Two decades ago, when designer Stephen Burks was beginning what would become a renowned international career, there were virtually no African-American role models for him to look to.
After breaking out with a furniture collection for Cappellini in 2000, he has gone on to design for Roche Bobois, Dedon, Missoni and Moroso, among other top companies.
Recently, when it was noted that he was the first Black designer to work with most of the design houses that hired him, he interrupted. Framing it that way, he said, actually “softens the blow a bit.” For many of these companies, he noted, “I was the only Black designer.”
While he is no longer alone in the business, there remains a dearth of Black designers — a fact that has taken on new urgency in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the protests that have followed.
Expressions of solidarity with Black Lives Matter across the design industries have poured out on social media. Black-owned design companies and studios are being singled out for support, and larger design firms are pledging to improve diversity and equity.
“I do think the moment is significant because it has woken up a group of people that have been sleeping for a long time,” said Malene Barnett, a Brooklyn-based artist and textile designer who founded the Black Artists + Designers Guild in 2018. “Ultimately to change, the system has to be demolished and started from scratch. It’s time for everyone to figure out how to create a new foundation so we can build a society that supports people and is truly inclusive.”
For many Black designers, it is a complicated moment. While eager to seize the momentum, some see little reason to trust that talk of greater inclusiveness will translate into results, or that even well-intentioned incremental steps toward diversity will produce substantive change.
It doesn’t take a great deal of research to recognize that Black designers are poorly represented in the world of high-end furnishings, a business with estimated global sales of about $25 billion last year.
Just visit marquee industry trade shows, or flip through leading design magazines (some of which this white reporter has worked for both as a writer and an editor). You can also go online and look at the rosters of designers promoted on the sites of major international furnishings brands.
That is exactly what Jomo Tariku, a Virginia-based Ethiopian-reared designer, did to compile a report that found that less than 1% of all furnishings produced by top international brands are by Black designers.
In addition to running his studio, Jomo Furniture, Tariku works as a graphic designer and data scientist for the World Bank. He initially undertook his research to put some numbers — which he concedes are scientifically imprecise — to his own experience of feeling like the only Black person at many industry events.
“I’d go to trade shows, but people don’t take you seriously as a Black designer because they don’t know — they’ve never met one,” said Tariku, whose work marries traditional African forms with digital modeling and a crisp, minimalist aesthetic. “When I’d ask for the name or the contact info of a company’s creative director, what I’d get is a blank stare or, ‘He’s not available.’ I don’t know if white designers face the same thing.”
As Tariku found, if you scan the designer pages of top furnishings companies you might see two or three Black faces out of dozens — or none at all. Herman Miller, a leading American brand based in Michigan, for example, shows just a single Black designer: Bibi Seck, a New York-based Senegalese designer who heads the firm Birsel+Seck with his wife, Turkish-born designer Ayse Birsel.
Mary Stevens, senior vice president of global product development and advanced innovation at Herman Miller, said the company is aiming to do better. Prompted by recent events, it is founding a Diversity in Design program, for which it hopes to build a consortium of businesses — including competitors — to tackle the issue.
“We’re looking at increased retention initiatives, equitable career development, all the things that you would expect,” Stevens said. “But this is also focused on the funnel into the design field, and that means involvement in education systems, in the communities in which we serve. There’s no question that the Black Lives Matter movement has moved us to be much more proactive than we had been in the past.”
Jerry Helling, president and creative director of Bernhardt Design in North Carolina, who has championed many emerging designers, also believes the problem is in the pipeline. “The lack of awareness among young people about being able to pursue a career in design is a challenge that must be addressed,” he said. “I believe supporting design education — and especially, mentoring — is crucial for companies who are committed to supporting diversity and enhancing the design industry.”
Some top design institutions are ramping up efforts to redress the imbalance.
In June, the executive board of the Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands issued a statement acknowledging the school’s “lack of diversity that does not accurately reflect the society it exists within, let alone the planet more broadly,” pledging to “do more, and do it now.”
Not long after, Rosanne Somerson, president of Rhode Island School of Design, released a letter to the RISD community, taking responsibility for allowing a culture of systemic racism to persist and outlining steps to advance social equity and inclusion. Among the changes are revisions to the Eurocentric curriculum; a cluster-hire of 10 new faculty members committed to “issues of decoloniality, race, racism, and ethnicity”; and admitting more students of color. According to the school’s enrollment figures, the percentage of Black or African-American students rose slightly from 1.9% in 2012 to 3.8% last year.
“RISD is not a terribly diverse place, and people are realizing their complicity in these inequities,” said Christopher Specce, head of the school’s furniture department. “Student activism has been really a primary force in confronting inequities and racism. Everyone is approaching this with a sense of urgency.”
Of course, the underlying systemic issues that perpetuate the design world’s diversity problems start well before college. As for the question, “Why aren’t there more Black designers?” Burks, for one, has little patience. “I mean, come on. Design is a luxury to begin with for most people. A majority of African Americans in this country are living at the poverty line,” he said. “It’s about education. It’s about opportunity. It’s about choices. You’re looking at a population in this country who 60 years ago were fighting for basic civil rights. We have to fix this country first.”
Burks collaborates with artisans in developing communities around the globe, in some cases partnering with nonprofits like Aid to Artisans and the Clinton Global Initiative. He recently conducted workshops in craftmaking at Berea College in Kentucky, which is tuition-free and was founded in 1855 as the first interracial college in the South. Burks noted that the vision behind his work, which emphasizes craft and often incorporates recycled or repurposed materials, has never been solely about being a Black designer. His goal is to cast off Eurocentric biases and embrace the idea that “anyone and everyone is capable of design,” he said. “I don’t want to just make the design world open to people that look like me but to everyone.”