In August, mebl | Transforming Furniture interviewed Malene Barnett. In 2018, Malene founded the Black Artists + Designers Guild (BADG) to “combat the lack of representation of Black talent and culture in the design industry,” including furniture-making. A Brooklyn-based artist, Malene is an authority on cultural traditions of art in the African diaspora and how it translates into the modern black experience.
mebl Tell us about yourself - let's start at the beginning!
Malene My father was a proud Jamaican man, who came to the US as a teenager. And my mother is from the island of St. Vincent. They were proud of their heritage and proud culturally of Black people. I was the one who has blossomed, culturally, later! Growing up, we were the only Black family in a white community. 47 years later, my mother is still the only Black family in our Norwalk, CT neighborhood.
I was a good student. I would be mad if I missed a day of school! But it wasn’t until my last year of high school, in 1989, that I started to realize -- okay, I'm Black. I have a legacy, a history that didn't start with slavery. I started to read up -- first was The Autobiography of Malcolm X. That changed my whole trajectory – realizing there's so much to my culture and community that hadn't been shared with me in school.
mebl What else do you remember as a kid?
Malene At eight years old, I got accepted to a program for what-they-called artistically talented kids. We would draw and paint on a weekly basis. I wanted to do portraits. I was drawing a picture of my little cousin who was living with us at the time. I couldn't do his skin tone, which is very dark brown, because my teacher would only allow us to mix tones that emulated white people. So by eight years old the limitation was already set upon!
"The beauty of the black experience as a whole is that it is an experience. It's not a one note, it's not a monolith. It's just a never-ending way of experiencing culture on so many levels."
mebl How has your perspective evolved?
Malene The beauty of the black experience as a whole is that it is an experience. It's not a one note, it's not a monolith. It's just a never-ending way of experiencing culture on so many levels. You're going to see overlapping and you're going to see how, whether it's furniture, food, or a dance, you still see the African roots, you see both the origin as well as its adaptation to that particular environment.
"Black has so many layers to it, and there's a multitude of what Black is and what Blackness is."
Because of the diaspora, we've been able to foster creativity within our culture because of the emergence and mixing within the different groups of people. Black has so many layers to it, and there's a multitude of what Black is and what Blackness is. And environment plays a part in that. When you go to the African continent itself -- we're talking 54 countries. Even within a country, you could have hundreds of different languages and different groups of people.
mebl Relate this to the world of design? What’s different about this current moment?
Malene There's so much power in design. We have so much power because everything we touch or experience involves a designer of some sort. If we use that power for good, design has a real opportunity to change the trajectory of how we live.
At the same time, design is one of the least transparent industries I've ever experienced. Design has to open up its doors and homes. They've been doing things their own way, not held accountable. Then, I realized, in design, there's not a lot of activism, not a lot of people fighting for equity within the industry, so they continue to just get away with what they've been doing.
The current moment is about destructing the system of racism, the principles of white supremacy and starting with a new foundation. There are so many forces at work -- from the pandemic to heightened awareness of racial inequality. People in communities who were feeling oppressed are now feeling empowered, feeling they can speak up and feel seen in for the first time.
"This is not the first time that we've had this uprising. ...
such a missed opportunity if change doesn't happen."
mebl Over the last 7 months, have you had moments of doubt?
Malene Oh yes! I've felt two kinds of big doubt. First, I think the risk is that the country ultimately just reverts back to being comfortable again. History has shown us that. This is not the first time that we've had this uprising. What’s different is that it may be the first time that we have more people supporting and really seeing the injustices that have happened over the centuries. The other risk is that if we don't take this opportunity seriously as a community, we may not have another one like this. In a word, that would be sad. It would be such a missed opportunity if change doesn't happen during this time.
My second big doubt is more personal. It relates to my response to all the sudden awakening, the outpouring of interest in the Black Artists and Designers Guild. My work is managing it. But I'm getting more collaboration requests than we can handle and so I'm turning things down. I have to. But I also have to realize, if they're asking me now, there's gonna be other opportunities and I don't have to feel like, 'Okay, I said no, it's a missed opportunity and it's not gonna happen again.'
But I have to consciously be conscious of that thinking and where it's coming from. It comes from living under a racist system because you think there's just one opportunity for you. And the fear that if you don't take it now, it's not gonna happen again. I grapple with that insecurity even within my own mindset of abundance!
"We want to position our members as creative thinkers, not just designers."
mebl What's your vision for the next phase of the Black Artists and Designers Guild (BADG)?
Malene We’re embarking on strategic planning. We want to position our members as creative thinkers, not just designers. We want to position the Guild as a catalyst for the design community as a whole. As an incubator for designers and artists, a safe space for Black talent to learn about new materials and products, and about design as an expression of personal narrative.
mebl And moments of genuine optimism?
Malene Yes, since the spring, six big design-sector corporations have really stepped up to the Guild. Donations of funds are great. But building equity requires hiring talent, creating financial opportunities and brand representation. So, one is a collaboration in which they're expanding the DNA of their brand by celebrating Black families, looking at Black culture, and related storytelling as a part of their narrative.
Black under-representation in the design field is not something that can be resolved in knee jerk reactions. 'Okay, now let's make that list or do a feature on Black designers' won’t cut it. Black designers and artists need to be much more fully represented. Companies can’t continue to think about it as 'well, let’s count how many are in this month's issue this month.’ And I would say on the part of our members that they would grow to a certain level of confidence that they're able to lead with their Blackness --unapologetically and not have to constantly explain their position.
"So, my mother turned her old uniform inside-out and then the fabric looked like a new uniform!"
mebl How do environmental sustainability, health and the pandemic link with the Guild?
Malene Listen, I remember growing up, my mother always said ‘you work with what you have.’ I remember her telling a story. As a school girl, my mother dearly wanted a new school uniform. At the time, her mother -- my grandmother -- wasn't able to afford it. So, my mother turned her old uniform inside-out and then the fabric looked like a new uniform! This is the whole idea of re-use and sustainability, right?
Sustainability comes in different forms. Sustainability, culturally, is something we've been practicing since our existence. With BADG, we want to weave sustainability deep into our mission, broadly, and into our creative incubator initiative and virtual house project. Covid-19, to your point, has given us the moment to really think about what that will mean.
mebl Unfortunately our interview time is almost up. If you could wave a magic wand . ..?
Malene Design education first. Incorporating the practices of peoples around the world -- whether it's African, Asian, Native American – as part of the curriculum, not an elective. Start to cultivate a new generation of creators who have a well-rounded, beyond Euro-centric, experience of design. And -- you said a magic wand, right? Make all art and design schools free!