Diversity in design: new charity United in Design working to revolutionise interiors industry for BAME designers

Sophie Ashby, a high-profile designer of luxury interiors, recently called her industry “elitist and exclusionary” in an outspoken critique, adding that “you often need the right connections for success”.

Her views were crystallised by the death in the US of George Floyd at the end of May, the explosion on Instagram of #blackouttuesday where black squares were posted in solidarity, and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement, which also triggered the Activism Now September issue of Vogue.

Meanwhile, black interior designer Alexandria Dauley, with her own successful south London practice and a teacher at KLC School of Design, had been nurturing ideas to combat prejudice within the profession.

“I am a minority in my industry — there just aren’t many black interior designers out there,” she says. “Happily, I’ve had positive experiences, but I have heard too many sad stories of discrimination blighting too many design careers.”

Accordingly, the two professionals together have founded a charity called United in Design (UiD).

They have devised a diversity “pledge” for the interior design industry, and are asking would-be UiD members to commit to least three of its tenets, which include support for apprenticeships/mentoring, and an outreach programme for schools.

“It all begins with education,” says Dauley.

Already they have 125 signatories, from individual supporters to small and large brands and practices, each contributing financially according to their size.

They include internationally famous Martin Brudnizki, Taylor Howes, David Collins, Joyce Wang and Katharine Pooley.

Already signed up is globally successful designer Eva Sonaike, whose Nigerian heritage feeds into vibrant patterns for fabrics, cushions, lamp shades and furniture.

“I have experienced discrimination and prejudice on many levels,” she says. “UiD will change perceptions and open doors.”


London-based homeware designer Eva Sonaike’s Nigerian heritage feeds into vibrant patterns for fabrics, cushions, lamp shades and furniture

Also on board is architect Charu Gandhi, with her own design company Elicyon.

She had an Indian childhood, and then travelled to the Far East, California and Europe. “Now I move seamlessly between cultures.”

In schools, she works with the Mayor’s Fund for London Access Aspiration programme.

“Design should bring us together not push us apart,” says Mimi Shodeinde.

Born in London of Nigerian heritage, her functional sculptural art was in a debut show in Mayfair in 2016.

“I’m inspired by multiple cultures,” she says of her furniture, glass, woodwork and vessels.

London-based Design Can is also pushing for design diversity.

Launched last year, it is a hard-hitting website with a rolling feed of inspirational stories and educational resources.

On its committee is London’s multi-disciplinary artist/designer Yinka Ilori, whose Nigerian roots are reflected in exuberant works such as last year’s summer pavilion for the Dulwich Museum.

“According to the Design Council, the UK design industry is 78 per cent male and only 13 per cent of employees are from BAME backgrounds,” he says. “Hopefully we can change that.”

Young designer Mac Collins is also on the Design Can steering group. His family come from Jamaica and the UK.

He won multiple student awards for his Iklwa chair, named after a Zulu spear and reminiscent of a tribal throne. “My one-off pieces often explore my cultural heritage,” he says.

Trained in India and at Central Saint Martins where she is now a teacher, Londoner Kangan Arora creates print for fabric, rugs and more.

“It’s in my blood as my family have a textile business in Ludhiana in North India, where I grew up.”

Her assured layered geometrics have won clients such as Ikea, Heal’s, the Tate and Floor_Story.

She favours apprenticeships and mentoring. “Design firms should hire more diversely and share voices and perspectives.”

Of second generation Indian heritage is the Acton-based industrial designer Tej Chauhan, whose award-winning practice has done hi-tech products for Nokia, Lexus, Tesco and many more. His approach is “emotive” and the results are intuitive to use.

“My heritage is a richness which helps me connect, an extension of my personality.”

With Jamaican parents, Annette Taylor-Anderson says: “I think of myself as a designer not a black designer.”

Born and raised in London, she makes large-scale murals for homes, hotels, bars, offices and care homes, often inspired by scenes from the capital.


Artist/designer Simone Brewster, with Mother, a piece in plywood and tulipwood from her Tropical Noire collection of large interior sculptural vessels

London-based artist/designer Simone Brewster has a degree in Architecture from the Bartlett, UCL, plus an MA in Design Products from the Royal College of Art.

She is making large-scale sculptural furniture and other artefacts and took to painting during lockdown.

“I have a black female view,” she told the New York magazine Business of Home recently. “I am the voice of a Londoner with Caribbean parents that grew up in a multicultural society. But the cold fact is that just 0.32 per cent of the furniture produced by leading brands is created by black designers.”

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