The best architectural spaces are often designed so unobtrusively that they blend in with their surroundings. But a similar sense of invisibility can make the industry suffocating for those in it. According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), in 2020 only 6% of licensed architects in the US were identified as Asian-American. Meanwhile, data collected in 2019 from the Census Bureau shows that 5.93% of interior designers were Asian. That’s a fundamental reason why a group of Asian-American and Pacific Islander creatives in the home and design industries formed the national AAPI Design Alliance in May for AAPI Heritage Month. “We want to promote collaboration, visibility and representation,” explains interior designer Jessica Davis, one of the group’s founding members, in an industry that is deeply lacking in diversity.
However, the real fire starter for the group was something much bigger than the design world: It came together as the country saw a massive increase in violence against people from the AAPI community in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. A study shows that there is a 77% increase in hate crimes against Asian people between 2019 and 2020, and it looks like the trend isn’t going to slow down anytime soon.
“It felt like a pivotal moment to use our voices to speak out,” emphasizes Jessica. During the pandemic, she reached out to fellow interior designer Young Huh about starting the group and says the ball started rolling quickly from there. Founding members have now grown to include design editors William Li and Benjamin Reynaert, interior designer Jean Liu, design PR specialist Go Kasai and Joanne Hallare Lee, co-founder of Dowel Furniture.
It’s an important movement, and one that feels particularly charged given the past of the design community. New York-based architect Michael K. Chen tells Clever that he has a complex relationship with notions of heritage within the design space, especially when considering the boundaries within which he works. “Much of our work is centered on the historical fabric of New York and the East Coast, and in contexts that have historically excluded people similar to me,” he says.
That’s a major reason why he rejects the “traditions” of design, which he says are so synonymous with the whiteness that has dominated the space for so long. Instead, he uses his craft to actively resist and challenge the status quo. More meaningful to him is collaborative work that makes room for variation and encompasses and expands the perspectives of others. It’s “less individually written, more structured and more open,” adds Michael. “For me, the work is most convincing when it has a distinctly diverse quality.”
Here we spoke in-depth with Jessica, Michael and eight other AAPI individuals in the design world — from creatives in architecture to furniture design and interiors — who help reclaim space. We asked them how they got started, how their work is shaped by their past and how they hope to make room for underrepresented members of the community.