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When Malene Barnett started her rug company in 2009, she was quick to realize that the interior design world was mostly white. She knew there was a market for her designs, which featured an aesthetic true to Black identity, but they failed to gain traction. After closing her business, she decamped to Italy for a sabbatical in 2018 to study sculpture and follow in the footsteps of her hero Edmonia Lewis, a 19th-century Black pioneer in the Western art world. After returning to New York to pursue a career as an artist and ceramist, Barnett saw a way to help other Black creatives who had the same struggles she had. The Black Artists and Designers Guild, which she founded in 2018, is a nonprofit made up of some 200 artists, decorators, and furniture designers from around the country. The group publishes a directory for the trade, holds events, and advocates for inclusion in the industry. Next month the Guild will unveil a virtual Concept House showcasing the talents of the group and exploring the dynamics, culture, and unique design properties of the Black home. Departures recently spoke with Barnett about her experience, the challenges Black talents face, and what real change looks like to her.
Before you started the Guild, what was navigating the design world like?
To my friends on the outside it looked so effortless. Like, “Wow, she has all this press and all these accolades,” but, to be honest, the press didn’t bring projects. It just created more press. In the beginning my work was representative of my culture, my heritage, which is Black. Then I started looking at the market and seeing what designers were buying. In doing so, I stifled my creativity and changed my whole design aesthetic to satisfy their needs. I would show at all the big trade fairs and travel on a weekly basis to present my rugs to different firms. The designers weren’t even paying attention. I just knew there was no space for me. I wasn’t satisfied creatively, and I knew that I had so much more to give. So I took a sabbatical and hired a branding consultant who helped me to realize that I’m really an artist and that I should position myself that way.
Would you consider your art a form of activism?
As a Black artist, I don’t have the privilege to just create pretty paintings. Our stories have practically been erased, and I use art as a tool to tell those stories and document our history. It’s only right to continue that legacy because we’re still fighting for equality and equity. Our work is constantly a form of protest so that we can be seen, respected, and acknowledged.
Was there a specific moment or interaction that inspired the idea to create the Guild?
I was on my sabbatical and able to look at the industry from different eyes. I asked myself: Why do we only see one or two Black designers? Why isn’t Black culture a part of the conversation? Why is everything related to white people and a European way of living? Then, a colleague sent me an email that included a list of panels at a prominent industry event and there wasn’t one Black person involved. She was in tears, and I decided to speak out on social media. The post went viral, and editors commented that they were complicit. That encouraged me to start the Guild.
What is the Guild’s mission?
Our mission is to advance independent Black artists, makers, and designers. We continuously celebrate Black excellence, as well as honor our ancestral legacy. It’s also a safe space for us, where we can just be ourselves, so it’s a support group of sorts. We’ve built connections amongst each other and collaborated in ways we never could have imagined. It’s really become more than a directory for the industry. For the members, it’s family within this industry.
How would you describe the Black aesthetic?
It’s not just limited to one look or one style, but if we don’t really have any documented information about what the Black design aesthetic is, how can we even have a conversation about it? When we think about European styles, there are many. So it’s just having that same mindset when it comes to the Black design aesthetic, especially because we’re throughout the African diaspora, and it has a lot to do with how we have continued to hold on to different traditions. Whether we were taken to South America, the Caribbean, or the U.S., there are still connections to the traditions of the homeland.
If companies profit from the Black aesthetic, why do Black designers have these challenges?
When I first started designing rugs, I often was told the designs were too “ethnic.” But when a white designer or company did something similar, it was considered cool and bohemian. That is part of the systemic racism we deal with in the design industry. They want to control how much Black culture comes in. They have no problem crafting it on their own and profiting from it. Because that keeps them in control and keeps them in power.
How do we change that?
The reality is that we have to decolonize design and demolish the structure of racism. We can get invited to the table, but the reality is that even when we get invited there are structures that are still in place. We need to have the opportunity to be in decision-making positions. We need to continue to discuss, represent, and publish African, Asian, and Indigenous cultures. It needs to be part of the mainstream—and I hate using that term, because the Guild’s work is already mainstream.