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Honoring the Legacy: Black Interior Design Pioneers and Present-Day Powerhouses

Asha Maia Design is passionate about celebrating the rich tapestry of Black excellence in interior design. Today, we spotlight two trailblazers who paved the way and contemporary designers carrying the torch forward with their unique vision.



Harold Curtis Brown: Pioneering Modernism


Left Photo: Dancing at the Savoy Ballroom, 1947 | Veranda Magazine, Right Photo: Delilah in Los Angeles | Elizabeth Daniels Photography


While confirmed pictures of Harold Curtis Brown and his work are scarce, these images evoke the era and Art Deco style he embraced. He designed vibrant nightclubs, like the Cotton Club, leaving a lasting legacy in Harlem's design scene.


Born in 1906, Harold Curtis Brown was a true visionary. He defied the racial barriers of his time to become the first Black member of the American Institute of Decorators (now the American Society of Interior Designers). His modernist approach, characterized by clean lines, bold colors, and innovative materials, challenged the traditional white aesthetic of the mid-20th century. Brown's illustrious career spanned decades, adorning the homes of celebrities like Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker. He also designed for prestigious institutions like the National Urban League and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.


Before the Cotton Club glittered, Harold Curtis Brown brought it to life. This pioneering Black designer, educated at renowned art schools, infused Harlem's nightspots with elegance and cultural pride. Brown wasn't confined by race, crafting luxurious interiors for both Black and white patrons, even gracing the famed Hotel Navarro. Though his mysterious disappearance around 1938 leaves questions, his legacy shines. Brown shattered barriers, inspired generations, and his designs continue to influence the world of interior design. His legacy reminds us that Black excellence in design has always existed and continues to shape the landscape.



Julian Francis Abele: Architect of Community


Left Photo: Julian Francis Abele | Penn Libraries, Right Photo: Duke University's Allen Building | Wikimedia Commons


Julian Francis Abele, born in 1881, was an architect and interior designer whose work transcended aesthetics. He defied racial barriers to become the University of Pennsylvania's first Black architecture graduate.


His talent caught the eye of renowned architect Horace Trumbauer, leading to a prolific partnership. Abele's fingerprints are on iconic landmarks like the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard, Philadelphia's Central Library, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He masterfully blended Beaux-Arts grandeur with his own subtle flourishes, leaving an undeniable mark on American architecture. But Abele's impact transcended bricks and mortar. He designed the west campus of Duke University, a project symbolizing progress and opportunity for Black students.


He believed design had the power to empower communities and foster social change. His groundbreaking community centers, like the Frederick Douglass Center in Harlem, were designed not just as buildings but as vibrant hubs for cultural expression, education, and social services. Abele's commitment to social justice and community engagement continues to inspire designers around the world. He understood that design wasn't just about creating beautiful spaces but about creating spaces that uplifted and empowered people.


His life, tragically cut short in 1950, serves as a testament to the power of talent and resilience in the face of adversity. Abele's legacy continues to inspire generations of architects, reminding us that even the grandest structures often begin with a single, determined dream.



Present-Day Powerhouses: Carrying the Torch

Fast forward to the present day, and we find a new generation of black interior designers who are carrying on the legacy of their predecessors with passion and creativity.



Sheila Bridges


Left Photo: Sheila Bridges | sheilabridges.com, Right Photo: Sheila Bridges Portfolio Image | Frank Francis Studio


Sheila Bridges is an architect, designer, and author who uses her platform to advocate for the preservation of historically significant Black spaces. Her firm, Bridges Designs, specializes in creating culturally rich interiors that celebrate the African diaspora. Bridges is also a passionate educator, sharing her knowledge through lectures, workshops, and her book "African-American Design History."


Sheila Bridges, whose eponymous firm has garnered international acclaim for its distinctive approach to luxury interiors. Bridges' keen eye for color and texture, coupled with her unwavering commitment to client satisfaction, has earned her a reputation as one of the industry's top talents. From high-end residences to boutique hotels, Bridges' designs exude elegance and sophistication while celebrating the diverse cultural influences that inform her work.


Corey Damen Jenkins


Left Photo: Corey Damen Jenkins | Andrew Frasz Photography, Right Photo: Corey Damen Jenkins Portfolio Image | Andrew Frasz Photography


Another rising star in the world of interior design is highly acclaimed Corey Damen Jenkins, who is renowned for his sophisticated yet approachable design aesthetic. With a background in both architecture and interior design, Jenkins brings a unique perspective to his projects, seamlessly blending historical references with contemporary flair. Jenkins established Corey Damen Jenkins & Associates, LLC, a full-service interior design firm based in Detroit, Michigan. His work is characterized by a bold use of color, luxurious textures, and eclectic elements that blend seamlessly to create captivating spaces. 


Jenkins' unwavering dedication to excellence and his fearless approach to design make him a force to be reckoned with in the industry. Jenkins has been featured in numerous publications and has received prestigious awards for his innovative designs. He is also a sought-after speaker and has appeared on various design panels and television programs, sharing his expertise and passion for design with audiences around the world. Through his distinctive style and unwavering dedication to his craft, Jenkins continues to leave an indelible mark on the world of interior design.



Nicole Gibbons


Left Photo: Nicole Gibbons | Kristen Francis Photography, Right Photo: Nicole Gibbons Portfolio Image | David Land Photography


Nicole Gibbons, also from Detroit, Michigan, is a multifaceted force in the design world. Her journey began in the fashion industry, where she honed her eye for style. This fashion-forward perspective translates into her design aesthetic, characterized by bold colors, playful patterns, and a unique mix of high and low. She launched her design blog, "So Haute," in 2007, which quickly gained a loyal following. This success led her to establish Nicole Gibbons Studio, taking on high-end residential and commercial projects. Her design expertise landed her coveted spots as a design expert on "Home Made Simple" and various media features.


Beyond her design endeavors, in 2019, Gibbons founded "Clare," a direct-to-consumer paint brand aiming to simplify the paint shopping experience. Her entrepreneurial spirit and passion for creating beautiful, accessible spaces continue to inspire and empower others.


 

These are just a few examples of the many talented Black interior designers making their mark on the world today. Their work is a testament to the enduring legacy of Harold Curtis Brown and Julian Francis Abele and a reminder that the future of design is bright with diverse voices and perspectives.


As we reflect on the achievements of past and present black interior designers, it's clear that their contributions have helped shape the world of design in profound and meaningful ways. From challenging stereotypes to redefining beauty standards, these trailblazers have paved the way for future generations to follow in their footsteps. As a black female interior designer, I am inspired by their legacy and committed to carrying it forward in my own work. Together, we can continue to push the boundaries of design excellence and create spaces that reflect the richness and diversity of our shared human experience.


Join us in celebrating these pioneers and present-day powerhouses! Share your favorite Black interior designers in the comments below.


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