Hey there, Ajai here. It is so good to be back as I took a bit of a break after giving birth to my sweet baby boy. Last time I chatted with you all, I was rushing to put together a thanksgiving celebration over at my mom and dad’s (because my due date was also set for Thanksgiving). Happy to say that I was able to complete that thanksgiving table-scape and then later on, welcome our son Jack into the world on November 21st. However, I still missed thanksgiving dinner with the family, as I had an emergency c-section and spent several days in the hospital, so my husband (Jonathan), Jack, and I went straight home to rest in bed. Again, I’m happy to be back and excited to pick up where we left off. Let’s talk about design.
Coming into the new year, I was looking for a bit of a refresh, but one that was more on the renter-friendly side. I got to thinking about colors and how impactful they are when they are working together. They tell such a beautiful story when you get the combinations just right. My husband and I wanted our living room to have more of a contrast, so incorporating more black was the first thing on our to-do list. After getting the go-ahead from our leasing office, we painted our bar area first. We chose a PPG Interior Flat Black paint (in the color Onyx). We even added a black outlet cover to transition into the black paint. To warm up the space and give it more texture, we added two woven pendant light shades over the already existing drop pendants. This would be the place we sat down to have intimate conversations with one another and feel like we were on vacation somewhere moody and exotic. To further play on the moody and textured elements, we used two distressed velvet bar stools we had tucked away in storage, the brass legs on these contrasted well against our black color-blocked wall. But the black wall alone wasn’t enough to transform the space.
Our living room used to be so many different shades of white. White drapes, white sofa, white ottoman, white coffee table… you get the point. While this hue inspires serenity, in my opinion, it’s best when contrasted with darker hues and colors. Ironically enough, with the wall as the only black accent, my living room began to remind me of my journey to becoming an interior designer. As with much of my childhood, I was on a constant path where representation was not available to me. I’ve been crazy about interior design since my early childhood. It began with visiting model homes with my mother and imagining that we lived there. My mom would ask me what I’d do differently with the space, and we’d sit in those beautifully designed homes, daydream, and redesign in our heads (I’d even go as far as to move small items around the model home (like pillows, throws, and accessories… all that good stuff). I’d watch interior design shows on the sofa with my mom and read interior design magazines, but never really saw anyone who looked like me on any of these platforms.
Though I longed to be an interior designer, my journey began as a communications major, as I did not think someone like me could attain such a career as a designer. After graduating with my bachelor’s degree in Journalism, interiors still called out to me. After ignoring the urge for a couple of years, I eventually gave in to my passion and enrolled back into school to pursue my master’s in architecture and interior design. During that time, I hardly ever saw another black woman or person in my architectural and interior design college courses or the design firms I worked in (I actually hardly saw any black people in these places – men or women… I was typically the only one). In addition, this is all in stark contrast to many of my colleagues who have fathers who were architects and mothers who were interior designers, and essentially, parents who were business owners who prepared and guided them to become the designers they are today. They had clear examples of what this looked like and how to achieve it. This actually reminds me of a video named “The Race.” This video is a great representation of life and how some have privilege and some don’t, yet we all still have to run the race. I started in the back, but through hard work I’ll make sure that my sweet boy Jack can have a head start.
Credenza (thrifted and painted) | Black Table Lamp
Back to the living room. These thoughts further inspired me to continue on incorporating more black and brown into the space. We have ceiling fan braces throughout our apartment that allow us to add our own lighting, so I found the most beautiful Stella chandelier over at Mitzi and it truly is a statement piece, continuing to add diversity to the room. I also loved incorporating my Vicky lamp along with a white one I thrifted with a pleated shade, because there is real beauty in the diversity of shapes as well – and these lamp shapes are beautiful and unique in their own right. To further warm the space I sourced a woven jute rug, just big enough to accommodate our 11 foot sofa. I love the texture of our new jute rug, and it works well being placed in such a large traffic area (not that we’ll be having many visitors over at this time, but it is fun to think about a time where we’ll finally be able to have all of our friends and family over without masks).
Sticking with warming the space and incorporating more brown and natural elements to ground the room, I went back and forth about whether I wanted to swap out the white drapes with these linen curtains. This became a real dilemma for me, and eventually led me to reflect on past moments… I thought of how insecure I felt when I’d begun working with clients on a regular basis. During my first job as an assistant designer for an interior design firm in Los Angeles (and as the only black woman/person in the firm), I noticed how almost anytime I suggested a design concept or idea to the majority of clients, my reasoning was questioned, following with questions about my experience and education. I also found that if I pitched an idea first, many clients were not on board, but if my colleague pitched the same idea, it was set into motion and without question.
I could sense clients did not believe I knew what I was doing, and no matter how much time we spent together on the project, they just weren’t able to trust in my work. I noticed a drastic difference in how my colleagues were approached by these same clients and accepted immediately regardless of experience, knowledge, or their educational background. I would mention what I was experiencing to my colleagues, and was always told it was just in my head. This experience continued as I went on to work at the next two design firms, and eventually became the reason I decided to launch my own design studio. I wanted to be able to vet clients thoroughly, and only take on those that trusted me based on my work ethics and artistry – not physical appearance. Jordan Peele said it best, “part of being black in this country, or being a minority in this country, is about feeling like we’re perceiving things that we’re told we’re not perceiving. It’s a piece of the condition of being African American, certainly, that people may not know. They may not realize the toll that it does take – even if the toll is making us doubt ourselves.” To this day, I still have moments where I suffer from imposter syndrome. All that to say, I decided on the linens curtains. I also swapped out the brass curtain rod and rings and opted for a black rod. This led me to painting the plugin brass sconces matte black to make an even bolder statement in the space. These black accents go with everything, and add a sophistication and elegance to the room.
While designing our living room, I kept envisioning how we’d be using the space in the new year. I knew we’d be spending time with our little one cozied up on our sofa. I imagined us toasting to our little guy’s milestones at the bar, and having intimate and quiet dinners at our bistro table (and chairs:)). I also envisioned how I’d be sharing the new updates with my Instagram audience. One thought led to another, and this thought led to the “influencing” aspect of Instagram and how minorities in the interior design industry are not valued the same as our white peers. A personal experience of mine sums this all up: I made a stop-motion video where I had all of my furniture move into the frame along with all of my throw pillows and throw blankets, then received compliments from a major brand. Only for this same brand to ask me for my video with no intent to pay me. This brand posted my video to their account, and then later paid a white home account to make the same exact video for them (a carbon copy of the one I’d created), in addition to gifting her items (valued at several thousands of dollars). All while never crediting me or mentioning where their inspiration derived from. They shouted her out on their page and in several newsletters – using my video and design concepts.
Luckily there are some brands willing to fairly compensate regardless of a person’s appearance. I’m happy to work with brands like Juniper Print Shop, where I got my lovely 31 x 47 meditation print from (the one hanging over the back of our sofa). Mitzi is also a brand I love working with – they reached out when my following on Instagram was not large, and this is my second time working with them – it’s always such a pleasure. But back to the living room.
The living room is finally starting to come to life the way I envisioned it. There’s still a calming sense of tranquility provided by the white pieces and now with the additions of black and brown all tied in together via my layered Loloi II Layla Collection Area Rug, there’s a real pop (which I love). The black and brown pieces have joined in beautifully with the white pieces. My living room was starting to remind me of our neighborhood in Georgia. My husband and I were the only people of color that lived in our neighborhood. In fact, when we purchased our home in Atlanta in the North Druid Hills area, on several occasions were asked by our visitors (contractors, Amazon delivery agents, uber drivers, etc.) “I didn’t expect to see you all answer the door, they let you all move into this neighborhood?” What they were referring to was the long history of segregation and redlining (that still impacts people today) that would make it impossible to get a house in sought out neighborhoods if you were a minority (neighborhoods like the one we’d moved into). At first, we were put off by this question, but after being asked several times we learned to just smile and say “yes.” This experience was enlightening and further explained why it was so difficult for us to get this home, even with good credit, a sizable down payment, and steady incomes.
The sellers were on board the entire way through (because the house sat vacant, as the sellers lived out of state) but after finding out from one of the neighbors that we were “colored,” buying from them became much more of a hassle. Nonetheless, we prevailed last year and purchased our first home.
This year is such a unique one because it is my first time designing as a new mom, in the midst of a persistent world pandemic, and a time of heightened awareness about social injustices. As I spend a great deal of time at home, I’ve been provided a chance for reflection and understanding. I began this year as I always do; choosing a word for the year to define my actions and intentions. Last year’s word for me was “transformation” and boy did it come to fruition. My husband and I purchased that home in Georgia, redesigned and sold it, then moved back to Los Angeles (to be closer to family), became renters again, and first-time parents. This year the word I chose was “authenticity,” and in an effort to be more authentic, I decided to share a bit more about me and my journey. Though I was very reluctant to share these thoughts and experiences, I wanted to keep my promise to myself – I also wanted to shed light on how it can be to navigate as a minority in this field of work. I’m not blaming anyone for their privilege, it’s not their fault. It’s just moments like some of the difficult ones I shared that make me question my career choice and have me beating myself up over my passion and following my dream.
In the end, this article is being posted to share pieces of a story of a black woman in the interior design industry and to shed light on the inequalities that still take place this very day. And yes, my living room inspired all of these thoughts. That said, I love the new black and brown additions to my all-white living room, and they all needed the other to create the perfect living space. My home decor friend (Aminah) said it best, “Black, white, and brown… are these colors great on their own? Yes, but honestly they’re much more impactful when combined. The sooner we learn to work together and stop segregating, is the sooner we can build a better nation for EVERYONE,” and build a better living room.
**Design and Photos by Ajai Guyot