Putting Black Design in a Spotlight

Putting Black Design in a Spotlight

This article is part of our Design special section on how the recent push for diversity is changing the way the world looks.

Even when Tione Trice was a child in Atlanta in the 1990s, he nurtured a love for a design style he called African Essentialism that was nothing like the Eurocentric goods that surrounded him. “I would see these photos and art books and I wanted to create that for myself,” he said. “Things that had a natural feel.”

Mr. Trice, 36, became an interior designer and boutique owner, opening a little shop called Of the Cloth in brownstone Brooklyn in 2021 and relocating it a year ago to a storefront at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. There, he sells African and African American antiques.

“I discovered Sheila Bridges and Rachel Ashwell,” he said of two interior designers who translated their distinct aesthetic sensibilities into products. “I saw them starting their careers as collectors and sellers and thought, ‘This is how I’ll enter the market.’”

What reads as a heartwarming story of a childhood dream come true is complicated by a design market that is heavily white and newly reminded of that status following the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement. As the design industry grapples with its identity, it is no simple feat to introduce a fresh aesthetic and new audiences. But Mr. Trice is part of a flourishing crop of Black entrepreneurs who are doing just that.

He combines his retail operation with interior design services for collectors and brands. “I feel Black people visit the shop to be part of it,” he said. “These people are holding on to their dollar because they want to spend it with me. There are no shops like what I do in the city: People come to me for truth. They come to me for rare.”

His presentation style defies the Instagram trend toward stark interiors. “It’s very challenging for a Black person to be a minimalist because we don’t have enough museums to store our things,” he said. “When your grandmother passes, it has to go to someone in your family.”

Like Mr. Trice, Jenna Fletcher, the founder of an online design platform called Oswalde Shop, offers a curatorial vision for Black collectors and companies hungry for direction.

Born in London to an English father and a British Barbadian mother, the 31-year-old Ms. Fletcher casts an astute eye on African practitioners whose international reputations are catching up with their gifts. She has showcased the furnishings of Nifemi Marcus-Bello, a Nigerian who last year won the prestigious Hublot Design Prize for innovative talent, and Andu Masebo, a young Londoner whom Wallpaper magazine has deemed a “future icon.”

“My whole thing was placing Black designers in the same frame as the highly regarded cult designers, like Castiglioni and Mario Bellini,” Ms. Fletcher said, referring to eminences who are (or in Achille Castiglioni’s case, were) white Italian men.

She rejects the descriptions of much Black design as craft-based and “vernacular” — associated with, say, carvings sold in markets. She wants to reconfigure how Black designers are regarded, and it looks like she is succeeding.

“Every single product that I sold from Nifemi and Andu was sought after, well received and lusted for,” she said.

While she elevates Black designers, her retail strategy is driven by an egalitarian philosophy. From the start, she priced her goods on a sliding scale. “I was being very favorable to young people of color in London,” she said. “People would say, ‘I really love this piece, but I don’t have the cash,’ and I’d ask what they could pay.”

She wants interiors to join the “mainstream design epoch” and cultivate the same enthusiasm as trainers and street wear. It excites her to see “25-year-old dudes in London gassing over a design rack with the same ferocity I used to witness at Dover Street over a Tom Sachs Nike shoe,” she said.

At the same time, she caters to an elite group. Virgil Abloh, the fashion and product designer, who died in 2021, was a customer, and she regularly dispenses advice about interiors to Black art collectors and corporate clients like the cult streetwear brand Story MFG. “It’s about Black folks breaking into spaces,” she said, “kicking down the door and being, quite frankly, better than everyone else.”

Interior design is a new frontier that needs to be conquered by Black representatives, she said. “We’ve always curated our spaces, but we haven’t had people stepping out and saying: ‘I’m a tastemaker.’”

Ajiri Aki, a Nigerian-born, Texas-reared, Paris-based specialist in the art of entertaining and the force behind the online tableware boutique Madame de la Maison, shows no hesitation in claiming her territory in design.

Madame de la Maison is ostensibly about elegant dining, but what you are really being sold is a lifestyle that is rarely associated with Black living. “Why can’t Black people just have joy too? Black girl joy?” she asked.

When she first moved to Paris from New York in 2011, Ms. Aki, 43, found that the best way of getting to know people was inviting them to her home for a meal. That and an interest in vintage home goods turned into a business with multiple dimensions.

Last year, she led a group of mostly Black women around Provence, where they shopped for antiques and enjoyed long, lazy meals in the sun.

Next month, Clarkson Potter will publish Ms. Aki’s book “Joie: A Parisian’s Guide to Celebrating the Good Life,” another expression of her belief that “setting the table and entertaining is a gift to yourself and others. It’s absolutely my intention to make sure that gathering is something that we do more often and that it’s beautiful.”

All three entrepreneurs envision a future of expanded opportunities for Black artists, consumers and connoisseurs. Mr. Trice plans to develop a studio museum where Black designers can experiment with ceramics and textiles. “It will also be a space to archive African American and African diaspora goods,” he said.

Ms. Fletcher imagines a gallery for young, marginalized Black designers where they can “feel like it’s a world of our own making.”

And Ms. Aki said she hopes that someone will come along and “be the Black Conran,” alluding to Sir Terence Conran, the British design force who bent minds to his vision (of modernism) with his emporiums, Habitat and the Conran Shop.

“I hope that someone’s going to get some big funding and build a store,” she said.

As for now, all three are successfully uniting contemporary design with the construction of a new order where Blackness has an overdue seat at the table.

“It’s quite extraordinary,” Ms. Fletcher said. “I’m breaking into a space where no one looks like me and no one acts like me.”

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