July 2, 2021

Honoring Pride Month, Queer Architects and Designers Join Cindy Allen in a Panel Discussion

To celebrate Pride month, four queer design luminaries joined Interior Design editor in chief Cindy Allen in a panel discussion June 30 to share their coming out stories, memories of the early days of the Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS, and ideas for building a more inclusive future for the next generation. “We’re kicking off today with an important conversation that shouldn’t close out the month of Pride, but should instead be the beginning of many conversations for a more loving and inclusive society,” said Allen, noting that Turf designed her striking rainbow backdrop specifically for the occasion. 

The hour-long discussion began as Kenneth Baker, co-regional managing principal at Gensler, Blane Charles, founder of his namesake design studio, Liz Collins, artist and designer, and Jane Greenwood, co-founder and managing principal at Kostow Greenwood Architects, shared honest accounts of how they came into their identities. From an all-girls sleepover that turned into a life-changing experience to the influence of Mattel’s Ken doll, the panelists generously offered intimate details of their personal histories. “Don’t tell me what to wear, don’t tell me what to do—it’s part of me,” said Baker, recalling how the doll that shares his name influenced his style, and love of bellbottoms, from an early age much to his parents’ dismay. “I chose at a young age to go through the fire,” added Charles, whose parents— devote Jehovah’s Witnesses—did not speak to him for 20 years after coming out. “When I came to the realization that I have a profound mission that only I can fulfill, that is when everything turned around,” he continued. 

The Akin Gump law office in Washington, D.C. by Gensler. Photography courtesy of Gensler. 

Part of that realization centered around the work being done by DIFFA, such as the organization’s 1989 Love Ball, which offered validation for many queer architects and designers who did not otherwise feel seen. Around the same time, Greenwood, whose brother died of AIDS in 1991, also sought comfort in community. “I needed to find a place to ground myself,” she said, speaking to the beginnings of the Organization of Lesbian + Gay Architects and Designers, which she co-founded in the 1990s. “We all needed an opportunity to come together and share our stories in a fun and expressive way.” 

By the fall of 2000, when Collins had her breakthrough runway show during New York Fashion Week, the conversation around queer issues already had begun to shift. “It was a cool time to be making a statement about aggressively feminine clothing,” she said, recalling that several journalists saw the lineage of her work, linking her pieces to lesbian fiber art collectives in the 1970s. “The clothing was recognized by people I really respected… and I thought ‘these people get me!'”

Energy Field fiber art installation by Liz Collins. Photography courtesy of Liz Collins. 

Regardless of the panelists’ many successes and the progress made throughout the industry in terms of honoring people for who they are, the group agreed there is much work to do. “We still have a long way to go,” said Charles. Part of that work centers around mentoring the next generation. “Mentoring is a part of everything we all should be doing,” said Greenwood. “We need to listen to the younger generations—the up and coming kids that are looking at the world through different eyes.” To this, Allen nodded in agreement and added: “We want this to be the beginning of more conversations. You all have such interesting, sometimes painful, but also beautiful stories and I think they’re worth sharing as we move forward together.” The Pride panel discussion reminded viewers of the power and strength in living one’s truth.

SiriusXM lobby in New York by Kostow Greenwood Architects. Photography courtesy of Kostow Greenwood Architects. 
First penthouse staged for Douglas Elliman by Blane Charles. Photography courtesy of Blane Charles. 

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