Women Shaping the Future of Design: Meet Malene Barnett, Founder of the Black Artists and Designers Guild
Meet Malene Barnett: For nine years the Brooklyn-based artist-designer has helmed Malene B, an art and design studio from which she produces bespoke textiles and ceramics. Her commercial clients include Marriott, Viacom, Saks, and WeWork, to name just a handful. But since November of 2018, Barnett has added another venture to her entrepreneurial pursuits. She’s the founder of the Black Artists and Designers Guild (BADG): a “curated collective of Black artists and designers throughout the African diaspora,” as Barnett succinctly describes the group.
She founded the group as an actionable response to a particularly jarring experience: a design conference in the fall featured a panel on what was new in design and next for the state of the art—but the panel’s organizers failed to include a single Black artist or designer.
Since November, Barnett has amassed over 131 Black artists and designers across Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and North America who work in disciplines including architecture, ceramics, interior design, fine art, furniture design, and textile design. The Guild includes a searchable directory for clients or teams to find design talent, as well as talks and panels that connect the design community with BADG members and showcase elements of design that have a long tradition in the African diaspora. With the opening of the Female Design Council’s Deeper Than Text, an exhibition showcasing Barnett’s work alongside other masters of contemporary art and design at the 1stdibs gallery in Chelsea, Interior Design sat down with Barnett to discuss her work with Malene B and the Black Artists and Designers Guild.
Interior Design: Can you share with me your background leading up to the founding of the BADG?
Malene Barnett: For the past 10 years I’ve been the creative force behind Malene B, an art and design studio specializing in fine art, clay objects, and bespoke carpets for residential, commercial, and hospitality environments.
ID: You’ve spoken at length about the design conference that incited you to bring the BADG together; what differentiated that experience from others in which you had encountered exclusionary and ignorant behavior in this industry?
MB: I went through a series of statements in my head. Its 2018. I graduated college more than 20 years ago. I personally know many talented Black artists and designers locally and abroad. I live in New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the country and I still have to search for someone who looks like me on a panel? This awareness had occurred previously. Yet, this time, when I saw that once again none of the panels included Black artists or designers, I’d reached my limit and could no longer accept those terms from these events. I decided enough is enough! The industry constantly repeats the same blatant message that Black artists and designers do not matter and neither does their point of view. So, instead of continuing to complain to my colleagues, I spoke out about it publicly on social media.
ID: What do you think are the biggest obstacles to recognition and inclusion for designers and creative professionals who are people of color?
MB: It’s clear that we exist and are doing amazing work in every creative field, yet we’re consistently lacking the representation we deserve. The problem is systemic and the biggest obstacle is waiting for the gatekeepers—white designers, manufacturers, developers—to acknowledge they hold access and opportunity privilege (unearned access and benefit to opportunities—this is not about working hard; most of us do) they have been benefiting from in an industry that continues to promote them to success.
In order to find a solution to the problem, the industry will need to dismantle the existing system that grants such narrow privilege to whiteness and create a new standard that includes people of color as well as any other group that has been overlooked or under-presented. Inclusion can’t be an afterthought; it’s what’s necessary in order to create an authentic image of what design looks like.
I believe that inclusion is what’s necessary in order to grow as an industry.
ID: How does this systemic lack of diverse perspectives disadvantage the design community and the state of the art world at large?
MB: This lack creates a falsehood of what art and design looks and feels like. Because of this, the industry fails to correctly identify, include the experiences, and credit the contributions of African, Asian, and Indigenous cultures to the landscape of art and design. This creates an industry that is seemingly creating from a single perspective (and sometimes using the foundations of design from African, Asian, and Indigenous cultures without credit), instead of considering the experiences of many.
ID: You and the Guild have gotten an abundance of positive press recently—congratulations! Have you seen any actionable industry changes since founding the BADG?
MB: Thank you! Yes we have! We’ve experienced many changes since the launch; various media outlets reached out to us to meet and stress the importance of inclusion in their publications. We’ve even noticed a shift in the storytelling being more inclusive. There’s been a shift in the consciousness of the industry.
Our current show, Beyond the Mask, is an exhibition to dispel the myths and stereotypes of Blackness in art and design on view at Plant Seven in High Point, NC and was organized by Dada Goldberg. In addition, many media outlets have reached out to us for various features. Our most prominent is a two-page spread in the April issue of Elle Decor. We’ve had talks around subjects related to Black culture, art, and the business of design at Neuehouse, The Affordable Art Fair, and New York School of Design. During NYCxDESIGN our talk series will continue at Next Level Design and BKLYN Design. And most recently we got invited to exhibit at the Texas Contemporary Art Fair in Houston, Texas in October. I feel this is only the beginning; the BAD Guild will be a constant reminder to the industry to be inclusive until it’s the norm.
ID: What’s next for you in terms of continuing the trajectory of the BADG and your own work as a creator? How do you balance the work of strategizing and running the two?
MB: We are working on cultivating our own events centered around a celebration of Black culture through art and design. Not only do we want the design industry to become educated about our culture and aware of our creativity but we also want to create experiences for the community at large. Our design style and point of view is different and it matters, and to support this we need more venues that embrace our Blackness just as must as we do.
The work we are doing is impacting the community and we want to continue to keep the industry’s consciousness on the power of inclusivity. It’s been a challenge handling both gigs, but I realize the work I’m doing is bigger than me. I’m constantly reminded of this when I meet design students as well as when I reflect on the time when I was a design student at FIT. I was the only Black student in the class, and the only one researching and celebrating Black culture. I hope the work the BAD Guild is cultivating not only empowers the next generation but opens the minds of everyone to create space to include more than one point of view. There is plenty of room for everyone. Good design can take care of this.