industry insider | Aug 28, 2020 |
Making the design industry more diverse, one scholarship at a time

Like many of us, interior designer and art adviser Elena Frampton has spent a lot of this summer reflecting on racial injustice and inequities. “When the protests started in May, there was so much talk happening on social media, but I’m a doer not a talker,” says Frampton, the principal of Frampton Co. “I began thinking about what I could do that would be effective to increase diversity in the design industry.” After her friend and fellow designer Elizabeth Bolognino mentioned that she’d like to find a way to support diversity at Pratt Institute, her alma mater, the pair came up with the idea to approach the New York–based university about creating a scholarship for interior design students of color.

“I employ a lot of Pratt graduates, so I felt a connection there as well,” says Frampton. “While there are scholarships out there like this for art and architecture students, there are comparatively few for interior design. And we felt it was important to do something that could grow in the longer term, past when the movement is no longer a trending topic.”

In the process of developing the tentatively named Interior Design Diversity Fund and an endowment that would sustain the scholarship in the future, the university shared a troubling (though perhaps unsurprising) statistic: In 2017, only 6.3 percent of graduates from interior design programs were Black. “That’s abysmal,” says Frampton. “But, when I look at my own experience as a business owner, I haven’t been interviewing diverse pools of candidates either.”

Conversations about inequity in the design community took place not just among friends and co-workers, but in public forums as well. Back in June, the Design Leadership Network hosted a Zoom conversation about roadblocks to industry diversity, featuring designers Sheila Bridges and Brad Ford, where Bridges explained that the design industry can often feel like an exclusive, self-selecting group. “If you’re trying to solve a diversity problem and there’s no one of color or other genders on your board, aren’t you talking in circles?” she asked. “Talking to the same group of people and hiring the same type of people perpetuates these problems. It doesn’t get us anywhere.”

The talk resonated with industry heavyweights who tuned in, including the leadership team at textiles brand Holland & Sherry. “Sheila talked about how we create change first by listening, which leads to planning,” said company president Bryan Dicker as he looked back at the notes he had taken during the conversation. “What resonated for me was hearing the same terms and words I use to build our team—relationships, diversity of thought.

After the panel, Dicker got on the phone with Holland & Sherry’s vice president, Dan Waldron, and Elizabeth Eakins, whose eponymous rug and textiles company was acquired by Holland & Sherry in 2018, both of whom had been in the audience. The conversation prompted them to look critically at their own company—but also inspired them to take action in a bigger way. “The thing that struck me most was our ability to listen and think about how we can support opportunities for individuals to grow,” recalls Eakins. “The other thing Sheila made clear was that she wasn’t going to fix the problem—it’s time for people to think about what they need to be doing, and this is something we can do.”

The result is the new Holland & Sherry Diversity in Design Scholarship, which the company is launching this month and will be awarded to a high school or undergraduate student looking to pursue a degree in interior design, architecture or textile design. “I wanted to create something that’s more proactive,” says Waldron, who spearheaded the initiative internally. He says the plan is to add one student each year until the company is working with four students at any given time.

Elsewhere in the industry, more initiatives are beginning to emerge as industry leaders search for new ways to make a lasting impact on the industry’s next generation. Last week, the Design Leadership Network announced an initiative of its own—the formation of the Design Leadership Foundation, a charity with the vision of offering mentorship and support toward the goal of expanding diversity within the architecture and design fields. And yesterday, City College’s Bernard & Anne Spitzer School of Architecture announced the new Hollander Design Fellowship, a three-year award funded by Hollander Design Landscape Architects, which will be awarded to New York students from historically underrepresented communities who are pursuing a master’s degree in landscape architecture at the school.

“There was that day earlier this summer when everyone was posting a black box on their Instagrams [to show support for Black Lives Matter]. We were discussing it among our staff and it was clear that, while that may make people feel good, it wasn’t going to do a single thing,” says Edmund Hollander, the firm's founder. “Words are easy and actions are difficult. We knew then that we wanted to do something that could impact individuals in a real way and address these larger issues of inequality.” Hollander employs several City College graduates and thought the school’s Master of Landscape Architecture program was a logical fit for the fellowship. “Providing opportunities in education is the greatest way to make this change,” he says. “That’s how our community can make a positive contribution and increase diversity across the industry.”

Education isn’t the only barrier to a more equitable industry. As they shaped their respective scholarship funds, Waldron and Frampton both grappled with the fact that while schools lead to internships, and internships lead to better jobs after graduation, many students require additional financial support in order to complete those low-paying (or unpaid) internships in the first place.

In addition to covering academic fees, Holland & Sherry also plans to offer its scholarship recipients paid summer internships within the company. “We are manufacturers in addition to having showrooms, there’s an architect in-house and designer in all categories—for someone who is young with an interest and aptitude, but who doesn’t know how to put them together, this gives them a way to see that there’s viability in the occupation,” says Eakins. “The other thing about internships is that people on the team learn from the intern. They’re young and unbridled in certain ways, and that exchange is very enriching.”

For Waldron, the mentoring aspect of the program is deeply personal: “I’d like to be more involved in mentorship,” he says. “I’ve sat in the showroom in the D&D Building for 10 years and watched a parade of very similar faces come through that door, and I’d like to see design informed by more walks of life. I want to be proactive about establishing inclusiveness in our industry.”

“For change to happen, there has to be a combination of financial assistance and access,” agrees Frampton, who recognizes the crucial influence an internship at a top New York firm played in jump-starting her career. One design firm that’s contributing to the Pratt endowment, which chose to remain anonymous, pledged not only a recurring $5,000 annual donation to the fund, but also a guaranteed interview at the firm for the scholarship’s recipient. (Although internships aren’t tied to the fellowship at City College, Hollander plans to recruit from among the recipients.)

Another challenge is simply raising the necessary funds to support scholarships. Holland & Sherry is funding its initiative through the charitable contributions of its employees, which the company will match. To raise funds for the Pratt scholarship, Frampton and Bolognino have been reaching out to industry peers, starting with a group of more than a dozen New York–based designers they are part of, which before COVID gathered monthly to talk shop. The group of women quickly agreed to support the fund themselves—and to approach their own industry contacts to fundraise.

The current fundraising goal is $100,000, which Frampton says would allow for financial support of one student and the costs of setting up an endowment so that the scholarship could continue and, hopefully, eventually support multiple students each year. The process has changed her concept of urgency in accomplishing something immediately, instead, teaching her that change takes time. “As designers, we’re all impatient, because we’re used to building and creating and it’s very go, go, go. But it could take years to see the results of action like this scholarship. It’s not going to happen next week, but if we don’t do the work now, the lack of diversity in design will not be solved.”

To donate to the Pratt Interior Design Diversity Fund, click here.

To apply for the Holland & Sherry Diversity in Design Scholarship, email diversity@hollandandsherry.com for more information.

For more information about the Hollander Design Fellowship at City College, email archgrad@ccny.cuny.edu.

Homepage photo: Pratt Institute's Brooklyn campus | Courtesy of Pratt

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