Interior designer Keia McSwain took over as president of the Black Interior Designers Network (BIDN) and principal of Kimberly + Cameron Interiors when their founder, Kimberly Ward, passed away last year. This summer, she presided over BIDN’s seventh-annual conference in Atlanta, a three-day gathering that embodied Ward’s mantra, “Let’s keep moving forward.” Inspired by her forerunner, McSwain is doing her damnedest to fill what she calls “super huge shoes” while making a lasting impact that’s all her own.
I’d dreamt of seeing other designers that looked like me, and apparently I wasn’t the only one—or the first. Before I hit the scene, interior designer Kimberly Ward was always asked, “Where are all of the black designers?” She published the first Top 20 African American Interior Designers list in 2010 with the hope of creating a resource for those seeking to work with or for black interior designers. It soon grew into an entire network for designers of color.
I met Kimberly at an ASID event, where we talked about how many people are working for a paycheck instead of doing exactly what they are meant to do. I was one of those people! I began writing for Kimberly’s online magazine, and at the same time, I pestered her to teach me what I needed to know to be a great designer. I assured her that I was willing to do whatever it took to be great and to serve others. She recognized that I didn’t lie about “having an eye,” gave me what seems like a million books to read—and it was all uphill from there! Kimberly mentored me for two and a half years. The most important lesson she taught me was that everyone won’t always see or accept your vision, but you have to keep going. She said that fear keeps you stuck—both fear of failure and of success. “It’s OK to shine, to stand out from the ordinary,” she always said.
Our biggest challenge is being underestimated. What’s frustrating for me, based on conversations I’ve had, is the assumption that black designers only do work for athletes, singers or rappers. I’ve designed so many single-family homes for people who have retired from the military, doctors, lawyers —for people from all aspects of life. But those stereotypes, or going to trade shows and not seeing people who look like us, are also what motivate us. The struggles we deal with every day are what help us grow.
Since I became president of the BIDN last year, we’ve established strategic partnerships with industry leaders like Design Trade Service, and are working with the High Point Market Authority so that we can put more of a fingerprint—and footprint—on Market. In November, we’re setting up a panel at the New York School of Interior Design; a new Top 20 list will be revealed this year; and we’re in the process of setting up webinars and CEU courses. We’ve also launched a new website that will [be a resource for our members and] fuel the network’s growth.
One of the best parts about this network is that it’s not just for black interior designers. It’s a home for us, but that doesn’t mean we’re not welcoming everyone. We just do what we can to support one another. If another person doesn’t support you, that’s OK—we support you.
I’m running a boutique design firm. In the past year, I’ve taken on projects that will be awesome additions to the coffee-table book Kimberly wanted the firm to produce someday. I’ve shifted the types of projects I take on, [focusing on the ones] that will allow me full creativity.
I pursued a passion—and changed careers to do it. I got a degree in English; when I moved to Atlanta after college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. The right people pushed me and said, “You’ve got it; what are you gonna do with it?” So I do that for others now. If I can become president of a nonprofit organization and inherit an entire design company at the age of 30, they can do that—and more.