Part of being an interior designer is knowing the vocabulary. A good designer can easily discuss Kuba fabric, Greek Revival architectural details, and slatted windows. But there are other words in the design lexicon that have more loaded backgrounds, including origins in colonialism, prejudice, and slavery. Recently, the internet was in turmoil when TMZ revealed that the Houston Association of Realtors had removed the “master bedroom” from the listings because some realtors thought “master” was a reminder of slavery.. Many builders started moving to the ‘owner’s suite’ a few years ago, as this includes buyers of all genders (Beautiful House dropped the term from its style guide in favor of the simple “principal”).
But the truth is, there are many more examples of how problematic history has permeated our vocabularies. And to make an effort to tackle systemic racism, we must commit to reflecting on our words and actions, and how they perpetuate it. We reached out to a few designers to unpack the luggage behind some popular design terms.
To many Americans, the word evokes the 13 colonies, but its roots go back to the architecture of the British colonial era. The vast British Empire stretched from India to Africa to the Caribbean, where you’ll find houses with wide verandas and wooden shutters. Designer Young Huh remembers working on a project in a former British colony when her client pulled her aside and said, “Let’s not use that term: British Colonial. It’s not something people like to hear.
She wants others to know what the phrase means to the descendants of slaves. “The British settlers were terrible slave owners, they were very brutal,” says Huh, who recommends reading Washington black for anyone who wants to know more about the effects of colonialism.
“Exotic”, “Ethnic” and “Tribal”
While browsing AphroChic Magazine or Remix, the seminal book on the creation of moving interiors by Jeanine Hays and Bryan Mason, you will discover Ethiopian Mesob baskets, Indian Kantha quilts and Tenango embroidery from Mexico. But you won’t find ethnic, exotic, urban or bohemian terms to refer to an overall decor. “This is a process of otherness,” Mason says. “It’s based on a deeper assumption that white is normal, and anything that isn’t white is outlier.”
Even when it comes to a compliment, calling a rug “ethnic” conceals so many details: “It’s an insult to those societies and cultures that have created unique things,” Hays adds. “So we name them.” Hays’ approach is a good rule of thumb: whenever possible, be as specific as you can by describing the scenery of different regions. Instead of searching for a generic term like “exotic”, name exactly or where an item came from, who made it – or better yet, both.
On a related note, also ignore “tribal”, if the item is, in fact, created by a tribe, say which one. Not only is it respectful to the creator, but it’s also more informative.
Growing up in Louisiana, Michel Smith Boyd made field trips to plantations. For some, the plantations evoke the pre-war southern way of life with party favors, magnolias and Blown away by the wind. “I’m not included in this romance,” says Boyd, who is black. “His references are much darker and much more hurtful and much more painful. He recalls being surprised to find a home decor store in Los Angeles called “Plantation,” a choice that effectively glorified a style of home deeply linked to the horrors of slavery.
Plantation architecture is an archetype that includes houses with wooden shutters controlled by a vertical piece of timber – and the term is used, often without mischief, to refer to these design features. But in 2020, it is unacceptable to glorify life on the plantations, where thousands of blacks have been enslaved, tormented and murdered, argues Leyden Lewis, interior designer, artist and professor at the Parsons School of Design, The New Schoo in New York. “Planting style? It’s just horrible, ”says Lewis, from Trinidad, which is dotted with ancient sugar, nutmeg and cocoa plantations exploited by slaves. “To reduce it to a style is very dismissive.”
For Lewis, this signals a greater cover-up on the part of the design industry as a whole. “That’s the problem with interior design; it wants to create a whiff of something, but not really take responsibility for how spaces are coded,” he stresses.
Rather than simply removing words like “plantation” and “master” from the lexicon, Lewis says they provide an opportunity to delve into the story behind them. Take the time to understand the baggage the term might have and make sure the story is clear if you use the term.
Plus, as we all seek to update our lexicons, let’s make sure we don’t forget, as a singer and activist John Legend tweeted– there are also bigger problems in the housing, interior design and architecture sectors: redlining, limited access to mortgages and lack of diversity at all levels. “We have to go a little further,” says Lewis. “We have to talk about the way people behave and the way they use language, not words.”
Maria C. Hunt is an Oakland-based journalist, where she writes on design, food, wine and wellness. Follow her on instagram @thebubblygirl.
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