LGBTQ+ Design Leaders On How Community Creates Space For Success
We're highlighting the rainbow of talent within design.
It's impossible to imagine the world of design without the LGBTQ+ community. Not only are queer folks prominent members of the industry, but they make up many of the leaders, innovators, and executives of the field. In fact, modern interior design has been a queer field since its origins. Elsie de Wolfe, a lesbian socialite who crafted spaces for New York homes and social clubs, is often known for creating the profession. She even wrote the first book on interior decorating called "The House in Good Taste" back in 1913.
Interior design is no longer just for the elite. Curating homes is a craft that is open to everyone, no matter what kind of space they live in. Yet it has remained an industry driven by the queer community. With LGBTQ+ people at the helm, there is an inherent culture of acceptance. Your creative vision is the most important part of your identity, not your sexual orientation. As experts of creating beautiful spaces, designers know how to make room for their community to thrive.
As queer folks are integral to the world of design, they also are to what we create and highlight at Lonny. So in honor of Pride month, we wanted to highlight a few LGBTQ+ creative powerhouses that are not only making an impact with their work, but are also serving as advocates for progress. Whether they are trying to democratize how we look at the home, lift up minorities, fight for ethical production, normalize queerness in society, or just bring joy to people's lives by improving their spaces, these creatives are promoting the change we need and are making the world more beautiful in the process.
Jeremiah Brent is an interior designer and star of the TLC show, Nate & Jeremiah By Design. In addition to transforming disaster spaces into dream homes, the show highlights Brent's relationship with his husband, designer Nate Berkus, as well as their life as fathers to their kids, Poppy and Oskar. Recently, Brent has also used his platform to highlight the struggles of LGBTQ+ refugees at the Mexican border.
Lonny: What first drew you to the world of interior design?
Jeremiah Brent: When I was younger I used to go look at open houses with my mother — she should have known then. I remember always fantasizing about the spaces and how I would recreate them, and create moments for these people, and imagining how they would live. I didn’t actually realize it was a business until I was much older. But I’ve always been interested in creating and crafting experiences people could have in their home. The idea of crafting the space where people could experience those moments is what really drew me to design. And it was just by chance. I used to build furniture as a hobby. I started doing it for a ton of people. Then I got hired for a couple of interior jobs and that was it. I never stopped.
So you never went to school or anything for it?
JB: Never went to school. Went to the school of life.
Didn’t you do TV for a little bit?
JB: Yes! I was on the Rachel Zoe Project, which was the biggest school of life might I add. I have always been obsessed with fashion as well, so I thought this is great. Rachel asked me to come work for her and it was like finishing school. You really understand what it means to work your ass off. She is somebody who never stops working. I’m the same way. I mean, I’ll never forget we were in her kitchen one day and she looked at me and said, ‘You shouldn’t be a stylist.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘You care more about the sofas and the furniture in these shoots than you do about the models.’ I was like, ‘You’re right.’ I could never steam a dress again and be happy. So she taught me to follow my passion. So I left her and started my design firm.
That’s amazing. Good mentors really make such a difference.
JB: Honestly, it just takes one person looking at you and saying, “I see you and I believe in you,” to change the entire trajectory of your life.
So moving into design, what kind of influences in your life play into your aesthetic?
JB: Everything. Travel is a huge inspiration for me. I’m always inspired seeing how people live. One of the chicest homes I’ve ever been in was this mud hut in Peru. I was so taken at how obviously there wasn’t tons of money, but there were these beautiful pieces of cloth tacked to the wall in a certain way and they had such pride in their home. I remember thinking, okay I love that. I’m always inspired by the ceremony of home and creating really beautiful ceremonies in their space. And then nature. It doesn’t matter if I live in New York or L.A. or Mexico, I think there’s such beautiful texture in nature. And that palette is the most soothing. If you don’t see it nature, I’m not interested in having it in your space.
What has been the biggest turning point in your career where you thought, I’ve made the right choice?
JB: I sold everything I own. I sold my car, I sold my furniture, and I sold most the clothes that I didn’t want to keep because I couldn’t afford to buy a LLC. I got a LLC — like a rubber decal — and put it on the wall of my living room of my apartment. I hired somebody and got my first project. I did the entire project and the client that booked me said, ‘I can’t believe what you’ve done. You’ve changed our entire lives. This is what we’ve always wanted.’ That was the moment where I knew this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Because it’s one thing to do something you love and are passionate about, but it’s another to do something you love and you’re passionate about that actually affects the way people live their lives. That’s the really beautiful side of interior design. Not the business part of it, but the emotional, psychosomatic things that really impact people.
Would you mind sharing your coming out story if you’re open to it?
JB: I was closeted longer than I even knew. I was in a relationship and we were living together. I got really sick and was in the hospital for a month. My mother came in and was taking care of me. She sat next to me in the hospital bed and I was on a morphine drip. So I had a captive audience. She said to me, 'It’s time to talk about your roommate that’s not your roommate.' I burst into tears. I was so embarrassed and felt shame. I was like, 'I’m so sorry.' And she said, 'Don’t be sorry. The only thing that I’m sorry about is that I have missed so much of your life that you’ve been keeping from me.' I didn’t expect that reaction from her. My dad was the same way.
I was very lucky. Both mine and my husband’s family are amazing. I think it’s a testament to what we feel is our responsibility to show up for those people who don’t have families that just rise up and are there. But I had a really beautiful experience. One thing that nobody talks about is you have to allow your parents to also grieve the life they had imagined for you when you come out. Every parent — even myself — you start imagining things and you want happiness in the way you think it’s going to look. That is a part of coming out that nobody talks about.
Here’s the thing when people say you can have it easier the other way. It’s not easier to hold it in and to pretend. The thing about being gay that nobody talks about is we are trained to be liars for our entire lives. I spent 22 years lying about myself to everybody and anybody. If there was like one moment if I was wearing a blue shirt and you said, ‘I like your blue shirt.’ I would say, ‘It’s red, bitch.’ You just get really good at it. So I think when you come out and you’re able to stand in your own truth and are proud of it, it’s a big deal. It’s impactful.
I can’t wait till we get to the day where coming out is foreign and people are like, ‘You’re coming out of what? So you’re gay, who cares.’ I think we’re on our way. I watch it with my daughter. We were sitting on our stoop the other day and this women walks up and was like, ‘You’re so beautiful and sweet.’ And she goes, ‘Thank you!’ Then the women asks, ‘Where’s your mom?’ Then of course, Nate and I are like, agh. But without missing a beat, Poppy said, ‘I don’t have one. I got two dads.’ The woman goes, ‘That’s so cool!’ And that was it. Then I was like, that is what we’re working towards. It was in New York, but it’s a ripple. It’s gotta start somewhere.
Unlike many working communities, the design community is a very queer space. Has it been helpful to have the space be so open and welcome and driven by a lot of gay people?
JB: Yeah, the design community is really special and really small, which is interesting. Any time when you get people with the same common goal of creating something beautiful, it’s a great spot to start. We’ve been really really lucky. Everyone has been really welcoming and I’m excited and grateful to be a part of a community. We take that for granted a lot of the time.
What did it mean for you when you first started doing your show with Nate? Were you nervous to open up your family life to the public?
JB: Um, yes. You see our show is about design, but it’s not about design. We made a decision when we got married that we wanted to leave the world more beautiful than when we got started. Our goal, which we’ve never said really, was to expose huge parts of this country who have never seen a family like ours, to a family like ours. We wanted to show them that we may not look like you but we love the same way, we’re still trying to figure it out, we work our asses off, we love hard, and we cry. We made a choice to be as vulnerable as we are, but the beautiful thing about my husband and our relationship is that we don’t know anything other than vulnerability. There’s no other version. He’s the first person I’ve ever met who was like, “I see you. Let’s be.” It’s liberating to have that and not feel like you have to have different versions of yourself.
Our hope is that the show allows people and educates people about what gay looks like. It’s not one thing. It’s not just about being on top of a float — although that’s fun too! It’s also just two hardworking dads trying to raise two kids. We’ve been actually really lucky. People have been amazing. We get a mad person every once in a while, but that’s just because they don’t know any better. People care more about my hair then they care about me being gay.
Can you tell me a bit about your recent trip to the border of Mexico?
JB: One of the things going back to leaving the world more beautiful than it was, one of our girlfriends Elsa Collins started this amazing foundation called This Is About Humanity. They take you down to the border and you get to see what’s going on. We went to the only LGBTQ shelter in all of Tijuana. Because if you go to any shelter and they find out you’re gay, you’re kicked out, which is mortifying. It’s basically run by this one woman and another guy. But it’s very small. Like 30 people are sharing a bathroom. We were listening to their stories.
You know, I think the problem we’re having right now is everyone has stopped talking to one another. With families who voted for Trump, people are like, ‘Woah, we can’t talk to Aunt Sheila anymore.’ You know that doesn’t work. Because the second we stop talking to each other, we find ourselves in the situation we are in now. So Mexico is the perfect example. It all starts somewhere. I’m always fascinated by all this caravan talking. Like what do you think happened when Christopher Columbus came over. He brought caravans of ships of people looking for a better life. That’s the point. Like where do you think we came from?
That’s what we’re here to do. So our mission from that point on was we have to expose as much as we can, we have to help out as much as we can. It doesn’t cost a lot to make a huge difference. A lot of times, these people just want to be seen and heard. And they deserve it. The living situations are terrible and both government are using them as pawns. It’s awful. The LGBT youth in particular in the community are so marginalized and not taken care of it’s scary.
What are you most proud of right now?
JB: My family. Listen, we are standing on the shoulders of a lot of people who have done a lot of hard work. By the grace of whomever or whatever, we have the opportunity to get married. It’s legal in New York. We were the first gay couple to get married in the New York Public Library. It was a big deal. We got to go through surrogacy. I think pride for us is really about showing up and letting the community know how grateful we are that we get to continue because our advocacy continues as a family. Now we get to show people how gay is evolving and what it looks like and to show kids out there that you can actually have a family.
We had this women come up to us at Nordstrom the other day. She said, ‘Just two seconds. I never do this, but my son just came out to me. I just want you to know that night we were sitting down and your show came on, and I started sobbing. I realized through your show that he can still have everything I always wanted him to have.’ I was like, okay. That’s all I want.
Michel Smith Boyd
An Atlanta-based interior designer and star of Bravo's Buying It Blind, Michel Smith Boyd has made a name for himself as a curator of beautiful luxury spaces. Boyd is currently expanding his work into a brand new bespoke furniture and textile collection.
Lonny: What first drew you to the world of interior design?
Michel Smith Boyd: When I was a kid here in Thibodaux, Louisiana, I was always drawn to architecture. I had so many amazing influences with New Orleans right at our fingertips. Being there all the time in the French Quarter, I was obsessed with everything that was cool about buildings. I loved the French influences. When I became an adult, I moved directly into fashion in New York. Interior design is the perfect merger between the two worlds. I get to spend time and build stories with the textiles I’m obsessed with in fashion, and include architecture. One trip to the Decoration & Design Building changed my life.
How did you make that jump from fashion into the interior space? Did you intern or just jump into your own projects?
MSB: I was the most naive person ever. I was smart enough to know that I needed to study design. So after that trip to the D&D Building where I was with a designer friend. We went inside and I was like, how did this world exist and I didn’t know about it. I was enrolled in school within six months. I went to design school immediately. I did my homework and I got a BFA in Fine Arts. I started working immediately. I actually started working my junior year. I was one of those students that was afraid. Like, okay everyone in this classroom is graduating at the same time as me. I better get a head start. So I started working immediately, taking small jobs and sharpening my skills as early as possible.
I started my firm right after graduation. I did not work for anyone. That’s the naive part. I lost a lot of money but I learned so much. I was just so excited to find my career that I just didn’t ever want my creativity to be stifled. I wanted to keep that excitement. I didn’t want to go and try to execute some other designer’s vision. While the experience would have been valuable, I just really want to share my point of view and actually develop one.
For all your design projects now, what influences in your life played into the aesthetics and how would you define it?
MSB: My influences have always come from traveling. I’m obsessed with being a sponge. I feel like great designers are great listeners, but also forever students. So as much as I can absorb on every trip, I’m all about it. I gotta be honest with you, I learned as much from our clients as they do from us. My clients are my biggest inspiration for me. I want to impress them. I want to deliver something that they’ve never experienced before and I want to create an experience at home that’s better than when they travel. So they are the biggest inspiration because ultimately they are the people who will actually live in the space. It’s really a culmination of what I’ve learned in school, what I’ve learned in life and seen in the world, and how excited I am to deliver something to this family. The combination of three yields an amazing result and one that’s super specific to the people I’m working with. So no two projects look alike ever.
Did you have any big turning points in your career where you were like, okay I made the right choice of moving into design? Was there one project, or getting your first TV show, or anything like that where you were like, oh I’ve made it?
MSB: Honestly I feel like I’m still waiting on that moment. I’ve had my own TV show, I’ve got my own licensed collections, I’ve got my own bespoke collection, but I’m still waiting for the ‘I made it’ moment. I feel like the line keeps moving. That’s how much I love what I do and why I’m still sure I’m supposed to be a designer. I keep setting new goals, that finish line keeps moving, and it just pulls me deeper into the profession. I thought, when I get published, my life is gonna change. That didn’t happen. Then I thought, okay when I get my first licensing deal, my life is gonna change. That didn’t happen. Like I said, the line keeps moving and there’s a lot of work to be done.
I’m a southern black man selling luxury in the world of interior design. I’ve got to excel. I’ve got to be excellent. I want to make sure that everybody watching that is a person of color recognizes that they can also make a contribution in this lane. That why it’s important to me to hit all categories, touch all facets of design, and be an example for everybody that looks like me.
Going into that, how important is it for you to be a representative as all your different identities of being gay and black and southern. Not just on TV but in your community and where you live?
MSB: It’s huge. My standards for myself have always been ridiculously high. I’ve always put on myself a lot of pressure. I was worried with the TV show, am I representing well for my family and am I representing well for my hometown? Am I going to represent for the design community? Am I going to represent for the black community and the gay community? It’s a lot of pressure.
But I thought if you just impress yourself, that will be enough. If I’m my best self in every opportunity that I have, that will be enough. That’s the rule that I live by. It’s really important. It feels like a lot of pressure, but it’s just par for the course. It’s solely because there aren’t so many representatives. It’s not because we aren’t out there. It’s just that we’re not always as recognized. I don’t mind that. I don’t mind that pressure. It’s actually a good pressure. Because that’s how change is made. I’m excited, glad, and grateful to be one of the people that has the opportunity to make some noise about the opportunities as far as minorities go.
Obviously there is a lack of diversity within the design space, which is something we all have to work on. Do you have any suggestions or comments about it and how we can really work to improve that within the industry as a whole?
MSB: When it comes to diversity in design, I feel like the people who make decisions are friends with other people that make decisions and don’t go outside their community in order to look for new talent. I think that’s exactly a part of the problem. I think some of these decision makers — whether it’s the people who decide on panels, or trend media, or whatever — need to get out of their comfort zones and open their minds to new talent as opposed to pulling from the same pools every time. Then we’ll start to see more of a difference when it comes to who’s on the pages and whose faces are in the front. It’s happening in television and is a little bit slower in print, but I appreciate being part of this article because I believe if we want to talk about being gay and diverse, we also have to talk about being black and diverse. I think that if representation is just based on talent as opposed to likeness, we’ll see a lot more diversity. That’s the fucking soundbite right there.
I really do feel like as much as I’ve done, I’ve really got a long way to go. I have so many plans. Honestly I couldn’t be more excited about my bespoke collection, about my YouTube channel, and about my e-commerce site. I’m just excited to share my unobstructed point of view versus a licensed collection. Those are the kind of opportunities that also clear the space for visible diversity. I want to create my own content. I feel like a part of it getting ‘gatekeepers’ to open their minds to new talent, but also for us to create our own content. Groups like the Black Artists + Designers Guild and the Black Interior Designers Network — those people are helping create that content. They are forces working in the direction of good.
Would you be open to sharing your coming out story to me?
MSB: I think my coming out story is slightly boring. I flew my mom to New York to spend some time with me. I really wanted her to see me when I said these words. I wanted her to be in front of me and to see the life I’ve created for myself in New York. I wanted her to see I was in a healthy, stable, and basically traditional relationship. It just happened to be with a man. I wanted her to see that I was the same kid that she raised. I had the same values. I just wanted her to understand that fully because when you’re from a small town the stereotypes associated with being gay were not always positive. There was probably just one incredibly eccentric person that everybody knows that they associate with the space of homosexuality. With that, it makes it hard to see that that’s not necessarily the case. You can’t paint us all with one stroke.
So I brought her to New York and sat her down. At the time I had my own place and was living with my partner. We had a chat and I told her. She said she felt like she always knew, but wasn’t sure. She said that’s what had put the distance between us. I told her the point of it was to close that gap. So I introduced her to my partner and we went out to dinner. It was a slow start. But the fact is that she became more and more open. Now, she’s an advocate for the community and I’m so incredibly proud of her. Where we come from, it’s very sheltered and driven by the church. It’s an old guard and old point of view. That my mom — where her life was work, church, and home — is now advocating for her gay son, it’s a huge thing for me. I have a lot of pride in that. I’m really proud of her. She’s a shining example for parents of gay children.
The design community is much more queer than most spaces. What is it like for you as a gay man to be a member of that community and be welcomed into it?
MSB: Listen, I can’t even express my pride about that. Here’s the thing. When you don’t have to make room for shame and for guilt and for hiding, all you’re doing is creating a lot more room for creativity and the opportunity to soar in your profession and deliver something amazing. Because the design community is one that is not damning based on sexuality, that means that I can make an uninhibited contribution back to the community that has given me so much on both turns. The design community has been good to me. The idea of figuring out that you have a gift or a talent and turn that talent into a profession and be embraced is amazing. That doesn’t always happen.
I don’t take for granted my efforts have been matched and the accolades I have received thus far. That’s an amazing affirmation for somebody like myself who grew up in a small place where I couldn’t be myself. Where I had to hide who I was for such a long time. I always felt like it put me behind. Like I got to play catch up because while I was trying to figure out who I was and my identity, everybody else was studying and starting their careers and so forth. I was trying to figure out who the hell I was. But inside of the space that I’m in right now, I feel like I’ve had the opportunity to not lose that time, to not feel like I’m behind, and to feel like I’m on a level playing field and I can actually achieve whatever I want to. I’m not limited. There’s nothing better than feeling limitless.
What are you most proud of right now?
MSB: What I’m proud of most right now — I’m going to repeat myself — is my new collection. I’ve never felt this way about anything. I have a new collection with a partner in Maryland called 1429. So it’s called MSB x 1429. It’s a bespoke collection and it’s all made here in the U.S. It’s two minority businesses coming together with myself and a black woman who owns my manufacturing company. So that is huge for me. I’ve got bespoke pillows, bespoke rugs, and hammocks. I’m basically doing a hula hoop inside at all times. It’s crazy work and lots of risk. I’m currently trying to figure out how advertising will work. But I couldn’t be more excited.
As the design expert on the hit Netflix series Queer Eye, Bobby Berk creates breathtaking (and often tear-inducing) homes for the "heroes" featured on the show. Not only does Berk bring his extensive interiors knowledge to each episode, but he also openly shares his experience as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, guiding viewers around the world towards towards acceptance. The designer is based in Los Angeles where he lives with his husband.
Lonny: What first drew you to the world of interior design?
Bobby Berk: What kind of put design on the radar for me was Target’s first-ever collection they ever did with Michael Graves. It was the tea kettle and the spatulas and the little timer. It was the first time I looked at items for the home as something that wasn’t just utilitarian, but also as something that could spark joy. Something that you could be like, ‘Oh, I really enjoy using this not only just to eat with, but because it makes me happy.’ So that was really kind of the first time of my life I thought of design as something I wanted to do as a career at all. Where I grew up, there were no designers. So that was when it first got on my radar.
I left home at 15, and I got into retail and restaurants. With design, I thought it really wasn’t going to be an option for me. But then I started to get into design retail — Restoration Hardware, The Bombay Company, The Great Indoors. So I was able to really start getting to interact with furniture and textiles. It got the passion going even more. Then I ended up working for a company called Portico and they were a design firm and retailer. They unfortunately went bankrupt and I was like, well I could do this. So I started my own online and that went really well. Then I started opening my own stores. From the stores, I was able to start working with customers and designing for them. That became my passion. So I was able to expand on that part of the business and start getting out of retail, because retail is hard. It sucks the life right out of you. So I started focusing more on design and product design. Long story short.
What is your aesthetic?
BB: With my aesthetic on Queer Eye, you definitely get my sense of me as a designer. But also I design for my clients. And our heroes are clients. So when I add that bit of country or that bit of rustic in there, that’s not for me. My personal design aesthetic is modern, minimalist, and clean. I don’t have a lot of things in my home. I like that serene modern environment. Our home is a big concrete block.
Have there been any particular designers who influenced you over time?
BB: Not really. Because I don’t have an education in design, I don’t have that background with all that knowledge of past designers. Definitely like, Eames with the clean brutalist modern design. But I can’t really think of any specific designers. Other than Michael Graves. Obviously, he really influenced me.
When was the big turning point in your career where you were like, I made the right choice?
BB: Probably getting cast on Queer Eye. It definitely was a major point in my life where everything that I worked for and had done was being recognized for finally. So yeah, that was definitely a big turning point.
Are you comfortable sharing your coming out story?
BB: Yeah. My coming-out story wasn’t really coming out. It was being outed. I left home at 15 and it wasn’t because I came out. It was because I needed to come out and I knew I couldn’t. Not just due to my family but due to the town I lived in. One guy came out in my hometown and a bunch of cowboys tried to run him off the road and kill him. So I knew it wasn’t an option. But every day of my life I wore a mask. You become a very lonely, angry person because there’s not one person in the world you can truly be yourself with and really knows you for who you are. You’re just this person that society says you should be. It becomes very depressing and very lonely and you become very angry. So I knew it was a life or death situation for me. It was either get out and come out, or check out. So I left at 15.
I think it was a little less than a year later somebody outed me to my parents. It was funny because I had actually decided to move home and it was that week that somebody outed me. So it really wasn’t an option then. So I didn’t really speak to my family for a few years. Luckily, we’re very close now. They love me. They love my husband. We’re in a great place now, but definitely we weren’t for a while.
One thing I love about the design community is it is a much more queer space. What is it like being in a career where it’s much easier to be open?
BB: The great thing about the LGBT community is we had to fight for family. We’ve had to find that family and choose that family. For example, straight bars versus gay bars. Gay bars are like, come in, come all, everybody! You don’t need to have more boys than girls. Everybody come. While at straight bars, it’s like if you don’t have a certain number of girls with you, you have to get a bottle. It’s not accepting. I think that kind of spills over to the design world. Since it is very queer, I think it becomes a very open and accepting type of community where you can really be yourself and not be judged. Just like in high school with speech and debate, or the drama department, where it was very queer whether we were out or not. I think why band and thespians were so accepting was because a lot of us were queer. We knew what it was like to not be accepted and judged. So we were less apt to do that to others.
When you got asked to do Queer Eye, were you apprehensive at all to do the show? Since you’re so raw and open with your story on it, was that something you were nervous to do?
BB: Absolutely. I think about the difference of how open I was with season one and two, versus three. Especially when it comes to my story, my history, and my relationship with my family, I’ve worked very hard for those relationships to be good now. Every time I talk about it, it upsets my mom. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell her, “It’s fine, we’ve gotten past that. I forgive you. It doesn’t upset me anymore.” I’m just talking about it to help other people out there. It was hard to let go of that and not to be ok with hurting my mom, but to like try pick up the pieces every time she would watch an episode that upsets her. Yeah, that’s why I was apprehensive to talk about things like that.
What would you say is the most rewarding part of doing every design project on your show?
BB: I think the most rewarding part of every design project on the show is seeing how it drastically affects someone’s life. Not just the way they live, but their mental health. Showing them how the way they keep their home can affect their mental space and help them not be depressed. Yeah the most rewarding part is how it affects someone’s life.
How does it feel knowing your show has reached so many people and having them rethink their relationship with queer people?
BB: Rewarding, humbling. Especially the fact that it has caused people that are very religious to rethink their relationship with the queer community, and caused people in leadership roles of religion to rethink what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. I’ve had some churches reach out and say that their pastor recommended watching Queer Eye from the pulpit and it’s like, what?!? That’s the amazing part of it.
What are you most proud of right now?
BB: I definitely think I’m most proud of the effect that we’re able to have with our show. With the global reach we’ve gotten, it’s not just entertainment. It’s really helping people, and not just the heroes we work with physically. Helping people come out with their family, and to accept themselves, and to love themselves. I’m definitely most proud of that effect we are able to have with people.
Originally a graphic designer, Sara Berks left the industry and founded Minna Goods, a textile company that produces ethically made home goods with traditional artisan techniques and modern designs. She leads an all-female and queer team out of her store and studio in Hudson, New York, where she lives with her wife.
Lonny: What first drew you to the world of design overall?
Sarah Berks: I went to school for graphic design. As a kid I was always interested in art and making things. Design felt like a practical application of art.
What influences in your life have played into the development of your aesthetic?
SB: There’s artists that I’ve always been inspired by like Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, and Georgia O’Keefe. From the color palette to the minimal design to repetitive patterns, those I’ve always been drawn to.
You mentioned in a previous interview that the field of graphic design was homophobic and patriarchal. Can you kind of go a bit into what that culture was like and also why you felt the need to leave it?
SB: Yeah. So I worked in digital design and branding before starting Minna. At the last job that I had, it was a really big time agency. It was just a lot of men and a lot of a patriarchal bro culture. It felt really inauthentic to me. I had an experience with a supervisor that was a bit homophobic — queer-phobic mostly rather than homophobic — and it kind of made me realize I didn’t have to be in that environment if I didn’t want to be. So I left.
So how did you switch to textile design?
SB: It was really random. I left and my plan was to freelance. I took a couple months off and lined up a freelance job. In that time I started a stationary brand that went nowhere. Then I taught myself how to weave and that just kept going. I realized I really loved it and I could express myself in a different way. But I knew I didn’t want to be making everything myself. So I looked into artisan production. I went to Mexico and met two families there. It all sort of evolved out of that.
What would you say is the mission that drives Minna?
SB: It’s an ethically made textile brand, so really looking towards how products are made, where they’re coming from, and where the materials are coming from. It’s ethically made, but it’s also contemporary design. So we're about finding a median place to come to.
It’s so important for design to move in an ethical direction. How did you find the artisans you worked with and partner with them? What was the process like for that?
SB: It’s really different everywhere. In Mexico — in Oaxaca specifically —it’s really special because I work directly with two families that I met the first time I was there. Everywhere else, we partner with larger social-enterprise organizations or NGOs that work within the artisan sector to develop jobs for traditional artisans there. They makes sure they’re doing everything they say they’re doing and paying attention to working conditions.
As we are starting to see both smaller producers and a few big-box stores work up to certain ethical standards, why is it important that we progress on this path and hold people accountable?
SB: I think for me, I left a very heartless world of design. It felt really important for me to make things that I could touch, had a good impact on the world, and make connections deeper than just working connections. So that feels really important to me and something I’ll make sure that no matter how Minna grows we’re always going to be ethically made, traditionally made, and handmade. I think it’s also just important for people to pay attention to the way the things they buy are made and where they come from. Nobody is perfect and you literally cannot buy everything ethically made. You can’t afford to. But it’s important to look at how things are made and how it impacts the world, the environment, and people.
Would you mind sharing your coming out story?
SB: Sure. There’s not a full story there. I guess I technically came out officially — and officially was to my family — 10 years ago, which actually felt late then. I was 22. It’s not that late. I guess I always knew that I was attracted to women, but dated men throughout high school and college, and even after I came out a bit too. But I very much identify as queer. That’s very important. My spouse is female-bodied and uses she or they pronouns, so that is also another interesting thing to explain.
One thing that’s interesting is that the interior space is very queer but it’s dominated by men and straight women. Have you felt marginalized at all in the community?
SB: Honestly I haven’t. I think that the community of small home brands and makers I know are actually pretty queer. I think I’ve been lucky that I haven’t really experience that. Also, for better or for worse, I think I’m also read as pretty straight. It’s frustrating for my own identity.
So you work with all women or queer folks. Was creating that environment an important thing for you?
SB: I think it just kind of evolved out of the space. I had been coming from a very male-dominated straight design world. It felt really important to me to really bond with everybody I work with and the first person I hired was actually another queer woman. From there, we are women, straight and queer, and queer, female-bodied, non-binary folks in the studio. It’s nice to create a space like that. We’re a really small tight-knit team. We kinda joke like who’s calling HR. I just want to create an environment that’s open and honest where everyone can talk about what they want to talk about.
When you’re working with artisans that come from places that are probably less open, are you open with them about your sexuality?
SB: Yeah so every organization that we work with — like the social enterprise and NGO I mentioned — I’m out to everybody there. With the artisan groups themselves, we’re working with very small communities and indigenous communities. Honestly, I’ve never felt judgement or anything. The families I work directly with know my spouse and they understand who she is. I just use discretion and power when to share. But I’ve never felt any sort of judgement. They’re just like, who’s this young white woman walking in here with tattoos and a nose ring.
What are you proud of right now?
SB: I think it’s hard for me sometimes to acknowledge what I’m proud of. I think this year has really been exciting for the brand. We have a really solid team and that feels good to see all these people really care about what we’re doing. It’s like a little family.
Sean Santiago is a writer and art director based in NYC. He got his start in the editorial world working as an associate editor at Lonny. He later founded his own bi-annual queer art and fashion publication Cakeboy Magazine and now serves as art director at Out Magazine. Santiago also recently wrote our newly published book, The Lonny Home: Discovering & Cultivating Your Authentic Space.
Lonny: When did you first fall in love with design?
Sean Santiago: Lonny definitely was one of the first outlets for design at home that really spoke to me, and I think Domino. For so many people, it was just kind of a pivotal moment in the shelter industry where magazines became a little bit more accessible to people like me who were younger and didn’t necessarily have a historical background or bent, and just sort of liked pretty things. They started to really talk to the reader in a way that was for the first time really approachable and understandable. They made beauty at home a little bit more something that you could be a part of and you could achieve. So I think after Domino, Lonny was really influential.
Then I started to work for an interior designer when I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia for like a year. I am also just a very tactile person and a very color-oriented person, so design at its very root is something I’m very interested in. I’m interested in proportion, I’m interested in light, and I’m interested in shape and working with fabrics. Getting to think about really minute details of things was something I got really into and still is something I am really into in my career. I guess that was 10 years ago. It was kind of a pivotal. I had a blog when I was working for the interior designer where I kind of mixed in interior design posts. I showed the blog to [former Lonny executive editor] Irene Edwards, and that’s how I started the conversation at Lonny about the job.
You got into it a little bit, but how would you define your personal aesthetic?
SS: I think for me it’s actually really consistent throughout my wardrobe choices and when I am at home. It’s funny because I also like to apply lessons across disciplines. I am really into ‘what’s in my bag’ videos right now. But also, they lend themselves to Marie Kondo-ing your space. I guess at the end of the day, organization is organization, and being put together for my personal style is something that I think about a lot. That’s really kind of something fun to drill down into. I love to make things kind of fit together and make things work together in harmony. I don’t really like for things to be super bold or distracting. That goes for my wardrobe as much as my room.
I also like really little details like texture. I focus a lot on texture and like prop styling everything. I like every little small detail. I try to orient myself and my space and my outfits all around those little things that are not maybe as bold or directional as slapping a big logo on something, doing a bed in bright yellow, or introducing a neon sign. I think that it’s like all of those little details. I always sweat the small stuff.
So what is your favorite thing about writing about homes?
SS: I think it’s probably the same for a lot of people, but it has changed a little bit over the years. I used to be really focused on and around decorating. I think it changed after writing the Lonny book and working with [editorial director] Angela Tafoya and [chief content officer] Jill on that. Talking to these women who have taken on these projects, while really thinking about function, as well in the way that space can be more holistic. In a way, decorating isn’t just about the surface, but really approaching the space from top to bottom and thinking about the way that it’s going to be used and what that means to people. Then, you write about the homes and how to use them.
A lot of my work has dealt with writing about homes has faced a younger audience. I think that in thinking about the way people live — what’s realistic for young people and what’s realistic for limited budgets and all that kind of stuff. I still like to bring fantasy into the reality, so my work has sort of gone from rhapsodizing about design and talking about wealth, to actual peoples’ homes, really focusing on what can make a space special on a budget and what can make a space feel really liberated without needing to hire a designer necessarily. How to learn from people and how to implement those lessons is something I think is really key to a lot of what I write about.
Do you mind sharing your coming out story?
SS: My coming out story... It feels like less of a milestone maybe for me? I don’t think I have a singular moment of me coming out. What’s been a lot more interesting or more eye opening or even feels more important for me is just the educational process over the years — the sort of ongoing process of educating myself about who I am, what I have access to, and who I can be. Sort of reclaiming that narrative around identity that I think you really are just not taught at all for a number of reasons. Across whether it’s about sexuality or whether it’s about gender expression or whether it’s just about what you like and don’t like, there is just so many layers to that conversation and I think what I found is that there is not necessarily a coming out moment that stands out for me. It’s more about the continual process of learning to be confident in who I am.
What does design mean to you? As a gay man, does it feel like you’ve entered into a space that’s more open and welcoming?
SS: I think that design has always felt like a safe space, per say. I think it feels like a safe space just because a lot of people are very gay. But sometimes it’s not very queer and sometimes the values that support the industry are something I don’t always find are my shared values. I think that as I have grown older and I have thought more about access and community building, and what that can or should look like, I think that there is still a lot that can be done within design.
There has been some great headway made. Look at shows that are focusing on women designers, shows that focus on people who have not necessarily been given the spotlight, or don’t have that as much access to it. We are finding ways to reorient the way we talk about the work and reorient the lens on it so that it’s not necessarily just as dominant of a lens that’s been there since the dawn of time, which was obviously more staunchly white and staunchly wealthy.
There are a lot of different ways to approaching it. I do think there is room to grow and room to have discussions that are very serious and I think a lot of work that’s been made. Design… there’s a lot to it and there’s so many layers and a lot of discussions to be had. I think a lot of people are willing to have them a lot of the time and there’s so many different ways to bring people in these conversations in this industry.
Can you tell me a little bit about Cakeboy Magazine? How that came to be and where it’s going?
SS: As someone working in design, I wanted an outlet to talk about style. I started a personal blog and it was mixing things that I was looking at and the ways that I was dressing. I couldn’t find outlets in design and use design as something to turn to that was sort of a-gendered. I mean it was gendered, but it was something that wasn’t necessarily as cut and dry as men’s and women’s. In fashion. I think that was a harder conversation, and so Cakeboy became sort of a fashion outlet oriented towards starting those conversations and for figuring out what style can be for me as a person and as an individual rather than only kind of falling back on, ‘Oh, well I don’t see myself in this catalog, so I’ll just go to Crate & Barrel and dress my bed.’ I do really like dressing my bed, but Cakeboy is an outlet for different more spirited conversations, and is an outlet for dialoging with members of the community around different touch points other than maybe design or even fashion. I mean a lot of fashion is really just about culture and creating that so I think that has been really nice to have as an additional side project.
Why is it so important that we have loud and proud queer voices in the editorial space?
SS: I think in editorial it’s really interesting because it goes back to that idea that the lens or the viewpoint on design can be really one note. I think that trying to bring in different perspectives is really nice because you have people that are just approaching things differently and have different relationships to historicity. Even seeing something like having the Met Gala host a party at the Stonewall Inn this year for the Met Camp-themed exhibition gets me thinking about space. I think from someone who is older and queer from the community looking at the way spaces can commodified and gentrified, I think there is a lot of brainwork coming from it. Curbed, for instance, is looking at the overlap of design with architecture and community.
Again, I think it’s about bringing those perspectives and bringing them to the table and having something as ripe as design with so many different ways of viewing it and having so many different contexts. I think that design lends itself well to having a queer perspective and having a shared perspective. I think that’s what’s so powerful about having an editorial outlet and having different editorial voices that come from the community really reflect something that’s maybe not the status quo.
What are you proud of right now?
SS: For World Pride this year, I cast and produced a series of videos with West Elm. So I did a whole talk show and I am really proud of the conversations that I had with the people that we brought on, and the fact that it’s all very cute. It was a really nice moment overlapping. It was very visual which is obviously something that I’m really into and it lends itself to my work. I am also a writer on it. Starting those conversations and having them in the context of video is really fun. The final product is something I am really happy with.
Jonathan Adler is a potter, designer, and author known for his eponymous home line and eclectic aesthetic. Since launching his collection back in the '90s, Adler has been a proud out icon for the LGBTQ+ community. He lives in NYC with his husband, Barney's creative ambassador Simon Doonan.
Lonny: What first drew you to the world of interior design?
Jonathan Adler: I’m an accidental decorator, like I really I started out as a potter and a crafts person. So I started in a very small way focused on objects then I grew to think about how to place those objects. So I went from objects to spaces.
So where would you say the influences in your life come from that kind of drew together to make up what your aesthetic is today?
JA: I would say my grandmother was sort of an Auntie Mame figure, who had the most fantastic house that was full of sort of high and low, and Danish Modern mixed with Mexican crafts. She was sort of like my own Charles and Ray Eames. Then our family best friend Mrs. Goldstein also lived in the chicest house I’ve ever been in. I say that to this day, it is still the chicest house I’ve ever been in. It was a pop-art fantasia. Full of pop art mixed with plastic Lavern chairs and fantastic minimal art and a lacquered-red powder room. It was just incredibly chic. Then my own pop, who was an artist and a lawyer and sorta had a very minimalist modernist aesthetic. I think that these three influences are kind of just me in a nutshell. Minimalist, modernist, global craft-loving, and pop-art pumpin’.
When was the big change from just pottery to product development?
JA: I guess, well at first I was a full-time production potter making everything myself and then eventually I found a work front in Peru to help me produce. That gave me time to kind of dream a bit. So I met some weavers in Peru and I asked them to weave some cushions. I thought, well if I have these pots and a cushion, then I need a table and a sofa to put everything on. It just kind of grew from there very gradually.
Did you have any big turning point in your career where you felt like, ‘Ok, I made the right choice. This is what I am suppose to be doing?’
JA: I’ll let you know when it happens. Um, no. I've had a million series of small lucky breaks. Ranging from getting my first order from Barneys, to finding that workshop in Peru, to interacting with incredible, creative colleges who have been working with me for many, many years. Just sort of incremental and slow and gradual, very unplanned.
Did you ever have any big mentors in your life? And have you mentored other creatives down the line?
JA: I am very proud to say that I have never had a single mentor and I couldn’t be happier. I feel like for me, success was kind of Darwinian. Nobody helped me and that makes my success that much more hard-earned and appreciated. I’m very avuncular with my colleagues and I’m always there for them. It is funny though. That word has become such a buzz word, and I’m like what? I don’t know what it means.
I think you can define mentor as the boss who will advocate for you.
JA: Yeah, I guess. Maybe it’s because I never had a job. Well, I did have jobs, but I got fired from all of them. So, I kinda had the opposite of mentors.
What was one job that you got fired from?
JA: I used to be an assistant to a talent agent, and I was sleeping with everybody in the office. I got fired from five jobs in a row. So, I was the opposite of a mentor, whatever that is.
So it was more like you were a HR liability?
JA: I’m in liability in many ways. What is the opposite of a mentor? A detractor?
A rival, maybe?
JA: No, I never had a rival, I just had a lot of impediments along the way. But it’s made me stronger for sure.
If you feel comfortable, do you mind sharing your coming out story?
JA: No, of course. Well, as it is for many people or at least it was in my age, coming out is really a series of coming out stories. In my case, it started out with a close friend, then more friends, then siblings. Then it culminated in my parents, which is actually a hilarious coming-out story because everybody knew I was gay except for my parents. The very first bit of press I ever received was in Out Magazine. David LaChapelle was working with Details and they decided to do a series of photographs of young creatives with their families. They had seen me in Out Magazine so David LaChapelle and a film crew was descending upon my home. Then I was like, alright, I need to come the fuck out to my parents already. So basically David LaChapelle made me do it. That’s a good one.
So you obviously have had a great career and even have name recognition. Do you feel responsibility to use your platform to be an advocate and spokesperson for gay rights?
JA: I have always been completely out in my career as I am with my husband. I try not to even think about it. I try to just like sort of live. But I think when I was young, the act of coming out was very, very powerful. Of course it still is, but less so. I feel extraordinarily lucky too. I came to New York during the height of the AIDs crisis and being gay then was just a very very different experience. We didn’t have a lot of civil rights and I couldn’t get married. It was just a very different time, and so I feel extraordinarily lucky to live in 2019 in America. Like it’s a great time and place to be gay. And anybody who says it isn’t, doesn’t remember the recent past. So, I think it’s trendy for people to say it’s a really tough time to be gay, but you know, it ain’t. It gets better, and I think it’s a really tough time to be gay in a lot of other countries.
So, you have seen the design world change, especially with the internet. Where do you see design heading and how have you been adapting your business?
JA: I think that design and the world in general have just been getting completely chaotic and it’s kind of a free-for-all. One can either see that as a maddening, or you can see it as sort of a Mardi Gras, and I choose the latter. I think it’s an exciting time because you can make stuff in a million different ways and you can make stuff in a million different places. There is squillions of outlets for design and it’s an overwhelmingly fabulous time. I think it’ll only get more overwhelming and more fabulous, and more Mardi Gras-y.
What are you most proud of right now?
JA: That’s a tough call. As a creative person, I am always most proud of my most recent creation. That’s kind of the fuel for my creative life. I am very very proud of my gorgeous dog foxy lady prances about the neighborhood as the most gorgeous creature in the neighborhood. I am proud to be married to the cutest, most talented, most annoying, and most annoyingly fabulous husband on earth, and proud that we have been together for 25 years.