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Like A Boss: How Alex Dauley and Sophie Ashby are decolonizing design and equalizing the industry’s obsession with elitism

Welcome to Like A Boss, our weekly series about making it big in the business of design

By Piet Smedy  | March 26, 2021 | Category

Image Supplied
Image Supplied

At House & Garden we get to meet the biggest names in the industry who’ve conquered both creativity and commerce so, this time round, we’re asking them: how did you get so boss? Class is in session.

Answering the demand for sweeping racial reform in the interiors industry, designers Alex Dauley and Sophie Ashby founded United in Design, a non-profit organization that aims to empower young Black designers with (paid) work experience, real opportunities and that ever-elusive foot in the door.

H&G: Lack of representation and diversity in the interior design, and really, the broader design industry is not a new problem. What was the catalyst that, for you both, crystallized the need to take action now?

Sophie Ashby: On 4th June 2020, I issued a statement on the Studio Ashby Instagram in response to the murder of George Floyd and the global anti-racism movement acknowledging the studio’s own shortcomings in running a diverse company and also some uncomfortable home truths about the elitist and exclusionary nature of the design world. United in Design is a product of the outpouring of energy and the drive for change I received in response to this post, having spoken to so many people and listened to their stories of struggle, sidelining and missed opportunities.

Alex Dauley: My passion for United in Design was ultimately fuelled by first-hand experience of this reality, which is why, having trained and tutored at KLC School of Design, I began outreach to leading industry figures to specifically promote the benefits of addressing the inequality.

H&G: It’s unquestionably clear that institutionalised racism is prevalent in all industries. Where do you think the issues of race in the design industry stem from?

SA: It’s a profession most often afforded by privilege – opportunities to live in beautiful houses, to travel, to visit hotels, to be immersed and inspired, private education, access to funding for highly expensive design courses, a foot in the door; all important introductions. It’s an uncomfortable but very real truth, as an industry with the badge of elitism stamped all over it.

H&G: ‘We just can’t find any black creatives’ is perhaps one of the more common excuses used by employers to save face when pressed for answers on lack of diversity. How do you respond to this?

AD: Search harder! Please don’t resign to defeat/complacency. We’d like to invite anyone working in this sector struggling to find black creatives to actively participate in United in Design – whether you’re an interior designer, maker, supplier, magazine, stylist, photographer, interior architect or anything in between. Please visit unitedindesign.com to register your interest. As a charitable organisation we are asking all members to contribute a nominal annual subscription fee that will then be used to resource the programme and support young people through many outreach initiatives and events.

H&G: Pragmatically, how do you see United in Design implementing the changes and systems needed to address the issues of representation and diversity in interior design?

AD: It addresses the issues with tangible results. In order to take the pledge and become a member of the United in Design movement, businesses (or individuals) must commit to three actions from the seven-point actional pledge, which aims to encourage partners to unlock doors and inspire others within the industry to share their wealth of expertise and time with those who need it most. Our end goal is to become an ongoing sponsored initiative that is able to nurture, coach and develop high potential candidates from Black, Minority Ethnic and low socio-economic groups – eventually funding scholarships, apprenticeships and bursaries for programme participants via annual subscription fees and events.

SA: We are very much at the start of our journey with this and so far it has been a case of laying the foundations for action. Over the next year we hope to get our apprenticeship concept off the ground and start helping students leaving university or design school get a foot in the door.

AD: By pooling groups of four design studios/makers/suppliers we are able to provide a 12-month apprenticeship placement with the apprentice spending three months in each organisation. The apprentice would be paid a junior designer salary, split across the 4 studios, giving each the scope to gather a broader set of skills, knowledge and contacts in order to progress through the industry.

H&G: How do you, through United in Design and similar organisations, see change being long lasting, not so much reactionary but a permanent industry paradigm shift?

SA: I think, and hope, that this year has instilled a new kind of energy and vigour for change in many of us that will continue to propel us toward a more permanent shift.