DIFFA Celebrates Its 40th Anniversary With a Star-Studded NYC Gala

This year marks the big 4-0 for DIFFA, aka Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, established in 1984 in New York City by a dozen industry professionals as the HIV/AIDS crisis was rapidly taking hundreds of lives worldwide. To mark the major milestone—especially hard-won with another pandemic, COVID, prohibiting the organization’s typical fundraising efforts, i.e. IRL events such as Dining by Design—some 500 guests braved the Manhattan rain on March 28 to dine, dance, and honor the individuals who’ve played pivotal roles in advancing DIFFA’s mission over the years, at the Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers.

Four DIFFA Legends—former board chairs Cindy Allen, David Rockwell, and George Slowik, and former executive director David Sheppard—from each decade of the nonprofit’s history were celebrated with video dedications from the likes of John Edelman, Steven Kolb, and Fern Mallis, live performances by Lady Gaga musical director Brian Newman and Tony Award winner Matt Doyle, and a spirited table fundraiser MC-ed by drag queen TV star Miz Cracker that raised $22,000 on the spot. There were also immersive DIFFA-focused installations by students from local design schools FIT, NYSID, Pratt, and SVA providing an inspiring backdrop.

Cindy Allen and David Rockwell at the DIFFA gala
Cindy Allen and David Rockwell at the DIFFA gala.

Upon accepting his award, Interior Design Hall of Fame member Rockwell, whose Rockwell Group is also celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, said “I am proud of how much we’ve accomplished but also think about how much there is left to do,” and got emotional acknowledging the red-decorated table left empty at the gala to symbolize the 40 million people lost to the illness, including his brother Rick. But he positively beamed when talking about his board chair successor, editor in chief Allen: “Cindy was ideal—the best move I made. Her energy and passion extended DIFFA’s reach, enabling it to pivot.”

Indeed, under Allen’s leadership, DIFFA’s support now encompasses broader community challenges such as homelessness, food insecurity, and mental wellness. “It was an easy yes,” Allen said, referring to when Rockwell invited her to chair the organization, a position she just stepped down from after serving for 12 years. “I knew I could help do good—it’s in my DNA. My mom was a missionary in India,” she continued. “Goodness solves problems, builds bridges, and creates communities. My stewardship was all about adapting and making DIFFA present and relevant.” Allen concluded her speech with the phrase she coined: “Hell yes everybody—make a DIFFA-rence!”

Cindy Allen at the DIFFA Gala
The DIFFA gala garnered a star-studded crowd including (from left) Dominique and Richard Shemtov, owner of Dune, Cindy Allen, Beth Dickstein, cofounder of Be Original Americas, Eric Laignel, photographer, and John Edelman, president and CEO of Heller.

To date, DIFFA, now lead by chair and HOK director of interiors Thomas Polucci and executive director Dawn Roberson, has additional chapters in Chicago, San Francisco, and Dallas that together have provided $55 million in grants. To learn more about the nonprofit and its ongoing efforts, click here.

DIFFA is deeply grateful to Benjamin Moore & Co., presenting sponsor of the gala, as well as gold sponsors Empire Office with Steelcase, EvensonBest, HOK, MillerKnoll, Rockwell Group, and Shaw Contract.

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