The best architectural spaces are often designed to be so unobtrusive that they blend into their surroundings. But a similar sense of invisibility can make the industry suffocating for those in it. According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), only 6% of licensed architects in the United States identified as Asian American in 2020. Meanwhile, data collected from the Census Bureau in 2019 shows that 5.93% of architects in inside were asian. It’s a fundamental reason why a group of Asian American and Pacific Islander creatives within the home and design industry formed the National AAPI Design Alliance in May for AAPI Heritage Month. “We want to foster collaboration, visibility and representation,” explains interior designer Jessica Davis, one of the group’s founding members, in an industry that is sorely lacking in diversity.
The real fire starter for the group, however, was something much bigger than the design world: it came together as the country saw a massive increase in violence against members of the AAPI community following the COVID-19 pandemic. A study shows that there was a 77% increase in hate crimes against Asians between 2019 and 2020, and it doesn’t look like the trend will slow down any time soon.
“It was like a pivotal moment to use our voices to express ourselves,” Jessica says. During the pandemic, she reached out to fellow interior designer Young Huh about creating the group and said the ball quickly started rolling from there. Its founding members have now grown to include design editors William Li and Benjamin Reynaert, interior designer Jean Liu, design public relations specialist Go Kasai and Joanne Hallare Lee, co-founder of Dowel Furniture.
It’s an important move, and one that seems particularly difficult given the design community’s past. New York architect Michael K. Chen tells Clever that he has a complex relationship with notions of heritage in the design space, especially when considering the boundaries within which he works. “Much of our work is focused in the historic fabric of New York and the East Coast, and in contexts that have historically excluded people like me,” he says.
It’s a big reason why he rejects the “traditions” of design, which he says are so synonymous with the whiteness that has dominated space for so long. Instead, he uses his art to actively resist and challenge the status quo. More meaningful to him is collaborative work that leaves room for variation and includes and magnifies the perspectives of others. It’s “less individually worded, more textured and more open,” adds Michael. “For me, work is more compelling when it has a distinctly diverse quality.”
Here, we spoke in depth with Jessica, Michael and eight other AAPI people in the design world – from architectural creatives to furniture design and interiors – who are helping to reclaim space. We asked them how they got their start, how their work is shaped by their past, and how they hope to make room for underrepresented members of the community.