Tables—dining tables, bedside tables, end tables—take up a lot of every interior designer’s time. But it is only now that industry concern is being paid most to Black designers being denied a seat at the collective industry table.
To be sure, Black interiors designers have been talking for years about the challenges they’ve faced gaining access and getting exposure and the interior design industry has been called out before for its lack of diversity and, specifically, its exclusion of Black talent. So in an industry that celebrates trends, how do we make sure there that what’s happening now is translated into meaningful change?
The Black Interior Designers Network, a non-profit organization with a mission to highlight Black talent in an effort to land business development opportunities, has posted to its Instagram account a list of guidelines to advise companies on how they can become an ally to the Black design community.
Kia Weatherspoon is a U.S. Air Force Veteran, a current member of DC Air National Guard, an advocate for design equity, and the owner of the design practice Determined by Design. Here, she spoke with Julia Gamolina, founder of the website Madame Architect, about her experience in the military, her brother’s incarceration, and why good interior design should be a standard for all, not a luxury for the few.
Julia Gamolina: How did your interest in design first develop?
Kia Weatherspoon: When I think about it now, I believe the universe was always guiding me. My interest in design was developed when I was deployed with the U.S Air Force after September 11. I was at Al’uied Air Base, and my billeting—lodging—was a tent with 14 other women. I needed privacy and comfort, so I took some sheets and hung them from the top of the tent to make three sheet walls. It was the first space I ever created—I cried for 15 minutes in that special place. I would deploy four more times, and every time I used the resources available to create a space able to bring me comfort.
JG: What did you learn about yourself in studying interior design?
KW: For me, it wasn’t about having the best technical drafting, drawing, rendering, or artistic skills. I was focused on having the strongest concept. Studying design, I learned a strong concept enhances the context and fabric of a community, and communities are a direct reflection of people. I learned that I love telling the stories of people through spaces. I also learned that I have a naturally strong voice. Not everyone can say that or achieve that. I thrive by making sure unheard stories and voices are heard in interior environments.
JG: How did you get your start in the field?
KW: My military experience was pivotal. But also, my brother was incarcerated for 15 years. I would visit him, and I remember that it was the most undignified and disheartening experience I had to endure. At one point, I began to question—what is this experience like for a child? The staff? The men who were imprisoned? All these moments led me to a field I did not even know existed. For my undergraduate thesis at Moore College of Art & Design, I examined a male prison facility. All my classmates did hotels, retail, and restaurants. I knew then my path in the profession was meant to be different. These experiences also keep me on a path of making interior spaces equitable for everyone.
My first design-related job I created for myself. I started out as a receptionist at a hotel management company. I saw they had a need for formal interior design on their capital renovation projects. I was starting to pursue my education formally, so I planned, presented, and created a position for myself as a design coordinator. I literally jumped headfirst into facilities management, renovation budgets, site assessments, and overseeing the design of public areas across four major hotel brands. It was the operations and budget-focused needs of this position that made the experience invaluable.
“Momentum at Shade Grove” by DBD. [Photo: courtesy Determined by Design]JG: When and how did you start Determined by Design?
KW: There is no perfect time to start a business, nor a set amount of experience you have to have. There is only a feeling. I started my business when I was becoming disenchanted with my craft and the burnout culture that plagues architecture and design firms. I felt defining my path and taking control of my career was the only option. I wanted whatever I did next to be specific, focused, and mission-driven.
DBD’s first project was a nonprofit project for domestic violence survivors. While everyone thought I was crazy, that project led me to my mission of design equity. That’s when I realized the people who need access to well-designed spaces don’t know they don’t have it or need it. They haven’t had someone to advocate for them. My business was built on eradicating this issue.
JG: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned while running your own practice?
KW: I learned to be specific in knowing who you want your clients to be. Situational awareness means you must understand who will have the most buy-in in your business and you as a person. Determined by Design’s first client was a small black-owned development firm, Dantes Partners.
I also learned that growth for the sake of growth will burn you out. Leadership without mental health awareness will catch up to you and effect your team and business. While these four years also had significant project milestones, more importantly it was a time of growth—personally and professionally—as a business owner. Running a business is a whole person operation. There was so much momentum that I forgot to check in with myself as a person. Momentum and sharp growths can move you into a burnout mode quickly. It can also lead you to growing your business for the sake of it, and not the mission. While the mission never wavered, scaling up was what I thought I had to do—not what I wanted.
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