Iantha Carley remembers working at the Washington Design Center in D.C. early in her career. A Cuban designer from New York commented on the increasing number of “affluent Black families” in the area, says Carley, who now owns an interior design firm in Silver Spring, Md. It never occurred to her that people thought she only designed for other Black people. “Does he only design for Cuban people?” she thought.
Silver Spring designer Dennese Guadeloupe Rojas had a similar experience when she hired a White photographer to capture a client’s home. When the client opened the door, the photographer assumed he was at the wrong house because the client was White. “Isn’t Dennese Rojas Black?” he asked.
Carley and Rojas are among few people of color in an overwhelmingly White interior design industry. According to the Census Bureau, 72.7 percent of designers are White, 8.9 percent are Asian, 4.8 percent are Black, 3.2 percent are Hispanic, 2 percent are mixed-race, and less than 1 percent are American Indian.
Whether it’s microaggressions like the ones Rojas and Carley described or systemic racism, designers of color contend with a barrage of attacks from the industry, which includes design firms, member associations, developers, schools, media outlets, contractors and vendors, among others. These racial barriers make it difficult for them to enter and be promoted in the field. And those who do enter the profession face biases that make it hard to access resources that are readily available to their White counterparts. All of this leaves them emotionally warped, mentally drained and financially strapped.
To sustain themselves professionally, many designers of color rely on one another for support. Such is the case for Rojas, 60, and Carley, 63, who formed a bond shortly after meeting on a showroom floor in D.C. in 2000. Back then, Carley was just starting out and could name only a handful of “big-time” designers of color in D.C. such as José Solís Betancourt, Nestor Santa-Cruz and Darryl Carter. Rojas owned an interior design accessories store in Silver Spring that Carley frequented.
“Someone contacted Dennese about a project that was too small for her to do, so she put them in contact with me,” Carley says. That became her first big client.
Over the years, the pair joined other designers for potluck-style meetups to troubleshoot issues and exchange ideas on how to run their businesses more smoothly. “Then we decided there’s a lot of people out there who need this kind of support. So maybe we should make it a proper organization,” Carley recalls.
In 2020, they formalized the group alongside co-founders Quintece Hill-Mattauszek and Shawna Underwood, calling it the DC Design Collective (DCDC). The budding organization will take a “for us, by us” approach, with members intentionally creating change for themselves. They plan to host events highlighting diversity in design, participate in charity events and offer opportunities for professional enhancement, continued education and mentorship for members.
Though the initial meetups were among Black women, they opened DCDC up to people such as 46-year-old Charles Almonte, an Asian architect and designer whom Carley also met in a showroom. DCDC was founded in a year that saw anti-Asian hate crimes increase by 150 percent, which presents challenges in an industry rooted in intimacy. Designers are often judged by first impressions, says Almonte, who’s based in Silver Spring. “When you go to an interview, a client is looking at you physically — at your skin color — even before you show your portfolio. They’re thinking, ‘Am I going to hire this person? Am I going to invite them into my bedroom or bathroom?’ They want to work with someone they’re comfortable with.”
This type of scrutiny can be intimidating. But Almonte wants younger generations to know that “being a person of color doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t practice interior design.” He hopes that DCDC can help them navigate the rough terrain.
DCDC plans to mimic larger organizations such as the Atlanta-based Black Interior Designers Network (BIDN). Founded by the late Kimberly Ward in 2010, BIDN highlights designers of color and supports Black designers with business development opportunities. Their membership spans the United States.
BIDN president NeKeia McSwain describes the interior design industry as having “a Eurocentric blueprint with elements of Black culture sprinkled throughout,” from art and heirlooms to fabrics and patterns. Design houses are “taking cultural aspects of Black and African culture and twisting them to make them their own.”
McSwain, a 33-year-old based in Denver, says the industry talks about racism, but creating equity is not at the forefront. “There are partnerships happening where Black designers are not being compensated fairly, and we all know that the majority of African American interior designers are coming in with no financial backing or business credit.”
Kia Weatherspoon, owner of D.C.-based Determined by Design, agrees. “They want to pull from the magic that is Black culture, but they don’t want to reward us or provide us with the same opportunities that they provided to our White counterparts,” says Weatherspoon, 39, who recently became the chief development officer of BIDN.
Weatherspoon’s firm specializes in creating affordable housing units with a luxurious touch, which led her to coin the term Design Equity. In May, she received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the New York School of Interior Design. One of the smartest decisions she made when launching her company, she says, was pursuing Black developers: “That made it easier because I knew they had greater buy-in.”
But this strategy has not shielded her from bias from contractors, government agencies and other industry professionals. “They make comments like, ‘Oh, you guys are making it too nice for these people. We have to design this space like a prison or these people will tear it up.’ ” Weatherspoon believes this demoralizing discourse stems from a mainstream belief that design is a luxury, not a commodity. “We have not yet resolved that interior design is for all people,” she says.
Another issue is access to vendors and wholesalers. One of the reasons people hire an interior designer is to benefit from the designer’s relationship with these sources, which are typically off-limits to those outside the profession.
For designers of color with small firms, these entities often stifle their businesses. Some furniture vendors have a buy-in process wherein designers can open an account only if they commit to spending $10,000. “Now I can’t be innovative and efficient in sourcing the most amazing products for my clients because this vendor is not willing to work with me to open this account,” McSwain says.
Some vendors also reserve products for large design and architecture firms, Rojas says. “The companies that get projects over and over are bursting at the seams. They’re making millions a year. And the little people like myself can’t get into the game. Sometimes you feel like you’re dealing with the mafia.”
Being a woman and a racial minority is “a double whammy,” she continues. “I had a superintendent email me once a couple of years ago to put on my big-girl pants and deal with it.”
While working on a project in New York, McSwain encountered a contractor who questioned the financial stability of her clients after learning they were Black. “He said, ‘With a project like this, I would need the money upfront, because who’s to say they won’t run out of money.’ ” McSwain says these types of biases and acts of discrimination have created “a deeply embedded infection that has touched everyone” in the industry.
As a kid in Puerto Rico, Cristina Martinez was passionate about design. In high school, she took a fashion design class and started sewing. “I basically designed [my bedroom] not really knowing what I was doing, but feeling a need and an urgency to do it,” says Martinez, who went on to attend the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. After college, she worked in marketing, event planning and hospitality.
Years later, she discovered e-design, an interior design practice that helps clients virtually instead of coming into their homes. Her mother’s friend, a Dominican interior designer, asked Martinez why she didn’t pursue this career sooner. “It just never crossed my mind as a possible profession for me, something that was accessible for me. It always seemed like something fancy people did,” she told her.
Martinez, 36, says that if she’d had a mentor while growing up, or had known someone who’d worked with an interior designer, she wouldn’t have dabbled in multiple careers before pursuing her passion. That’s why she was elated when Jessica Bonness, an assistant professor at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., invited her to speak to her interior design students.
“I hope it helps them to learn early on that you don’t have to work for the government or in a traditional field. There are all these creative industries out there, and it’s okay for you to be in them,” says Martinez, who launched her virtual design firm, Cristina Isabel Design, in 2019.
At a recent conference hosted by the Interior Design Educators Council, Bonness learned that the average interior design faculty member is a 39-year-old White woman. This speaks to the challenge facing Marymount’s full-time interior design professors. “We’re all White ... every single one of us,” says Bonness, who’s 38.
While she wants to be “everything for [her] students,” she knows there’s a lot that she cannot provide because she hasn’t had the same life experiences. “My job is to recognize that and make sure they see leaders that reflect who they are so they can graduate, work in the field and become leaders themselves,” Bonness says.
Bonness has also enlisted Jessica Bantom, who received her master’s degree in interior design from Marymount. Bantom, who is Black, is helping the university’s interior design department devise a strategic plan and curriculum catering to students of various ethnicities, ages, economic statuses and gender identities. That includes hosting focus groups where students can openly discuss their experiences, “so that any formal strategy is defined and informed by what the students are experiencing and what their priorities are too,” says Bantom, 44.
For other institutions in the industry, such as large design firms and developers, designers of color have a list of recommendations.
Weatherspoon wants a mandate for developers to hire culturally competent design consultants on affordable housing projects. “A lot of times you have these White architecture firms with predominantly White men designing in Black communities,” she says. “Because they have no empathy toward that community, they’re not doing beyond the status quo.”
Bantom wants leaders of large design firms to intentionally engage designers of color in their recruiting, retention, and diversity and inclusion strategies. “Get to know the voices in your own firm, and identify leaders and untapped resources that want — don’t assume they all do — [to] help move your organization along this path.”
For their White peers in the industry, designers of color suggest they educate themselves on the challenges of marginalized designers. They “don’t get a pass just because they haven’t had to consider backgrounds other than their own,” Bantom says. The next step is advocating for designers of color at your firm. “Keep their name in conversations about professional development and advancement opportunities.”
When choosing to work with designers, residential clients should make “a conscious effort to know and meet designers of different racial backgrounds,” Almonte says. Bantom agrees, adding that this may take work. “Research professional organizations and networks,” she says. “Contact design programs at educational institutions. Be deliberate in your research.” And if you end up working with a designer from a marginalized group, actively refer them. “That’s how most residential designers build their business,” Bantom adds.
Meanwhile, McSwain isn’t waiting for the industry’s mainstream culture to change under the direction of her White counterparts. Her job, she says, “is to kick the door down and get it done ourselves.”
Weatherspoon, who recently completed a $60 million affordable housing project in D.C., has latched on to McSwain’s “for us, by us” mentality. “Having spent most of my career being engaged in predominantly White design associations, I felt like it was time” to get involved with BIDN, she says. “At the peak of my career, I want to serve and advance at my highest level with my people.”
The DC Design Collective organizers — Rojas, Carley and Almonte — are building out their membership, hosting virtual events and expanding their network to showcase members’ talents. “As we spend more time together, we see the value of us being together as a collective,” Rojas says. “We are here to support each other’s perspectives.”
Christina Sturdivant Sani is a writer in Washington.
Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.