Black Interior Designers Spill On Diversity In The Industry

The design world still has ways to go.

Courtesy of Clare; Photographed by David A. Land for Angela Belt.

Did you know that the design industry is 73 percent white? It's a staggering statistic to hear, yet if you work in the field, it's not at all surprising. While there are creatives of color doing incredible work, the industry has long been dominated by less diverse voices. Whether featured in magazines or given major projects, white designers are often privileged with the most visibility.

With a lack of representation at the top, it makes sense that less people of color are going into the field. According to the Department of Education, black students accounted for only 6.2% of college degrees in interior design in 2016. While social media has made it easier for creatives to get their work seen, it's also so important to have the leading institutions make commitments to improving diversity within the space.

As an editor at Lonny, this industry problem is always a part the conversation among our team. When we pull tips from experts, it's important for us to see if there is representation within our pool. As we look for homes and work to feature, we're constantly striving to include people of color as much as possible. Our team has made this commitment because we recognize the power of our platform to help create a more inclusive environment in design and highlight the amazing diverse talent out there.

To give us further insight into the issue, we asked a couple of incredible black interior designers to talk about what it's really like to work within the field. Read ahead to get a look at the state of diversity in design.

Nicole Gibbons

Nicole Gibbons has made a name for herself by taking on a variety of hats within the industry. While she started up her career as an interior designer and blogger, she recently founded an innovative new paint start-up Clare.

"I grew up with a mom who worked in the design business, so I was always exposed to good design from an early age," shares Gibbons. "After college, I pursued a career in PR, but found myself craving an outlet for my interior design passion. What started as a blog quickly turned into a side hustle, and then a full-time design business. Fast forward to today, I’m able to bring the best of both experiences in business and design to Clare, the direct-to-consumer paint start-up I launched just last year."

Black Interior Designers Spill On Diversity In The Industry
Courtesy of Clare.

After tackling the hurdle of pursuing design during the recession, Gibbons began building her own business full-time. "I loved running my design firm and helping clients create beautiful spaces, but I always aimed to do something bigger and to create physical products that could help me continue this mission and inspire a wider audience," the designer shares. "I had a lightbulb moment that shopping for paint was a miserable experience and I immediately reimagined how I could make the process better. That epiphany is where my journey to launching Clare began."

While she paved a way for herself within the space, Gibbons clearly recognized design's diversity problem."I always saw an opportunity for the industry to be more inclusive," says Gibbons. "But as it relates to myself I was always so in the zone and focused on hustling and building my business that I never had time to feel excluded. I just worked really hard to carve out a seat at the table for myself, regardless of the fact that I didn't look like the designers who typically received all the press and praise."

Black Interior Designers Spill On Diversity In The Industry
Courtesy of Clare.

Gibbons noted how important it is for her to always be an advocate and create empowering communities."I definitely built a strong network with other people of color in the design industry throughout the course of my career and we continue to support one another which is awesome," she shares. "I think no matter what the industry, there’s always an inherent level of mutual respect and support from being minorities in an industry where most people don’t look like you."

While Gibbons has become a prominent figure design world, there is clearly much further to go to have equal representation for people of color. "I think the industry could still do better. There needs to be people from more diverse backgrounds in positions of influence because change starts at the top," she explains. "I can’t think of a single black editor-in-chief or CEO or other top executives in general in the design industry. The world is far more diverse than what we currently see reflected in the pages of lifestyle magazines and in ad campaigns."

Gibbons believes having more people of color in top positions is the fastest way to see change. "It's really tough to change peoples natural biases — that would take too long in my opinion. But having more diversity at the top is a faster route to ensure the end consumer is being reflected in the media and by the brands that are marketing to them," she says. "Also, when it comes to media, I’d prefer to see more diversity consistently present as a norm versus just celebrating diversity once a year during Black History Month."

Angela Belt

Designer Angela Belt with her daughter. 
Designer Angela Belt with her daughter. 
Photographed by David A. Land for Angela Belt.

Angela Belt didn't initially think she would be a part of the design world. When asked how she first fell in love with the medium, she said, "In a very unexpected way to be honest. I moved to NYC right after college, and was interning at the Studio Museum of Harlem to learn about education and art. I was in need of some serious dough (because living in NYC isn’t cheap), so I applied for a job at Room & Board through a Craiglist ad. Once I started working, my whole perspective on design changed."

Yet early on, Belt recognized a lack of color within the space. "I think ever since I’ve been interested in interior design at 22, I knew that the interior design industry had a diversity image issue," explains Belt. "Designers of color have always been out there like Sheila Bridges and Joy Moyler, but there were countless more that weren’t getting the same amount of features in the shelter magazines, speaking panels, or home collections."

Eventually, Belt decided to carve out her own career as an interior designer. As she began collaborating with fellow creatives of color, Belt realized the need for highlighting diversity in the space."I got my start in interior styling working with AphroChic, and we realized early on that black imagery and representation was important," she says. "It resonated with a lot of viewers to see black life through a positive lens."

So in 2016, Belt decided to create a series called 28 Black Tastemakers as a way to highlight creatives of color on a larger scale. "I think the power of press is a very powerful tool, and Black History Month has always been a big deal in my house growing up — I was always taught to focus on giving back," shares Belt.

"So for 28 days, I give back by promoting 28 black tastemakers that are killing it in their respective industry right now," she says. "Some of tastemakers on the list many people might already know, but others are under the radar, or maybe not getting national attention yet and I like to promote good work when I see it."

"The list for me came out of a need to make sure that Black talent was being recognized," she explains. "Too often I would work on projects and be the one black face on a team, and when there would be questions or thoughts about other black designers or stylists to bring on, it would always be that no one knew anyone. I often would get asked for recommendations of designers of color, so I created this list as a resource for both editors and black creatives alike to use to network with one another."

An interior designed by Angela Belt. 
An interior designed by Angela Belt. 
Courtesy of Angela Belt.

Belt only sees growth ahead for her project. "Moving forward, I would like to turn 28 Black Tastemakers into so much more than just a Black History Month social-media campaign," she says."The biggest thing I hear over and over again from black people is that they celebrate black culture 365 days a year. So I want to do the same with Black Tastemakers and keep the good vibes going."

"My first step towards that this year was creating a new Instagram account for 28 Black Tastemakers, and I will be starting a series soon called, 'Where are the Black Tastemakers now?' The list has over 100 people, and a lot that I have featured in the past are onto much bigger and better things," she says. "My ultimate goal would be to take this idea and transform it into a conference with editors, producers, and the like with black tastemakers networking together to create new projects."

Belt's thoughts on the industry for now? "There has definitely been a lot of growth in inclusion in the interior design industry, and I notice more faces of color being represented in shelter magazines," she notes. "I think social media also helps a lot to level the playing field. Where I see the biggest opportunities still ahead are in the speaker panels, those that get labeled as experts in the industry, and ultimately, who gets chosen for the TV shows, book deals, and home collections on a national level. But I am always optimistic, and we are definitely moving in the right direction."

As Lonny's Editor, you can find me writing about interior tips, scouting out the coolest new spots, and rallying behind amazing female entrepreneurs. You can reach me at shelby.wax@livingly.com or on Instagram @shelbywax.
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