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?
We do so by emphasizing criticality, empathy, and advocacy as the most important characteristics designers can develop.
Criticism is the bedrock of design education. Criticism thoughtfully and rigorously challenges the normalized. Education is about making critical questioning instinctive, because criticism is not only fundamental to design, it is the foundation of citizenship. The designer who critically filters the mountain of data associated with a million-square-foot upfit could expertly navigate the information and misdirection that floods contemporary society.
Empathy requires us to solicit, understand, and consider other viewpoints in the design process. “Listening,” according to improvisational artists, “is the willingness to change.” The empathic designer puts a premium on seeking out and respecting another’s viewpoint in service of design. The empathic citizen could overcome the increasingly binary nature of public discourse today.
The critical, empathic designer is also an advocate. Like many schools, ours has an innovative interdisciplinary program—the Middle of Broad studio—that pairs our students with communities in need of design assistance, but advocacy opportunities are present at many scales. When accessibility is posited as civil rights advocacy, it is no longer a space planning conundrum. Plumbing code requirements are opportunities to advocate for our trans community. If we can educate designers who understand that they can empower people, that ethos could translate into many other areas.
We need students to join us in transforming interior design. Together, we can combat sexism and homophobia. Together, we can reach out to underrepresented populations and engage them with design, and then provide those designers with mentoring and support. Together, we can advocate for people whose voices, overtly or inadvertently, are silenced in design conversations. Perhaps most of all, together we must reflect on our own profession and ask difficult questions about diversity and inclusion. The recent work by the IIDA Diversity Council is a start, but a comprehensive study across the profession is grossly overdue. Consider this a call to action, and I pledge my participation.
When speaking of good design, Harry Bertoia wrote, “[T]he assumption is that somewhere, hidden, is a better way of doing things.” Equipping our students with a critic’s eyes, an empathic ear, and an advocate’s voice is the first step.
Roberto Ventura is an assistant professor in the Department of Interior Design at Virginia Commonwealth University and maintains a solo practice, roberto ventura design studio. Exploring the intersections of multiple disciplines in terms of form, type, process, and communication, his academic and creative scholarship ranges from the curation and design of exhibitions to the introduction of improv performance to design students. Ventura earned his M.Arch from Miami University and a bachelor’s degree in Math-Physics from Albion College.