weekly feature | Apr 26, 2023 |
Do politics matter in design?

A minuscule budget. A crazy-tight schedule. Bad vibes with the spouse. Bad vibes in general. There are plenty of reasons to turn down a potential client, but politics usually isn’t one of them. A few weeks ago, the industry got an example of when it very much was—in spectacularly public fashion.

Midway through a Vanity Fair profile on conservative commentator Candace Owens, writer Emily Jane Fox revealed that Owens and her husband, George Farmer—the former CEO of Twitter-for-the-right-wing startup Parler—had reached out to Los Angeles designer David Netto to decorate their Nashville home. Netto’s response was short and unambiguous: “Dear George, thank you for your inquiry. I’d rather get beat in the ass with a wooden plank than ever go near either of you. Kind regards, David.”

Owens, who is Black, saw Netto’s response as an example of a double standard. “If a white conservative male had written that email to an outspoken Black liberal, he would’ve lost everything,” she told Fox. But in a follow-up exchange with Vanity Fair, Netto pointed out that he was addressing Farmer, a white man, and that the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol in the wake of the presidential election had fundamentally changed his approach.

“After January 6, the joke’s over,” he told Fox. “People like this should expect to be recognized as complicit with something very dangerous. … and expect to be told off in polite society.” (When reached via email by Business of Home, Netto simply reiterated that race was not a factor—“I’d be delighted to write the same email to [right-wing political consultant] Roger Stone,” he wrote.)

Netto’s hard pass was saucy enough that it briefly became a tabloid item, zinging around to broadsheets and gossip blogs alike. But now that the titillation has died down, a bigger question remains: Is politics starting to matter in design?

It’s not that designers don’t have deeply felt political views, or that the industry doesn’t occasionally come together around a political issue (take, for example, the outrage surrounding the passage of North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill” in 2017). But it’s fair to say that political disagreement is not a common deal-breaker between designers and clients.

That may partially be because many designers never have to deal with it. In an increasingly polarized country, many of us—especially those in large coastal cities—live and work in political bubbles where we rarely interact with people who don’t share our views. It may also partially be because the design profession itself tends to attract skilled consensus builders, not fiery ideologues who live for debate.

To take a more cynical view, it may also simply be that design is a business where a very small number of clients make up the bulk of a firm’s revenue, and if you subject each one of those clients to political litmus tests—well, that’s tough sledding. Whatever the reason, traditionally, the general vibe around politics between designer and client is often a dance of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

There’s evidence that that’s subtly changing, at least in the margins. Netto’s Candace Owens clapback was an extreme example, but there are others as well. The world of architecture has been roiled in recent years by debates on the ethics of taking on various kinds of projects—is it moral, for example, to design an airport or a plane interior, knowing that air travel is a significant contributor to climate change? Another equally fierce debate is currently raging about the propriety of architects and designers working on the Saudi government’s Neom project—a planned city under fire for alleged greenwashing and human rights violations.

Though the debates are less public in the world of residential design, a recent poll on BOH’s Instagram feed revealed a wide range of reactions to the notion of working with clients who hold opposing political stances. Many took the view that design should transcend political considerations—but some suggested that they would at least think twice about working with someone at the opposite end of the spectrum. “I would have [worked with someone across the aisle] six years ago,” wrote one respondent. “[But since then,] politics have shifted from ideas to one’s identity.”

That shift is increasingly difficult to ignore, even if you try. Over the past few years, as everything from surgical masks to gas stoves have taken on partisan meaning, designers are encountering politics in places that once felt neutral. “Clients do definitely bring up politics, especially when they’re looking at products from a sustainable point of view,” says Arkansas designer Shayla Copas. “Sustainability is brought up, and then that will segue into their feelings on other things.”

Sometimes it doesn’t even take an outside cue. Idaho designer Melanie Everett says that politics have been front and center for clients recently, sometimes to the point of testing the relationship. “I have lots of clients with different views, and that’s great—it’s what makes the world an interesting place, and it’s never really mattered,” she says. “But I had one client who became obsessed with January 6 and wouldn’t let it go, even in meetings—he would start to lecture me on the Constitution.”

“I love working with different kinds of people, but [when] you’re together with clients for 18 to 24 months, you get really close with them. There has to be a level of trust, and some basic shared values,” adds Everett. “It goes both ways, for them and me.”

The intimate nature of design compounds the complexity of the issue. While most professionals can safely claim that their customers’ politics are irrelevant, many don’t spend two years with their clients, through the emotional roller coaster of an arduous renovation. In design, the personal matters a lot.

An obvious factor in the union between politics and design has been the rise of social media, particularly Instagram. While the platform has undeniably helped thousands of designers build their businesses, it has also thrust them into the arena of public discourse and given them both a platform and a minefield to navigate.

Nashville-based designer Stephanie Sabbe says that she used to post more about political issues on Instagram, but after realizing she was mostly just “arguing with strangers” she pulled back. After recently posting a link to a gun control petition in the wake of The Covenant School shooting—in which one of Sabbe’s friend’s daughter was killed—she received a wave of vitriolic comments. “I got lit up, and there were people calling me an idiot, and I turned off Instagram for the weekend,” she says.

Gun control in particular seems to be an issue that designers are speaking up about. Los Angeles designer Rosa Beltran recently began posting under the hashtag #designersforguncontrol and organizing a group of designers (including Netto) to participate in a march on D.C. in favor of a federal assault weapons ban. Colorado designer Stephanie Ballard joined her, and began posting about the issue herself. Though Ballard has conservative clients who may not share her views, recent shootings have forced her off the political sidelines. “It used to be a situation where it felt radical to speak up, and everyone was shy about it, afraid to offend or make waves,” she says. “Now I think if you’re a parent in particular, you do not have the luxury of being quiet.”

The irony is that when a designer engages politically, the backlash can sometimes come from both sides. Now, Sabbe sometimes gets angry comments when she doesn’t post about political issues. “Someone randomly asked, ‘Can you talk about Roe v. Wade?’” she recalls. “I’m not a DJ taking requests to piss people off on the internet! It can feel like people are treating it like a sporting event.”

But despite the occasional social media firestorm, Sabbe says her politics haven’t affected her business, and that she continues to take clients on both sides of the aisle. “I don’t work with people who are blatantly terrible or racist—I wouldn’t want to be around that person,” she says. “But if you voted differently than I did, I don’t care, just like I wouldn’t want you to judge me for what I believe.”

Sabbe’s philosophy seems to represent a kind of new normal for designers: A world in which politics is more out in the open, but design work itself is mostly separate—and perhaps, under the best of circumstances, serves as an opportunity to foster mutual understanding across political divides. The challenge will be that, in an era when the personal and political are increasingly tied together, it will be harder for designers and clients to separate the two and focus on picking paint colors. How you feel about that—well, it probably depends on your politics.

Homepage image: Generated by Midjourney

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