I teach in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Va., surrounded by artists, designers, and performers. At VCU, we wear our student diversity proudly.
Each morning, I drive to school along Monument Avenue, parking my car on a block bookended with a statue of J.E.B. Stuart to the east and Robert E. Lee to the west.
This summer’s events in Charlottesville amplified this juxtaposition. Repeatedly, I ask, “When matters of social justice and equity arise, what is the role of interior design, and what should I, as a designer and an educator, be doing about it?”
In this issue of interiors+sources, we consider art, fashion, and their relationship to interior design. Fashion designers, artists, and interior designers have agency with respect to social change. However, the critique artists and fashion designers offer differs from interior designers in three significant ways: voice, speed, and visibility.
Although artists like Richard Serra or designers like Rei Kawakubo work in collaborative teams, their voice is essentially singular. In 1998, Alexander McQueen guest edited Dazed and Confused’s Fashion-Able issue and exerted his autonomous voice by featuring models with a range of different physical abilities, questioning conventional depictions of beauty.1 Interior design almost always has a responsibility to another—the client, the user, or both—that must be respected in order for the concept to succeed. The voice of interior space is polyphonic.
Often, the artist can swiftly respond with social critique. In 2008, an estimated 9,000 schoolchildren died in the devastating Sichuan earthquake.2 Building failures associated with lax governmental oversight were largely responsible. Shortly thereafter, Ai Wei Wei memorialized this tragedy through a series of searing critiques of Chinese officials that used the type of backpack ubiquitous among Chinese children as his medium. In contrast, interior design often moves slowly. Its scale—structurally, legally, and financially—mandates consensus, collaboration, and coordination, necessitating a longer gestation.
Many fashion designers and artists communicate their critique via highly visible vehicles. When Prince performed “I Wanna Be Your Lover” in an animal-print one-piece on national television, he engaged an entire nation in a conversation about conventional gender definitions, a discussion that, nearly 40 years later, continues to have significance culturally and politically. By contrast, the essential characteristic of interior design is its interiority. Interiors are always private; at best they may be semi-public. Users must be aware that an interior space exists, and then agree—and be permitted—to engage it.
Given these obstacles, how do we educate interior designers to be agents of social change?