23 artisans from the Black Artists + Designers Guild (BADG) recently collaborated on the OBSIDIAN experience, sponsored by Autodesk. Autodesk’s Technology Impact Program grants software to impact-oriented organizations like the BADG to amplify social and environmental good. The virtual concept house was developed as a home for black families to thrive in the future, serving as a sanctuary for rest, nourishment, work, spirituality, joy and family life. Designers BOA and Sheryl McLean (SM) share their contributions to the project and discuss their expertise in the field.
Tell us about yourself.
[BOA] I’ve worked as a green designer since 2003, and was one of the earlier pioneers of sustainability back when it wasn’t a term popular in the design field. Every design is conceived and manifested using sustainability as my guiding principle, from my materials, packing, printing, and even the destinations where I ship to and from to minimize fossil fuels. I define myself as Afro-Caribbean; I’m from St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I was raised between St. John and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, and my father is from St. Martin, French West Indies.
While I started my career as a typical designer who loved wood back in 2001, I took a sabbatical to travel around Bali and Brazil, where I saw the effects of erosion, deforestation, and the exodus of native populations from the Amazon rainforest first-hand. All of these factors affected me enough to change my career trajectory, and it was at that point that I committed to working as a green designer.
[SM] I am an interior designer who specializes in commercial and luxury residential, including senior living – or what I like to call “prime living” – properties. I have worked in the field since 2003, and I own a boutique firm based in the DC Metro area. Projects that include art, color, and freedom to design excite me, and my favorite clients are open, adventurous, and willing to think outside of the box.
I will never retire. As long as I love the work I do, I’ll continue doing it.
How did you get started in the industry?
[BOA] I’ve been an artist my entire life, and I am a self-taught furniture designer. I originally studied visual communications at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but after a few years, I realized that wasn’t the right career path for me. While figuring out what I wanted to do, I took on all sorts of jobs, including fashion modeling, waiting tables, and furniture sales, which eventually led me to my career.
Ultimately, my biggest accomplishment is still being here after a long hard road. At first it was difficult to find sustainable materials back in 2003, but I endured until the green movement caught on in my field. I built my first collection while living in Bali, and throughout the past 20 years, I’ve moved my location and manufacturing from California, to New York, to New Orleans.
[SM] Loving all things design, I decided to pursue a career that would allow me to combine all of my skillsets from previous job experiences and my passion for design. I started in UCLA’s Interior Design program. After just one year the Dean and my professors encouraged me to level up to the Architecture program. Ultimately, I became the first black female to get my Masters in Architecture from UCLA.
Following graduation, I moved from California to Washington DC, where I worked for an Architectural firm that primarily designed large scale commercial government projects. Working in that environment was more rigid and traditional, in its approach. I yearned for a more contemporary and environmentally-focused design culture. I slowly transitioned to Interior Design which allowed me to experience the freedom and modern approach that I loved from my days in California.
What attracted you to the field?
[BOA] Unlike fine art or graphics, custom furniture design provides immediate feedback for my creativity. I both see and hear how a client interacts with my pieces immediately, and sometimes I get continual updates over the years. When a custom piece is successful, it feels like I’m making a useful contribution to a client’s everyday life.
[SM] The thing that attracted me most about Interior Design is that it can truly change people’s lives for the better. I have always thought that your environment should be an extension of who you are and all the goodness it can bring.
Can you discuss your contribution for the Obsidian project?
[BOA] I designed 'Suspended Lanai' as an outdoor retreat where one could comfortably spend all day, enjoying both the temperate days and mildly chilly nights of the Bay Area. The terrace is on the mezzanine level, vertically sandwiched between the upper pool deck and first story of the house; appearing like a floating platform with a wall of greenery on the left flank. My goal was to make the space as minimalist as possible, so as not to obscure the views of the surrounding hillside.
Suspended Lanai by BOA
Though the deck is a compact space, measuring only 26x20 feet, I divided the area into three sections: Nourish, Fire, and Work/Lounge. Because the deck is basically a thoroughfare to walk from one section of the house to the next, I designed it in a way that optimized these three sections while still allowing foot traffic to flow.
Nourish features a 20’ long x 8’ tall hydroponic garden, which uses 10% of the water that a traditional garden consumes, has a higher crop yield, and is suited for any climate. Since the Bay Area is prone to drought, water catchment tanks below the deck save rain water to use for irrigation. This section was developed with our guiding principles of health and wellness in mind.
Fire is an outdoor bioethanol-fueled fireplace flanked by 3 comfy rattan chairs.
In developing the Work/Lounge space, I thought about how Zoom had become part of our daily lives during the pandemic. I embedded a solar-powered projector inside of a water-proof box to project Zoom calls, movies, or other entertainment on a huge wall that doubles as the side of the swimming pool. Next to the projector are four chaise lounges to use for work or relaxation.
[SM] My space 'The Shaman’s Chamber' was inspired by the tribal architecture of the Hausa tribe in West Africa. They are known for their distinct style of design, carvings, and masks.
I designed the bedroom, bathroom, and hallway to reflect the artistry and craftsmanship of native African tribes and aspired to blend the past, present, and future into the space. The focal point in the bedroom is an original one of a kind furniture piece floating in the middle of the bedroom. The all-in-one piece includes the headboard, end tables, and a desk. This was my first time delving into furniture design. In my design I adorned the headboard with engravings from Malene Barnett’s reproductions of Hausa carvings.
Shaman's Chamber by Sheryl McLean
Shaman's Chamber by Sheryl McLean
On the longest wall of the space, is an eBook feature wall with a massive digital screen that transports you to one of three pre-programmed virtual locations: on the beach in the Seychelle Islands, among the high rise buildings in NYC, or in Zimbabwe near the base of a majestic waterfall. The concept allows people from different countries or cities to wake up in a virtual reality setting from their past or hometown or any place of their choice. I thought of the eBook wall as a dreamcatcher from Native American culture, which is similar to the African Shaman. They can heal and transport the mind, body, and soul.
How does technology play into your Obsidian design?
[BOA] The overarching theme that I used to inspire my space was harnessing the sunlight to power most of the design elements. I am also fascinated with the cutting-edge aspects of kinetic architecture, where one part of a structure can move independently of the main structure, and responsive architecture, which basically means a building that responds to an environment. I incorporated both into my design, as well as smart home technology.
The deck is embedded with flexible solar panels without glass substrates, and in response to the sun rising, the deck surface elevates to form the four chaise lounges. At the base of each chaise lounge is a touch-latch cubby that holds a trifold pillow to sit on. Using smart home technology, you can adjust the chaises by voice to either be in upright seating or lounge position. The double umbrellas above the chaises also feature solar sensors, enabling them to open at sunrise and close at sunset. My idea is that five years into the future, universal chargers will exist everywhere, so in between the chaises I also placed solar-powered charging tables.
[SM] The technology used to accomplish my design included the software programs, 3ds Max, AutoCAD and SketchUp. The benefits from using these programs allowed me to design quickly, and in great detail. It also allowed me as the designer to fully envision my creation.
Within the design itself, the eBook wall is an advanced technology currently being developed as the highest expression of virtual reality.
What story does your Obsidian design tell, and what do you want viewers to walk away from it with?
[BOA] My space tells the story of a seamless integration with the outdoors as a multi-functional area to work, entertain, and provide health and nourishment for a family, while using modern technology that’s primarily powered by the sun. I want viewers to walk away knowing that design can be adapted to meet our culture, race, and lifestyle in ways that are simultaneously universal and specific.
[SM] My room is about relaxation, renewal, and connection. The advanced visualization, through the use of an eBook wall; allows you to connect to different parts of the world, whether it be your homeland, favorite vacation spot or somewhere you dare to go. I want visitors to know that their dreams can come true with the integration of technology that allows limitless possibilities.
How did storytelling plan into the Obsidian project on a larger scale?
[SM] Storytelling is what inspires me; it’s designing with purpose, and relying on past or generational memories (that may not even be your own) to give context to your work. The Obsidian house was a story that we developed about black families, how we have survived, and how we will live in the future. 23 creatives came together for this project, and we all had a different story to tell. We didn’t exchange ideas with each other. Instead, we just let our creativity flow, and miraculously, it all came together. It’s amazing how storytelling gives your design a purpose, and everything fits together like the pieces of a puzzle.
"The Obsidian house was a story that we developed about black families, how we have survived, and how we will live in the future."
How did you get involved in the Obsidian project?
[SM] I joined BADG two years ago after visiting their pop-up art gallery at High Point furniture market. It was the most beautiful work that I had seen, and I immediately knew that I wanted to get involved with these talented artists and designers. When the Obsidian project was discussed during BADG meetings, it inspired me to explore the possibilities of a futurist space designed for the entire black family. I submitted my sketches and overall concept, and the entire bedroom suite was assigned to me.
[BOA] When I joined BADG, the Obsidian project was already in the works. Once I made the decision to participate and my concept was approved, it was a long and laborious process to develop the space. I worked steadily on the project for the entire six months, and it was an incredible experience to collaborate with a group of like-minded creatives and form relationships. Having the opportunity to see the thought-process behind everyone’s work and knowing that this project was going to change the game was invaluable.
What technology do you use in your design work?
[BOA] I’m an analog girl working in a digital world, so I rely on the skills of different assistants to help bring my visions to fruition. I use Pages or PowerPoint for presentations, Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator for graphics and photography, and occasionally, I’ll use SketchUp for simple shop drawings. I also use Fusion 360 to create CAD shop drawings and 3D blocks. If I’m creating an environment like in the Obsidian project, I use 3ds Max by importing all of the 3D blocks and finding samples and textures within the program.
Working with these tools helps solve construction problems before prototyping, which saves me time and thousands of dollars. If the dimensions aren’t correct, it won’t work in CAD. The ability to rotate my designs in every direction allows me to visualize how materials come together, and it’s much easier to adjust a digital model than overhaul a physical prototype.
[SM] For space planning and 3D visualization, I use AutoCAD, Chief Architect and SketchUp. For the photorealistic rendering we used 3ds Max.
Where do you find inspirations for your designs?
[BOA] Travel and nature are major sources of influence. Sometimes I’m inspired to create something from a particular material, and other times an unmet need inspires my design. On a larger scale, I find inspiration from art, modern dance, and a really great film.
I also learn best by storytelling, as I read copiously and have always been inspired by books. Reading also helps boost my written skills so that I may better express the meaning behind my designs.
[SM] My weeks are very structured, so I try to schedule one “blue ocean day” a week in the early design phase to explore and find inspiration. I never want my work to feel stale, so these are the days that I might go to the Smithsonian, or a new art gallery, or check out how other interiors are being assembles. It’s a day to free my mind of tensions and see what new ideas I come up with, and then I let it play out. For this project, I found inspiration from other art forms present and past as well as historical references from the West African culture.
What do you like most about your job?
[BOA] I enjoy the freedom and independence to decide where I’m going to put my focus. Post-pandemic, I like having the ability to work from anywhere and take virtual meetings with clients. I also really feel that a strong, socially responsible design has the power to change lives, and I like contributing to this. I do, however, wish that design hadn’t become such a business juggernaut of constantly marketing yourself, as I’d really just like to focus on my craft.
[SM] I like how my designs impact and inspire people’s lives. I like the freedom that I experience in knowing that there are infinite solutions to every problem. I love knowing that I can use the creativity that I have been blessed with to create good.
Have you faced any challenges in your career?
[BOA] One of the challenges that I face, both as an independent designer and when I’m employed by a company, is the perception that I’m either not smart enough or professional enough. This is based entirely on my gender and racial identity. I’ve worked hard to overcome this by making sure that I under-promise and over-deliver. I focus on ensuring my work ethic and finished product can rival anyone else’s.
[SM] I’ve faced lots of barriers – and I’m still fighting some of them. When the majority population pictures an interior designer, they rarely picture a black woman. Sometimes I feel like I’m being tested, but not for my skills. That’s very off-putting and it’s not something that you overcome, but I do face it in this business.
Where do you think your industry could improve?
[BOA] Our industry needs to consider that there are many different types of clients, and rather than just designing from a Eurocentric point of view, we need to focus more on that idea of who the client is. We need to be more responsive, diverse, and sensitive in both the way we design and the way that different cultures live. I think our industry could be less focused on promoting specific design stars and instead focus on strong work, regardless of whether a designer is known or unknown; male, female, or non-gender conforming; or culturally different. We need to be more inclusive in general, and modern or European-inspired design should no longer be the gold standard. There should be room to revere, accept, and champion different influences.
[SM] In business, generally, the system is still biased towards woman, when it comes to opening up lines of credit. There is also still underrepresentation of black artists and designers, and an undertone of mistrust or racism – whatever you want to call it, it’s there. I have seen improvement, and the Obsidian project has done a lot to elevate black artists. Once the project launched, the press has suddenly been more open to interviews.
I think it’s a generational change. This new generation is opening doors and has different perspectives. It’s refreshing and very hopeful, and I see good things coming for black designers, artists, and architects.
"We need to be more responsive, diverse, and sensitive in both the way we design and the way that different cultures live."
Where do you see the industry heading in 10-20 years?
[BOA] Within the next decade or two, I see the industry completely revolutionized by and integrated with technology. I think that 3D printers will become more affordable for everyone, and I believe this industry will democratize in the way that both the news and entertainment industry have, in terms of content creation. In the future, everyone who wants to will be creating their own designs.
[SM] I think that technology will be more integrated into the whole design process. All dwellings will have an advanced smart automation technology. I think that sustainability will be the norm in every product. Technology is going to be heavily influenced by the developments of space travel and global influence that will affect all industries. Interior Design is going to be more important as the stresses of global warming and the integration of multicultural and multiracial communities become more succinct. Interior Design will become the respite for society.
What advice do you have for young designers and artists who are looking to get started in the field?
[BOA] Develop your own aesthetic and don’t follow the trends.
[SM] The most important thing is to hone your skills. Don’t focus so much on how fabulous your career will be or how much money you will make. Cultivate your skills, be good at what you do, and understand your purpose. That’s key. You have to love what you do – especially in this business – because it requires you to design outside of yourself, so you need to have passion and your skill level needs to match that. Also, join an organization like BADG, where you can find a supportive community and work with a collective of artists to inspire and keep you creative.
For more information about the Black Artists + Designers Guild and the recent Obsidian project, visit: https://www.badguild.info/