of view, what should the future of design look like? What changes do you want to see and what steps have you taken to build out this vision?

TF: Some of the changes are already happening. Clients are embracing more of their personal style. Styles are more global and inspired by art. There has been a shift from the design in the early 2000s of long standing standardized beige spaces. The future of design should be more diverse in who has access to design as well as who provides design services. Cultural diversity was seen in the past as aspects or props of other designs with no connection.

MM: The future should provide intentional, sustainable, and higher quality products that have a story of where they came from and the artisans who created them. Our vision is that the future of design will have a long lasting inheritable quality. Done with McMansions, done with beige. The future of design incorporates old items, antiques, mixing them with new pieces and expanding palettes. We have so much access to information we can look backwards in history and are exposed to the history of design which translates to sophisticated mixing of eras.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in design but don’t know how or where to start?

TF: We have so many technologies available to assist in interior design. You should just start showing your talent by designing rooms, having them digitally rendered, having something to visually show your aesthetic. Dive into the process of design. Gain experience. Learn technical skills about construction or how things are made, or if you want to be an entrepreneur minor in business. Get your feet wet.

“Design transcends artistic expression,” says Sandra Githinji. “It is a vocation, fundamentally centered on people. It operates as a unique spatial language, fostering a symbiotic relationship between individuals and their environment. It is this profound interdependence between people and space that has ignited my passion for design.”

Sandra Githinji

By the age of 10, Sandra Githinji was certain that she would pursue a creative career in art, design, or architecture. “My interest is driven by a desire to contribute meaningfully, rectify existing shortcomings, and amplify diverse modes of the embodied experience,” she explains. “This recognition of design as a dynamic force for enhancing the human lived experience has been the initial spark that continues to fuel my enthusiasm for this creative discipline.” After graduating from RMIT University in 2016, Githinji’s career as an interior designer began when she was hired to work at notable architecture firms across Asia Pacific.

It was only in recent years that her perspective on design evolved as she started to “differentiate design practice from an artistic pursuit” and activated a full-on transformation. After suffering from a bad case of burnout, Githinji decided to resign and establish her own design practice. “This particular career move marked a defining moment, a true arrival in my role as an interdisciplinary designer,” she says. “Beyond the challenges, it presented an invaluable opportunity for me to redefine the essence of a design practice. In the aftermath of resigning, I found the freedom to reimagine what design meant to me personally. It became more than just a professional career and became an avenue for me to explore the intersections of cultural histories, pedagogy, activism, and the built form.”

Last year, Githinji collaborated on a collection with the Black in Design Collective for CB2. She’s looking forward to engaging in more collaborations in community. Githinji is currently embarking on a PhD through RMIT University and seeking opportunities that align with her academic pursuits. As far as craft is concerned, Githinji will continue to direct all of her efforts toward Africa. “I am keen on forging potential partnerships with cultural organizations, artisans, and story-tellers to enhance the work and also create accessibility for these pieces within sub-Saharan Africa,” she adds. Githinji also hopes to secure a hotel project so she can combine her expertise in interior design with a focus on furniture, lighting, and object design.

Architectural Digest: What obstacles have you overcome while navigating your career path in this field?

Sandra Githinji: In navigating my career path, I’ve encountered several external obstacles, however a significant challenge has been letting go of the need for self-explanation. I now prioritize connecting with those who resonate with my perspective, recognizing that translation risks losing essential elements in the process.

From your point of view, what should the future of design look like? What changes do you want to see, and what steps have you taken to build out this vision?

The future of design should embody a contextual approach, where creativity is intertwined with the specific needs, values, and cultural nuances of the audience or community it serves. Contextual design recognizes the importance of understanding the unique environment in which a product or solution will exist, ensuring that it not only meets functional requirements but also resonates with the people it’s designed for. This shift towards broadening design perspectives fosters innovation and ensures that designs are relevant and accessible to a diverse global audience.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in design but don't know how or where to start?

My foremost advice would be to embark on a journey of self-initiated learning. Your unique lived experiences and cultural context are invaluable assets that can serve as a powerful starting point and unfortunately will not always be present in the current western canon of education. This self-awareness is your superpower in the design world, setting you apart and providing a foundation for creating designs that resonate authentically. Consider it a form of design rooted in personal narrative, a narrative that is inherently compelling and distinctive.

Bringing your full self to the work is something I learned from Nana Biamah-Ofosu. Embrace and celebrate your identity, as it is a dynamic force that can shape innovative, culturally resonant designs. Avoid the pressure to conform to pre-existing design norms; instead, use your perspective to question paradigms and challenge assumptions. I would also advise them to seek out mentors and role models who share similar backgrounds. Connecting with individuals who have navigated similar paths can provide valuable guidance, insights, and a sense of community.

Lastly, to remember that their journey as a BIPOC designer is unique, and it’s okay to carve out your own path. Embrace the challenges and leverage your culture, heritage, stories and lived experience as a source of strength and creativity. By doing so, you not only enrich the field of design with diverse perspectives but also pave the way for future generations of BIPOC designers to thrive.

“I try not to look too far ahead,” says Delia Kenza. “I am learning to take things day by day, to appreciate the little moments more.”
“I try not to look too far ahead,” says Delia Kenza. “I am learning to take things day by day, to appreciate the little moments more.”
Photo: Nick Gliminekis

Delia Kenza

When Delia Kenza reflects on where the seed of interest in design was planted, she points to her grandmother. “Her home was beautifully designed and I loved the details, from the orange shag rug stair runner to the kelly green silk sofa,” Kenza recalls. “I wanted to live like her.” Once she eventually had a home—and family—of her own, Kenza did just that. Little did she know that renovating her Brooklyn townhouse into a contemporary masterpiece would steer her away from a law career once friends (and neighbors) quickly took notice of her raw talent for design.

“My dear friend, Maxine, loved the first home I designed for my family. Whenever she visited, she would say, ‘When I buy another place, I will need you to design it,’” Kenza shares. “True to her word, she purchased another home and gave me a credit card. No budget was formally discussed, but I had an idea because we were close friends. She went away for a few months, came back, and loved the space. She continues to be one of my biggest supporters.” The New York designer continues to relish in “creating more beautiful spaces that reflect each client’s creative taste” along with designing custom bespoke pieces further down the pipeline.

Architectural Digest: What obstacles have you overcome while navigating your career path in this field?

Delia Kenza: There have been plenty, and I embrace them. It is part of the course. However, my biggest obstacle has been billing and how to price a project. I was so happy people paid me to do what I loved; and sometimes it’s easy to forget that it’s a business.

From your point of view, what should the future of design look like? What changes do you want to see, and what steps have you taken to build out this vision?

I would like design to be less judgy and more authentic. We all live differently, have different styles, and different budgets. A beautiful home is one well-lived and can take several forms. Also, I’m not too fond of trends; design is like art to me. They say you should buy the art you love, and that is the same in design: Buy what you love. There can often be too much of the same.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in design but don’t know how or where to start?

I always say start. That may annoy some people. They may get the impression I am gatekeeping some essential information. But I am not. I’m serious when I say start. Again, it goes to my point of not feeling judged. Start where you are, be willing to make mistakes, and keep it original. The world needs more authenticity.

Little Wing Lee poses for a portrait at Black Folks in Design’s Spotlight II exhibition at VERSO in New York City.

Little Wing Lee

As the daughter of a modern dancer, considering how space should feel was ingrained in Little Wing Lee. Naturally, this instilled her with a strong appreciation for how the combination of spaces, objects, and nature could create a beautiful environment—and a love for texture, color, and pattern. Lee’s professional career in design formally began while she was in grad school at Pratt. “Eric Daniels brought me into his architecture practice upon graduation to work as an interior designer,” she says. “And the late Hazel Seigel connected me to Architex, for whom I was able to design a textile, and subsequently made the introduction to me at SOM, where I went on to work.”

After leading the design team at Atelier Ace, she founded her own design firm, Studio & Projects. In 2017, Lee established Black Folks in Design as a professional network to connect Black designers across disciplines and provide more portfolio-building opportunities. (Expect more activations in 2024, including an exhibition abroad.) The award-winning designer also has an ongoing partnership with Odabashian and will soon debut a lighting collection with RBW. In terms of projects, she’s busy with “new residential opportunities, an almost completed restaurant, a new hotel in an amazing historic building, and the opening of Ray Harlem and National Black Theatre.”

Architectural Digest: What obstacles have you overcome while navigating your career path in this field? 

Little Wing Lee: Of course, as with all people, there are the usual obstacles to overcome as you forge your path to build a career in design. As a Black woman, there is the additional wondering about what assumptions some people are making about a person like me. I do sometimes find myself questioning what opportunities and access I am missing out on, or what barriers and obstacles I am facing that I may not even be aware of. Like any designer I simply want equity in terms of the options, choices, and freedom to design spaces and objects without limitations or preconceptions.

From your point of view, what should the future of design look like? What changes do you want to see and what steps have you taken to build out this vision? 

First and foremost, I would like to see an expansion of the design canon. I am beginning to believe that we may be seeing the envelope opening. There is evidence that voices of women, Black folks, and other people of color are being recognized and included in conversations across design disciplines. Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done around this, but I do find reason for hope. Black designers are here and have been working. The talent is there and has always been there. But there’s been a kind of negligence in regards to learning about, highlighting, and hiring those designers. Celebrating and elevating Black design talent is the reason I founded Black Folks in Design.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in design but don’t know how or where to start?

In most respects, I would give them the same advice I’d give to anyone. See as much as you can. Read books, visit museums, take a walk on the beach, look through your grandmother’s collection of photographs, watch films, look at the phases of the moon—simply be present in the world as much as you are able. Curiosity can truly be the greatest inspiration for you and your designs. Trust your intuition and instincts. And finally, find your community. You need to have a group of people on your “board of directors” to give you insights, advice, and share knowledge along the path of your career.

“Gaining others’ confidence as a designer and not letting their doubt overcome me was tough,” says Jade McNeil. “But at every obstacle, I pushed through other’s preconceived notions of me to create the amazing designs that I knew I could, leaving everyone nothing but happy.”

Jade McNeil

When Jade McNeil reflects on some of her earliest design memories, all roads lead back to the bathroom. “As a kid, I would beg my mom to take me to the bathroom at a restaurant so I could see how it was designed,” she explains. “I would spend more time setting up my doll’s houses than actually playing with them; and driving around new neighborhoods, I was always so curious about what different houses looked like on the inside—all the signs were there!” But despite the curiosity, McNeil wouldn’t entertain the idea of becoming an interior designer for another decade.

“Growing up, I didn’t know any interior designers, didn’t see any that looked like me, and didn’t know that that was an option for a career path,” she says. While studying undergrad at UCLA, McNeil found herself completely absorbed in the process of decorating her dorms and apartments. “I found myself constantly reading all of the major design magazines and watching home renovation shows,” she continues. “I realized I loved interior design enough to make it my career. After I received my first degree, I wanted to switch gears and explore interior design as a passion and career path.” Since then, McNeil has spent the past decade working on residential and commercial projects in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, D.C., Connecticut, and New Jersey.

After going from working at a start-up firm in Los Angeles to a large residential design firm in New York City, she decided to establish her own namesake luxury interior design firm in 2020. While the transition came with its challenges, McNeil had years of experience along with a Rolodex of industry connections and clients who were eager to work with her. By utilizing a design approach that incorporates societal and cultural themes, McNeil’s projects are a beautiful medley of soulful modern interiors. This year, the interior designer is most excited to dive deeper into the territory of home gut renovations.

Architectural Digest: What obstacles have you overcome while navigating your career path in this field?

Jade McNeil: There are obstacles every day, that’s part of being a designer. We are constantly problem-solving and “putting out the fires.” The biggest obstacle for me was, in the beginning of my career, I really felt like I had to go the extra mile to earn people’s respect as a Black woman entering the world of interior design. There was a constant need to “prove” myself as an interior designer and convince clients and tradespeople to take me seriously.

From your point of view, what should the future of design look like? What changes do you want to see and what steps have you taken to build out this vision?

I want the future of design to show a unique perspective, inclusive design experience, and for each space and project to look uniquely different from the next. As a society, we are heavily focused on what’s currently trending and, as a result, a lot of projects start to look alike. Then the uniqueness of each space and of those who will be using it tends to get lost—be it the same materials, furnishings, artwork, and so on. I’d like to see design become more personal and accessible for everyone.

Interior design is important, as our environments and surroundings affect our daily lives, our moods, and our habits. A well-designed home is something everyone deserves and should have access to. I’m a firm believer that our homes should work for our lifestyles and reflect our individuality. When our homes bridge the gap of gorgeous materials and maximum functionality, we get to live a life of beautiful ease. Who doesn’t want that?

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in design but don’t know how or where to start?

Honestly, just start. Take some classes, get an internship, practice designing for yourself and your friends, and take lots of photos before/during/after to post online. With interior design, it’s not all you see from the outside. It takes work. So my advice to anyone interested in interior design would be to get your feet wet and see if it’s really for you.

“If you have a passion, a point of view, and something to say in design, don’t let anyone stop you,” Brigette Romanek says.
“If you have a passion, a point of view, and something to say in design, don’t let anyone stop you,” Brigette Romanek says.
Photo: Michael Clifford

Brigette Romanek

Contrary to what you might have believed, Brigette Romanek didn’t plan to become the design world’s next big star. Her interest in the medium formed organically out of a need to feel safe in her own environment and wanting others to feel the same. Living in Hollywood, the door practically opened itself, and the opportunities were endless: “I had an event at my house; people came, and then someone asked me for help because they liked what I had done!”

Since then, she’s stacked up quite the Rolodex of A-list clients, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Beyoncé. Romanek has also elevated a number of commercial and retail spaces from Beverly Hills to New York City. Last year, the AD100 designer published her debut book, Livable Luxe, which is a must-have for every coffee table. Romanek Design Studio is currently working on a boutique hotel in Los Angeles, a ground-up residential condo building in New York, and a rug collection.

Architectural Digest: What obstacles have you overcome while navigating your career path in this field?

Brigette Romanek: I was told to my face that, even though they liked my work, I didn’t get the job because of the color of my skin. Believe it or not, that really happened! Where it could have made me feel defeated and made me think, “Why should I even try?” it pushed me. It pushed me to work harder and not give up. I wasn’t going to be defined by someone who didn’t give me a chance strictly based on nothing more than the color of my skin.

From your point of view, what should the future of design look like? What changes do you want to see, and what steps have you taken to build out this vision?

That the future of design would look as rich and diverse as the world we live in. That the biggest obstacle the designer faces is if their clients will like the furniture choices.

“Focus on the business before the design,” Muse Noire Interiors founder Ashley Ross says. “Your design aesthetic and the scale and polish of projects will all evolve over time, but a strong understanding of the business will carry you further, faster, and longer.”
“Focus on the business before the design,” Muse Noire Interiors founder Ashley Ross says. “Your design aesthetic and the scale and polish of projects will all evolve over time, but a strong understanding of the business will carry you further, faster, and longer.”
Photo: Camille Hughes

Ashley Ross

Most first-generation homeowners would be overwhelmed by the process, but when Ashley Ross was going through this experience with her now husband, it ignited something inside of her. Following the birth of their daughter in 2018, Ross felt inspired to take a leap of faith and leave behind her executive director role at a national nonprofit. “I refer to Naomi as the real muse because her existence is what gave me the courage to pursue interior design with full force,” she says. “Her nursery was the first space in our home that was finished and designed with intention. From there, I worked on other spaces in our home and quickly realized that there was a heavily understated wellness component to interior design, and I wanted to explore it.”

In 2019, Ross founded Muse Noire Interiors in Charlotte, North Carolina. The interior designer believes that style is ever evolving, and follows an approach that leans into “a design aesthetic of shared experiences.” At the moment, Ross is wrapping up a handful of home projects along with a historic preservation project to restore an old segregated school that will be turned into a museum for the community.

Architectural Digest: What obstacles have you overcome while navigating your career path in this field?

Ashley Ross: I’ve struggled a bit with capital before taking the leap to self-finance when it was time to scale the business. But like most Black-owned businesses, the biggest challenge came from within. I struggled with juggling all that I do (wife, mom, business owner) right as I retired from corporate America. I thought I was ready to take on Muse Noire full-time and I was! In all the ways that my business coach and I had discussed, but a month into full-time entrepreneurship, I knew I needed to add a therapist to the roster of coaches. I felt this debilitating wave of doubt and grief for the life I knew.

Up until that point, I had walked a very traditional line: undergrad, graduate school, launched a career in the field I actually went to school for. I didn’t want to let myself down and, as for my incredibly supportive private-wealth-advising husband, I knew the numbers had to continue making sense. Business was not slow at the time, so the panic was man-made, but I am grateful that it pushed me to professional help. I am not sure how anyone owns a business without some form of therapeutic consultation. I communicate with clients better because of my therapist, I can override my risk-averse settings because of her, alongside several other things we were able to unpack. Let’s just say Muse Noire would have closed in 2021 had it not been for therapy.

From your point of view, what should the future of design look like? What changes do you want to see and what steps have you taken to build out this vision?

Wow! What a question. I have to default to our vision statement, which reads: “Founded in the idea of interior wellness, our pursuit is to redefine home for generations to come. By unveiling the interconnectedness between interior design and our well-being, Muse Noire aims to place a revolutionary emphasis on ensuring people of color feel safe and seen in our homes.” I mean this from the bottom of my heart.

The future of design must explore BIPOC designers and their perspectives beyond those whose design aesthetic speaks to the traditional European nods of the industry. It often feels like, if you assimilate, if you water down your authentic experience and how that translates into your work, we’ll acknowledge you. When to see someone creatively, I mean really see them, is to get about the business of enlightenment. Get to know the stories and acknowledge them at face value in an equitable way.

Naturally, Black people are tastemakers. I don’t believe there’s a trend or aesthetic that we don’t have our hand in the creation of, but it’s not always packaged and sold that way. So to not be seen or heard in a way that equates to great success for the design industry—it often feels like revisionist history. Through my work with High Point Market Authority as a founding member of their Diversity Advocacy Alliance, we’ve chipped away at this through education and recognition initiatives.

“Running a business isn’t for the fainthearted—it’s extremely hard and time-consuming and, most of all, you make mistakes,” Duett Interiors founder Tiffany Thompson says. “I’m lucky I was able to work for a corporation for 10 years to make mistakes behind the scenes, but when you are running your own business, every mistake falls on you. Having to change my mindset from being a designer that had a business to being a business owner that was in the design industry…. It’s a major difference in your mindset and how you look at success.”

Tiffany Thompson

For Tiffany Thompson, design is all about “crafting spaces that evoke the right emotion and aesthetic.” From her childhood home in Queens, New York, to her dorm room at Barry University in Miami, and now her home in Portland, Oregon, the designer always demonstrated the ability to curate a space that feels like an escape from the outside world. During her tenure at Nike Inc. while working on product design, Thompson couldn’t help but notice the lack of creative inspiration within the corporate space.

“I pitched a makeover proposal that I would redesign the space over the course of some months on the weekends when I wasn’t working,” she recalls. “I didn’t ask for compensation. I just wanted to bring our design team together. No one had a gathering space that felt comfortable that ideas could flow in and would represent us as a team. I pitched it, my manager approved, and that’s how it all started.”

Since debuting as Duett Interiors in 2019, Thompson has worked with a number of clients on residential properties. In addition to renovating her own midcentury-modern house, Thompson is currently designing Cure Nail House, a Black-owned luxury nail salon in Detroit. “We are really flipping the head on what a salon can look and feel like and how we can dive into our creative voices,” she adds.

Architectural Digest: From your point of view, what should the future of design look like? What changes do you want to see and what steps have you taken to build out this vision?

Tiffany Thompson: The future of design should give the customer better options. I think a lot of “bad design” is actually a lack of choice. The industry and the buyers are placing bad design in the stores and the average consumer; that’s all that is at their fingertips, and so they are forced to buy something from a mediocre assortment. A lot of the comments I get from people are, “Where is that form?” “What is that called?” I blame TV for a lot of it, but I think we need to reeducate people on what great design is and how they can make it their own.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in design but don’t know how or where to start?

Find your voice. Try to find it early on. Don’t worry about there not being a lot of us in this industry, but instead, try to figure out how you can help with that narrative and also how you can do your part. Sometimes it’s hard to feel like you can be successful in an industry that lacks representation, but you have to do your part and, ultimately, you have to make some design some really cool s***. Let the work speak for itself and success will find you, whatever that may look like for every individual.

A portrait of Estelle Bailey-Babenzien, the creative director and experiential, visual, and interiors designer behind Dream Awake.
A portrait of Estelle Bailey-Babenzien, the creative director and experiential, visual, and interiors designer behind Dream Awake.
Photo: Weston Wells

Estelle Bailey-Babenzien

Between leading her interior architecture and experiential design studio, Dream Awake, and running the clothing brand NOAH with her husband, Estelle Bailey-Babenzien is a woman with a vision—whether the assignment is brand development, the sensory experience, or custom furniture and lighting. As a person of half Ghanaian descent, she is deeply inspired by the colors and patterns of African design and the diversity across the continent. “I naturally reference much of this in my design curation and will continue to do so,” she explains. “I like to break the rules and follow my instincts. We all have our own sauce—that is what makes something unique and original.”

For as long as she can remember, Bailey-Babenzien has always been interested in design. As she recalls, “I didn’t see people who looked like me in the world of interior design or in magazines.” Despite the lack of representation, she wound up exploring a career path in creative direction. After studying fashion at Central Saint Martin’s, Bailey-Babenzien pivoted to music and eventually back to visual merchandising and retail design. It was during this transition that Bailey-Babenzien realized that her passion and talent for interior design was something to be taken seriously and she hasn’t looked back since.

At the moment, she’s most excited to design more spaces in retail, hospitality, and residential that will “bring forth designs and creativity from around the world.” Last year, Bailey-Babenzien completed two stores for Tracksmith in London and Brooklyn, along with the J. Crew Men’s concept store in Noho. Following the opening of NOAH Cityhouse in Seoul, the designer will be working her magic on a new 5,000 square foot NOAH storefront in Los Angeles due to open later this year. Stay tuned for Bailey-Babenzien’s long-awaited residential project for Tood founder Shari Siadat and many other special collaborations and custom designs.

Architectural Digest: From your point of view, what should the future of design look like?

Estelle Bailey-Babenzien: I want the future of design to look like a true representation of our world. Taking the beautiful age-old techniques and craftsmanship from bygone eras, rich cultures, and ethnicities to new heights. The design community should be much more inclusive, enriched, and diverse. The more the old guards of design make space for cultural minorities, the more innovation we will see. Some of the rules of what’s good and what’s not will shift. I think we will see new eras and movements in design as more global perspectives are included, shared, and experienced.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in design but don’t know how or where to start?

Take one step at a time. Take the first step by either finding an educational course or an internship in an area of design that interests you. Don’t be afraid to take the small jobs and learn. Be eager, do each task to the best of your ability, and stay focused on your inner voice of what you really love and are naturally good at. Then make intentional efforts in the direction of your dreams.

As your confidence and experience grows, it’s important to speak up and put yourself forward for opportunities. People don’t always see BIPOC in high-ranking or influential roles, so you have to help them to see you—and do it in a humble yet assertive manner.

Black Artists + Designers Guild founder Malene Barnett inside her Brooklyn townhouse.

Malene Barnett

When Malene Barnett established the Black Artists + Designers Guild (BADG) in 2018, the artist and activist wanted to create a space for Black creatives “seeking community, collaboration, and creative support.” She still remembers the moment that changed the course of her career: While attending SUNY Purchase, she learned about Lois Mailou Jones and was so inspired by her life that she decided to pursue textile design at the Fashion Institute of Technology instead. After graduating in the late ’90s, Barnett managed to turn a freelance gig of designing African print fabrics into a full-time job. She notes that these patterns “changed the trajectory of contemporary African print fabric.” As she further explains, “My interest in design focused on using my artistic background and heritage to create products for many people to experience in their homes.”

From there, Barnett was hired as a designer for a rug manufacturer, which quickly became her niche. “I spent many hours studying the market and learned who’s who and networked like crazy,” she remembers. “Research is an essential element to understanding the design industry.” Once Barnett became the principal of her own carpet design business in 2009, she was able to fully center a creative practice around the modern Black experience. Now, she’s considered an “authority on the cultural traditions and practices of art in the African diaspora,” as her website states. Last year, Barnett finally completed the renovation of her Brooklyn townhouse in collaboration with AD100 designer Leyden Lewis. “Regardless of where you are in your design career, remember that every experience is an opportunity to grow,” she says. “Stay true to your point of view.”

Barnett is participating in an Artist Talk at the Bemis Center on February 17, followed by the National Clay Conference (NCECA) where she will be a panelist. This summer, she’ll be launching new product collections, and a book about contemporary Caribbean makers is expected in the fall from Artisan Books. Barnett was also selected for an art residency at the Hambidge Center in Georgia.

Architectural Digest: From your point of view, what should the future of design look like?

Malene Barnett: I see an equitable and inclusive design experience, and [believe] makers will lead this future. There are so many necessary changes to get there, but we can begin with changing the language around how we talk about design. For example, terms such as “good design” or placing more value on “interior designers” versus a “maker”—all of this creates hierarchies. Who decides what’s good anyway? Instead, we can rethink terms and disciplines and discuss design as a tool to problem-solve and understand that all creators are needed to execute an idea.

What obstacles have you overcome while navigating your career path in this field?

The obstacles were and still are plenty. First, being a Black female rug designer selling Black cultural designs to predominately white male-led firms was challenging. I always felt that I had to convince people to accept my creativity and delivery capabilities. When I started my business, another obstacle was that I didn’t have a fancy showroom—I still don’t have one, and I’m not interested in opening one. Now, I am working on my terms, and I’m not interested in compromising my creativity for a project. I welcome those interested in my imagination, use of materials, and design aesthetic.

The production designer Hannah Beachler strikes a pose outdoors.
The production designer Hannah Beachler strikes a pose outdoors.
Photo: Chris Britt

Hannah Beachler

As the daughter of an architect and interior decorator, design was a huge part of Hannah Beachler’s everyday life. With those mediums instilled in her from an early age, Beachler had the freedom to explore creative expression and discover her most natural place. As she further elaborates, “I was in the door early on. The challenge was moving through the building, if you will.” The road to becoming an Academy Award–winning production designer was a grind, but what initially drew Beachler to film was “the fantasy, the realism, the faraway worlds that I was always so entranced with, [and] the image on the screen and what it said to me.” The turning point in Beachler’s career was after she signed on with her first agent and met the film director Ryan Coogler, who she then worked with on Fruitvale Station.

From there, she brought the sets of Moonlight, Creed, and Black Panther to life. Beachler also showed her prowess in Beyoncé’s LEMONADE and JAY-Z and Beyoncé’s OTR II Interludes. Although her résumé is certainly impressive, what makes Beachler such a standout production designer is her attention to detail. Her ability to take a script and transform the words from a page into a lived experience is similar to watching a painter create a masterpiece on a blank canvas. Behind the scenes, Beachler is focused on molding the next generation of designers, explorers, and inventors. As for her next big adventure? Expect to be seeing Beachler’s imprint on Broadway very soon.

Architectural Digest: What obstacles have you overcome while navigating your career path in this field?

Hannah Beachler: The biggest obstacle was proving that I was capable of handling any size department and holding the vision for the film, simultaneously—making sure that both sides (management and creative) were at 100% at all times, all while trying to make a name for myself outside of New Orleans. Also, being a Black woman in a space where there were no Black people and very few women was a huge challenge. When the stakes are high, the stress is immeasurable, and you just push through the naysayers and concentrate on the people who are creatively likeminded and supportive, who allow you to be yourself with no caveats and to be as creative as your imagination will allow.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in design but don’t know how or where to start?

Research, research, research. If there’s something you want to do in design, no matter what it is, use your drive and resourcefulness to get there. Put yourself out there, write an email or letter to someone you admire in the field. I did this with the Coen Brothers’ set decorator legend Nancy Haigh, and she called me. It was the best moment ever, and it just gave me more drive to keep moving forward. Talk to people, go to events, dream big, take risks, be yourself. Don’t put a time limit on your dreams: I didn’t get Fruitvale Station until I was 42 years old, and I didn’t win an Oscar until I was 49 years old.

“How can we be creative and take care of our planet?” is the question that Elizabeth Graziolo, founder and principal of Yellow House Architects, leads with all of her projects.
“How can we be creative and take care of our planet?” is the question that Elizabeth Graziolo, founder and principal of Yellow House Architects, leads with all of her projects.
Photo: Joshua McHugh

Elizabeth Graziolo

Growing up, Elizabeth Graziolo was unsure about what career to pursue. It was only after she was accepted into Cooper Union’s architecture program that the direction of her path became clear—Graziolo fell in love with it during the first semester. “Architecture fed my curious nature,” she says. “I learned how to see the world differently, how architecture is all around us, and how it has an extraordinary impact on our lives, health, and economies. The more I learned about the field, the more I was engaged, and I haven’t looked back.” Graziolo was fortunate to land a junior architect position at Cicognani Kalla Architect after graduating where she was mentored by the firm’s principal architect, Ann Kalla, and her “understanding of designing for the real world was shaped,” Graziolo explains.

The Haitian–born architect would then move on to the AD100 firm Peter Pennoyer Architects where she eventually became a partner in 2007. She names Peter Pennoyer and Gregory Gilmartin as important mentors who educated her about the origins of design elements from different cities and regions worldwide. It was here that Graziolo learned about classical architecture and traditional design principles such as symmetry and proportion. 20 years later, she finally felt ready to venture out on her own and create something new.

In 2020, Graziolo launched her practice, Yellow House Architects. She hopes to push the industry toward a “new contemporary design using traditional principles to achieve well-proportioned spaces” and to “incorporate more sustainability into our work without compromising design.” Graziolo is currently working on The Benson on the Upper East Side in New York City, a model unit in One Wall Street, and part of an estate renovation in Palm Beach, Florida, amongst other projects.

Architectural Digest: What obstacles have you overcome while navigating your career path in this field?

Elizabeth Graziolo: There have been a few challenges in my career, especially when it came to balancing motherhood and working full-time. Holding an infant while reviewing drawings is one such learned skill! A reoccurring challenge is dealing with people afraid of the unfamiliar: A minority female architect in particular. When I walked into a room, you could see faces often taken aback when they realized I was the one running the project. Once they get to know me, everything usually works out fine, but I still see that initial hesitancy occasionally, even after all these years. The biggest obstacle I’ve overcome, by far, was pushing myself out of my comfort zone and making the decision to leave the routine and stability of a great firm after many years to venture out on my own.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in architecture but don’t know how or where to start?

Firstly, we welcome you! Secondly, I will tell you the same as anyone starting in any field. Educate yourself. Do your research. Reach out to people and local organizations who can help. Most importantly: Work hard and let your efforts speak for themselves. Do not diminish yourself by “categorizing yourself” in your mind. Carry yourself proudly, and let this pride project confidence.

A headshot of First500 founder Tiara Hughes.
A headshot of First500 founder Tiara Hughes.
Photo: Dave Burk

Tiara Hughes

As early as elementary school, Tiara Hughes was drawing designs for buildings. The experience of seeing her first blueprint as a third grader is forever imprinted into her brain—she can still vividly remember the smell of the ink and the feel of the paper. “Understanding how to read a blueprint was unheard of at my age,” she explains. “The following year someone connected the dots for me when they said, ‘Tiara, you want to be an architect.’ With a continued curiosity and passion to influence the built environment around me, I held onto that dream.”

After completing her master’s degree in architecture from Drury University in 2015, Hughes wanted to be surrounded by a diverse group of professionals, so she headed to Chicago. Having access to Black women in the industry was also an important factor to her, but she quickly realized that there weren’t any resources or networks available. This experience, amongst many others, ultimately inspired her to create the community she was looking for in 2018 in the form of the global platform First500. Hughes considers this endeavor as her formal “step in the door to challenging our industry and moving towards a more equitable future.”

As the founder and executive director of First500, Hughes raises awareness about Black women architects throughout history and their contributions to the built environment. “These women serve as inspiration and motivation for the Black women getting licensed and completing their architecture education today,” she says. “I’m proud of meeting the milestone of 500 licensed Black women architects, but this is only the beginning. We have a lot of work to do to cultivate the next 500 Black women architects living in the U.S. and the world.”

Architectural Digest: From your point of view, what should the future of design look like?

Tiara Hughes: The design world should reflect the world we live in and all of the unique voices that occupy it. Design firms and the industry at large have discussed “equality of opportunity” as a remedy to systemic racism in America. Equality is not the solution; many Black employees have experienced decades of economic and emotional trauma stemming from redlining, policing, environmental exploitation, pay inequity, and more. They bring these burdens with them into the workplace, which ensures “equality” by providing employees with the same resources for success without acknowledging those previous burdens. Our country’s collective mindset has to shift from equality to equity. Equity means meeting people where they are and addressing their needs accordingly.

I would like to see more focus on empowering the future pipelines of Black voices. This is critical to the survival and growth of our industry. Our voices are needed in spaces where decisions are made, policies are considered, and positions of leadership and power exist. We offer a different lens and point of view that’s often missing from these spaces.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in architecture but don’t know how or where to start?

When considering what advice to pass along, I often think of what I would tell my younger self when I was homeless in college, fighting to survive and to get my architectural education, when my professors and advisors continuously told me this field and industry may not be right for me. In addition to seeking out resources like First500 that exist specifically for you, I would tell my younger self, and to young people of color everywhere: If this industry feels lonely, you are not alone. If your ideas are not heard, keep speaking. If one door closes, three will open. Keep going and never give up. If there is no well to drink from, dig until you create one!

Mariam Kamara, the architect behind the Niger–based firm Atelier Masōmī.

17th International Architecture Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, 2021

Mariam Kamara, the architect behind the Niger–based firm Atelier Masōmī.
Photo: Stéphane Rodrigez Delavega

Mariam Kamara

During her most formative years, Mariam Kamara developed a love for drawing. The AD100 architect recalls being strongly fascinated by the buildings she saw in the city of Agadez, Niger, “a place with centuries-old architecture that people still live in today.” Even then, she appreciated the simplicity of natural surroundings and how the built environment blended with it. This observation stuck with Kamara and eventually became the motivating factor in her decision to leave a career as a software developer to go back to school to study architecture. “Over the years, I also became keenly aware of the power of architecture in influencing how we feel about ourselves, our environment, or even what we perceive to be our place in the world,” she adds.

In 2014, she established Atelier Masōmī in Niamey, the capital of Niger. Guided by sustainability, Kamara’s firm’s primary focus is progressive community-minded projects with ecological solutions. “One can sometimes feel invisible and isolated when producing architecture from a base like ours, in Niamey, as opposed to being somewhere in the West,” she notes. (In 2020, Kamara became a protégée of the Ghanian British architect Sir David Adjaye through a fellowship with Rolex.) Her mission is to provide people with a better quality of life through the spaces that she designs. “I believe that architecture can be a tool for social, environmental, political, and economic change,” Kamara emphasizes. “I always try to ensure that our projects can contribute to all, or most, of the above in a positive way.” Her first office building is nearly complete and construction is almost underway for another project, the Niamey Cultural Center.

Architectural Digest: From your point of view, what should the future of architecture and design look like?

Mariam Kamara: I think architecture has contributed so much to the world but has also been at the forefront of atrocities as a tool for segregation, control, or for its role in our current climate crisis. The future could definitely involve us taking stock of the damage we contribute to and collectively working towards an architecture that does not come at the expense of the entire planet.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in architecture but don’t know how or where to start?

We desperately need you. Your perspective matters.

Yowie founder Shannon Maldonado, a creative designer and interior consultant from Philadelphia.
Yowie founder Shannon Maldonado, a creative designer and interior consultant from Philadelphia.
Photo: Bre Furlong

Shannon Maldonado

Shannon Maldonado attributes her interest in design to her mother, a fantastic seamstress and “all-around crafty woman” who made the most elaborate Halloween costumes and Easter and Christmas outfits while she was growing up in Philadelphia. “It started with me hand-sewing colorful felt pouches in middle school and graduated to buying and sewing vintage patterns and manipulating vintage clothing. I’ve always loved unexpected colors and textures,” Maldonado recalls.

After working as a designer at American Eagle Outfitters for nearly nine years, she decided it was time to bet on herself. Maldonado quit her full-time job, relocated from New York City to her hometown, and committed to turning her dream of starting a business into reality. In 2016, YOWIE entered the market with an abstract vision. Since then, Maldonado has opened a brick-and-mortar store that is both beloved within the community and admired by tourists who flock to it as a design destination. She has also been making her mark in the world of interiors with design projects for The Deacon, Dye House, and Ethel’s Club. Last year, she finally expanded Yowie into a hotel.

Architectural Digest: From your point of view, what should the future of design look like?

Shannon Maldonado: The future of design should be rooted in evening the playing field from all perspectives. I want it to be less about sprinkling in a few of us and really partnering in big ways on long-term projects. I want to see huge furniture and lifestyle brands plucking naturally talented designers from obscurity and giving them a shot. As I work on growing YOWIE, I want to find more artists and designers who are looking to launch or at the early stages of their practice. I’m digging deeper to make sure we’re meeting people where they’re at.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in design but don’t know how or where to start?

First and foremost, know that no one can do what you do the way you do it. Imposter syndrome is real and so hard to face down, but with every cold email, project, and false start you will get closer to where you want to be. Really good things sometimes take time and creating small digestible goals will help prevent you from feeling defeated any time you hit a roadblock.

A portrait of the architect Pascale Sablan, CEO of Adjaye Associates, global president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, and founder of Beyond the Build Environment.
A portrait of the architect Pascale Sablan, CEO of Adjaye Associates, global president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, and founder of Beyond the Build Environment.
Photo: Aundre Larrow

Pascale Sablan

As a teenager, Pascale Sablan had a natural talent for drawing straight lines without a ruler—a skill she was informed would come in handy as an architect. Even though Sablan was being commissioned to paint murals back then, architecture made more sense to her as the profession to leverage all of her creative talents in a way that could change the world. She views the starting point of her architectural career as her third year at Pratt Institute, when she worked on the African Burial Ground National Monument during her internship at Aarris Architects.

“I was given this incredible opportunity through my church where the pastor, Father Michael Gribbon, met one of the partners of the firm and encouraged them to give me a chance to intern for them,” Sablan says. “That experience and working on this monument had a permanent impact on me as an architect and my career. The powerful responsibility to service the public centered on projects that serve the community became a part of my ethos.”

Sablan balances her time being the Chief Executive Officer, New York Studio at Adjaye Associates, the global president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, and founder of Beyond the Build Environment, which “uniquely addresses the inequitable disparities in architecture by providing a holistic platform aimed to support numerous stages of the architecture pipeline,” according to its website. In 2020, she started building the Great Diverse Designers Library as a resource to advocate for more equity, diversity, and inclusivity in the industry industry which now features over 1,110 diverse designers. What started as a digital extension of her Say It Loud series is now an “ever-evolving repository of great talent with the aim of providing long-overdue recognition for marginalized groups.” Pascale was the 2021 recipient of the AIA Whitney M. Young Jr. Award and inducted into the AIA College of Fellows, becoming the youngest African American architect to receive this honor in the organization’s 167-year history.

Architectural Digest: From your point of view, what should the future of architecture and design look like?

Pascale Sablan: The future of architecture and design eradicates racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression from our built environment. In underserved communities, poorly appointed architecture perpetuates inequity. These inequities more often adversely affect communities of color. As an architect, I deeply value collaborative processes of creating environments that reflect and sustain diversity and the dignity of human life. Strong and healthy communities, rich in diversity, make strong nations. As architects, we have the power to represent more than ourselves and representation is quintessential to achieving equitable diversity.

What obstacles have you overcome while navigating your career path in this field?

One of the biggest challenges was becoming a mother in the industry. By this point in my career, I had become very familiar with the challenges of being a person of color; however, transitioning to motherhood revealed a brand new catalog of obstacles. That is why I value and appreciate being a part of the Adjaye Associates team, because parenthood is supported and accommodated in the office, and they reinforce that value through the office policies.

The Black Home founder Neffi Walker.
The Black Home founder Neffi Walker.
Photo: Joey Rosado

Neffi Walker

When Neffi Walker gave birth to her daughter, Nile, and moved to the suburbs of New Jersey, the experience would be a blessing in ways that she could never have imagined. “I was struggling with postpartum and needed an outlet to get my creative juices flowing, so I leaned into the construction and interior design of our midcentury-modern gem,” she explains. “After the full renovation was complete, I realized how therapeutic and soothing it was for me to recreate an environment and started to look at my hobby as a profession.”

Now with a decade of experience under her belt, the interior designer has become a household name within the Black community. Walker is all about embracing her Afro-Latina heritage, so she pours that rich culture into every aspect of her curations. Walker officially opened the doors of The Black Home in 2021 with a flagship store that has since moved from Newark, NJ to Downtown Brooklyn. Last year, she expanded the brand with a store located inside Terminal A of the Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR). After completing two homes for NBA player Kyrie Irving, Walker is currently working on Angela Yee’s home—a historic brownstone—in Brooklyn.

Architectural Digest: From your point of view, what should the future of design look like?

Neffi Walker: I believe designers of color should be more of a normality in the industry. To help push that narrative forward, I mentor high school students and have them accompany me in the store and on projects so they can see firsthand what a day in the life of this business entails.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in design but don’t know how or where to start?

I always suggest starting at home with small projects or offering your friends free design [services] to get active. Take photos and videos of all your projects and create a social media page. To date, all of my clients slid into my DMs and every project has been [secured through] word-of-mouth referrals. I started without schooling at first but knew I had an eye for design. So just start, that’s my advice.

The architect Sara Zewde sits on a bookshelf stacked with design and architecture literature.
The architect Sara Zewde sits on a bookshelf stacked with design and architecture literature.
Photo: Glademir Gelin

Sara Zewde

A native of the Gulf Coast, Sara Zewde’s view of architecture completely shifted after Hurricane Katrina happened in 2005. Following the traditional path of going to design school (she studied urban planning at MIT and landscape architecture at Harvard), completing internships, and then securing a job after graduation, Zewde eventually ventured out to establish her own practice, which does a hybrid of landscape architecture, urban design, and public art.

Last year, Studio Zewde won the Architectural League of New York’s award for 2021 Emerging Voice. Made up of a multidisciplinary team, the Harlem–based firm utilizes “design methodology that syncs site interpretation and narrative with a dedication to the craft of construction.” Zewde’s work bridges the gap between built environments and the communities that coexist within them. As stated on her firm’s website, “Studio Zewde is devoted to creating enduring places where people belong.”

Architectural Digest: What obstacles have you overcome while navigating your career path in this field?

Sara Zewde: It’s been a bumpy road, but remaining clear-minded about my commitment to elevating culture, ecology, and craft in my design practice helped me to navigate obstacles along the way.

What piece of advice would you give to BIPOC who are interested in architecture but don’t know how or where to start?

Read. Read what feels relevant to your interests in design, whether or not it directly relates to architecture.

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest