“If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” tweeted renowned author Toni Morrison on Oct. 30, 2013.
It was this same philosophy that encouraged Jeanine Hays and Bryan Mason to launch their blog AphroChic in 2007.
Delving into their love of design and culture as a means of breaking away from their everyday lives, AphroChic—which has since evolved to include product design and interior design studios—is a celebration of African culture.
“Culture really sits at the corner stone of what we do at AphroChic,” Mason explains. “It’s what really inspired us in the beginning, and as we’ve gone [on], our understanding of the relationship between culture and design has deepened, and it’s deepened our message as well.” Speaking to and for educated people of color who love design, AphroChic became, as Hays puts it, “an exercise in greater representation for people of color.”
All Photography Courtesy of AphroChic
The Importance of Representation
In the last few years in particular, the importance of representation has been a talking point in American media. What should be included in that conversation, Mason says, is how “representation is almost always a fantasy. The question then becomes, whose fantasy is being placed and what is the distance between representation and reality?”
Another aspect of representation is that it contributes to society’s understanding of what exists in that society. “With regard to our society and representation, there are certain areas which we see people of color… represented in particular ways,” he continues. “Those ways very rarely, in regard to African Americans, include interior design, product design and other parts of the industry we’re in.” The result is that there then arises the question of whether people of color exist in the interior design industry.
Of course, there are, and there always has been. While Caucasians have been in control of media—and therefore representation—since the early days of U.S. history, African American culture and design has always existed as its own entity, putting its own narration on what aspects people of color could control.
“Representation has always been important for us, because one of the first things that happened when we started the blog is that we just didn’t see people of color,” Hays explains, “particularly people who look like us as African Americans, in a lot of the websites about home décor. Even in a lot of magazines, you would never see an African American on the cover or even within the pages of home décor magazines. So, for us, we really wanted to create a space with AphroChic where we could see that; where we could see African Americans and people of color who have a love of design, who have amazing homes and spaces.”
Mason adds, “It’s not an issue of participation. There’s not a lack of people of color who are designers and have interior products or are in different aspects of the field. The problem is there’s a massive lack of representation, so many of us are not ever seen.”
AphroChic’s product and interior design studios take representation a step further by providing clients with the means to “represent their own story,” she continues.
The Story of Culture
Representation makes space for the story of culture. Mason says, “Design is culturally inspired and contributes to culture in kind. Most things that you look at, you find a story behind it: some historical process, some cultural interaction—often between cultures that brought something about.”
“Design is such a cultural medium,” Hays includes. “There isn’t anything that has been created that doesn’t have culture behind it.”
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When considering the narration of a space or product they are designing, Hays and Mason look at four main components of bringing culture into the design:
- Global Objects
Layering these four components that hold such important value in cultural heritage and representation, Hays and Mason tell their client’s individual story. This creates a non-homogenous template for design as personal as the client themselves. In creating such individualized stories for clients made up of their own various backgrounds and personal tastes, Mason says they are “disrupting cultural normativity.”
“We have to start looking at cultural normativity and the process by which certain cultures—we call them privileged to the point of being seen as sort of baseline. Like ‘this is culture’ and other cultures are just ‘other.’ The reason why that’s important is that we’ve encountered people who describe their work as trying to create design products or spaces without culture. They will look at something from another culture in a different part of the world, and then they’ll try to do something similar to that. In their mind, they’re doing it in a sort of culturalist neutral space, which of course doesn’t exist. There’s no way you can take culture out of design. You can replace someone else’s culture with your own culture, but you can’t do anything outside of culture.”
In disrupting cultural normativity, it becomes important for the designer to recognize that there aren’t “others”; “ethnic” design doesn’t exist because even if one culture is the status quo in its environment, the culture it came from is ethnic to other societies. Recognizing that everything has a culture and a history creates an importance to the narration being created.
Appropriation vs. Appreciation
Working within the scope of culture, particularly cultures that is not one’s own, will always bring up the issue of appropriation. Appropriation, or the act of a privileged group taking another culture’s traditions, patterns, and aesthetics and making it their own, is oftentimes mistaken for appreciation of culture. However, the thin line that exists between the two revolves around the understanding one has of the traditions, patterns and aesthetics they are mimicking. In appropriation, that understanding is ignored.
Recently, apparel store Urban Outfitters came under fire when it appropriated traditional Navajo patterns. Similarly, the use of native head dress in fashion and music festivals like Coachella has been hotly contested. The reasons are simple: As artist Lehi Thunder Voice Eagle Sanchez explained in an interview with VICE, each pattern and symbol in Native Indian culture represents an aspect of their history that is being used without consideration of its meaning or importance. “Some of these symbols can be sacred and done as a ceremony, while others are to keep records or tell stories,” he said. “I know there is big concern on what is being used from our culture and how it is being used by those outside our culture.”
In the same way the cross is an important symbol in Christian culture, the use of Native Indian patterns and symbols have deep tradition and meaning. As noted in the VICE article with a quote from Sanchez, the use of these patterns by Urban Outfitters and others was done with “no real consideration for the ‘copious amounts of tragedy and trauma’ from past events that still hurt the Navajo.”
“Appropriation is far too easy and far too common,” Mason says. When creating a space that showcases culture, he explains that the same rules for plagiarism exist. “Cite your sources,” he continues. Understanding and being clear about the history and purpose of the aesthetic or pieces used differentiates appropriation from appreciation.
“Appreciation requires acknowledgement,” continues Hays. “It’s just like when you’re appreciating someone personally, you’re going to actually acknowledge that person’s contribution in your life in some way. [When a publication] might say, ‘Oh, tribal décor is in,’ that’s not appreciation because we don’t know where those things may have come from; tribal is just sort of this ‘catch all’ and we’ve really lost the cultural impact… They might be talking about one, two, three, four or dozens of different cultures that have contributed to something significant within a design category.”
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Hays and Mason are quick to point out that someone doesn’t need to have extensive education in history or culture to understand the history and importance behind a design. All it takes, Mason explains, is a curiosity for where things come from and the ability to pass that information along. Within their own practice, they are transparent of the culture of which the product comes, as well as the working conditions of those producing the goods. In the end, that information enriches the design, giving more to the narration of the space.
Looking Toward the Future
AphroChic’s newest product collection, New Heirlooms, signals what Hays and Mason are looking toward with the future of the brand. Described as “Afro Futurist”—the term “afrofuturism” having been coined by Mark Dery in 1994 to describe themes and concerns of people of African heritage in fantasy and science fiction, imagining the future of black people without a dominant lens of colonialism or neocolonialism—New Heirlooms looks to create family and cultural traditions and artifacts that can be passed down through generations.
“Afrofuturism is really looking at imagining black futures,” explains Hays. “That African Americans will have homes, will have families, will have spaces where we have pieces that will last for generations and could be passed down. We thought that was a really interesting concept behind the items that we were and are creating.”
With the collection, Hays and Mason are designing with not only culture in mind, but legacy—an aspect of American culture that is widely disproportionate between white and black communities. Mason points out that statistics show that there is a staggering difference between the amount of whites who have possessions that can be passed down through generations versus their black counterparts. Imagining the future through New Heirlooms, Hays and Mason see it as being a collection that can help fill that gap.
Hays explains, “Many of us are still struggling to find homes and legacy that we can give for generations to come. So, we thought New Heirlooms can be a positive message that we can see and hope that our generation and the next generation will have spaces, communities and homes that are not just for us but for our children; that can be passed down like these big family estates that exist in other parts of America and the world.”
This future also looks like one where diversity is the status quo, not the exception.
“How [afrofuturism] features back into [representation], is in regard to diversity,” Mason explains. “Diversity needs to be a habit, not a happening. When it becomes reflexive. When the strange thing is to see a space that doesn’t have diversity instead of a place where you’ve set aside a space for diversity. If you’re setting aside a space for diversity, you’re saying, ‘This is where diversity is, and if you’re not interested in it, just don’t look at it in this direction.’ True diversity is when it’s woven into the fabric of what we’re doing, as much as any other part of what we do. So, when it’s not there, that’s what stands out.”
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