A Heritage of Design
Design shapes almost everything we as humans do. Designers give form to our actions—how we sit in a chair, how we turn a lamp on and off, how we move between rooms in a home. Similarly, our virtual spaces and interactions are products of design. We rely on design to communicate with each other using the typography, graphics, and webpages you are now viewing.
For personal accoutrements like clothing, jewelry, our favorite tote bag or pen, design allows both creators and users to experiment with specific ideas about aesthetics and functionality. In some cases, design may be wedded to invention—like a novel gadget carrying a utility patent or a detailed design with patented drawings. In other cases, a design may solve an existing problem by finding a solution that improves the function of an object. For many, design fills a need for creative expression. A desire to deliver beauty, pleasure, comfort, or inspiration also frames the design process.
At NMAAHC, our design collections encompass graphic design, furniture design, fashion design, and architectural design, among other fields. The materials featured below reveal how aspects of racial and cultural identity can spark design ideas. By referencing African diaspora cultural practices and well-known design traditions, these objects—ranging from wallpaper to seating to architectural elements and beyond—tell stories about a heritage of design.
Designing Black Protagonists
ELLE DECOR cover by Rachelle Baker and Harlem Toile wallpaper by Sheila Bridges
The March 2021 issue of ELLE DECOR was the first full issue under the direction of Asad Syrkett, the magazine’s first Black editor-in-chief. For that issue, the magazine invited illustrator Rachelle Baker to “re-see” the much-adored “Yellow Room”—a classic British interior designed by American decorator and socialite Nancy Lancaster. Lancaster took inspiration from the Antebellum era in the U.S. in creating the look that came to be known as English country house style. Her original “Yellow Room” included two tables with ornately carved Black figures whose bodies served as pedestals, holding up the weight of the tables. These figures, popularly known as “Blackamoors,” came about in the 17th century and were even part of the décor in the Palace of Versailles. Though the figures were frequently beautiful, and decadently dressed in turbans, jewelry and gold, they were still often constricted, contorted, or in service of another. Their position represented perpetual servitude and demonstrated the fascination with an exotic Blackness prevalent in the decorative arts.
In her cover illustration, Baker removes the Blackamoor figures and places a Black woman on the couch with her body oriented towards the readers. Her hand is placed under her chin as if deep in thought, mimicking the pose of The Thinker statue. Baker draws her sitter with voluminous black hair, a yellow dress, and reddish-brown shoes, in keeping with the palette on the cover. For Baker it was important that the Black woman command the room. The space she takes on the couch represents a stark contrast to the crouched bodies of the Blackamoor figures propping up tabletops. In “re-seeing” the room for ELLE DECOR, Baker makes the Black woman the protagonist of this design story.
Baker’s take on a design classic is reminiscent of another Black woman who powerfully reimagined the 18th century French Toile de Jouy wallpaper. Interior designer Sheila Bridges created an instant classic with Harlem Toile de Jouy—a wallpaper modeled after the toile textile, with its landscape views and idyllic images of daily life. Whereas the original toile featured pastoral views and farming scenes with white subjects, Bridges creatively re-envisions such imagery to show African Americans playing basketball, dancing beside a boom box, and jumping Double Dutch, all while dressed in 18th century clothing.
Bridges, who founded her own interior design firm, Sheila Bridges Design (SBD), in 1994, initially experimented with the remixed toile for use in her home. She soon discovered that others also desired and would pay for wallpaper that was culturally representative. As Bridges explains, “I created Harlem Toile to lampoon some of the stereotypes commonly associated with African Americans, but ultimately to celebrate our complex history and rich culture, which has often been appropriated.” Her now-iconic Harlem Toile has been used for wallcoverings, furniture upholstery, bedding, plates, glassware, umbrellas, clothing, and sneakers.
Bridges first appropriated the toile motifs to amusingly illustrate Black life in Harlem, but she later created a Hudson Valley version to explore the pastoral gothic scenes of the New York region where she has a second home. In appropriating a popular form of European décor to suit the racial, cultural, and geographic contexts of her life, the interior designer has empowered others to reimagine existing design histories. Seeing Bridges Harlem Toile in yellow, the color for which her design is best known, juxtaposed against Rachelle Baker’s re-seen Yellow Room, makes for an exciting conversation about Black creative interventions into the history of decorative arts and design. With Bridges’ pioneering wallpaper as predecessor and Baker’s recent illustration as counterpoint, these refreshing works from NMAAHC’s collection suggest the value and necessity of seeing design through an African American lens.
"As an African American designer living in Harlem, I have always been intrigued by traditional French toiles with their pastoral motifs from the late 1700s. After searching for many years for the perfect toile for my own home, I decided that it quite simply didn’t exist. I created Harlem Toile to lampoon some of the stereotypes commonly associated with African Americans, but ultimately to celebrate our complex history and rich culture, which has often been appropriated."Sheila Bridges
The Blackest Wedding Ever?
Wedding invitation suite designed by Hadiya Williams
Hadiya Williams combines pop culture and Black identity with these wedding invitations designed for what has been dubbed “The Blackest Wedding Ever.” Shantrelle Lewis and Oluwatoyin Lawson intended to center their 2016 wedding on the African diaspora while highlighting their roots in New Orleans and Nigeria, respectively. As owners of Shoppe Black, it was also important for the couple to work with Black vendors, such as designer Hadiya Williams, for their wedding needs. The wedding and invitations were inspired by Coming to America, the film starring Eddie Murphy, in which Prince Akeem is searching for a wife. The Lewis-Lawson wedding was a transformative experience for many, even inspiring Williams to found Black Pepper Paperie Co. as a result of her creative process in designing invitations for the event.
The invitations harken back to the early 1900’s with Art Deco style imagery. The skyscraper design and gold printing reference the luxury many looked to achieve in the Deco era. Meanwhile, the lion insignia and the “Z” seen in the wedding logo pay homage to the fictional African country, Zamunda, shown in Coming to America. The wedding materials also included the hashtag “#jollofandjambalaya” as a casual nod to the connection between the rice-based dishes common in West Africa and New Orleans, respectively. The invitation suite is made up of several parts, including the invitation, a gold tissue paper sleeve, RSVP token, wedding program, and envelopes. Williams’ color palette of dark blue, burgundy, and gold guided the color choices for the bride and groom. Lewis recalls, “Once my stationery designer, Hadiya Williams, sent me the design for the invitations, I was floored, literally stunned, and said, ‘That's it! I'm wearing a gold gown!’” Through Williams’ sleek design, she connects wealth and Blackness while drawing inspiration from opulent decorative arts traditions.
Metalwork with Meaning
Corona panels designed for NMAAHC and silver earrings with Vodou vèvè designed by Winifred Mason Chenet
As we dive into our design collection, it is only fitting that we spotlight the design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The structure was designed by the FreelonAdjayeBond/SmithGroup architectural team, who won the international design competition in 2009. A key design element is the triple-tiered form of the museum, called the “Corona.” Inspired by the artistry of Yoruban master carver Olowe of Ise, the stacked form references the tops, or capitals, of Olowe’s wooden pillars in Nigeria. Meanwhile, the bronze-colored Corona panels harken back to Southern metalwork by Black artisans, as seen in Louisiana and South Carolina. The specific pattern of the panels is abstracted from the design of an iron gate in Charleston, South Carolina.
The design of the panels is both ornamental and useful, providing more control over the museum’s heating and lighting by offering different opacities ranging from 65-90%. The size of the panels take cues in scale from the stones comprising the Washington Monument. In addition, the upward angle of the Corona mirrors the 17-degree angle on the capstone of the Washington Monument. The Museum’s placement on the National Mall is monumental itself—a reflection of the efforts of enslaved African Americans who labored on the Mall centuries before. Through the overall shape and individualized patterns of the Corona, the building pays homage to both African and African American contributions to designing the built environment.
Just as the Museum’s exterior connects decorative arts and metalwork to design histories of the African diaspora, objects in the collection are similarly imbued with diasporic design references. One example is the work of Winifred Mason Chenet (1912–1993), a jewelry designer born in Brooklyn, New York.
Mason Chenet participated in the studio jewelry movement in the mid-twentieth century. She was especially knowledgeable of metalwork, a skill that helped propel her jewelry design practice forward. In 1945, a grant from the Rosenwald Fund to study Black cultural expression in the West Indies took her to Haiti where she met her future husband, Jean Chenet, an assistant at the Centre d'Art.
Mason Chenet was known for using simple tools, such as a ballpoint hammer, to create designs that explored the materials and patterns found in folklore in the West Indies. Mason Chenet’s design for these silver clip-on earrings draws inspiration from imagery used in African and Haitian spirituality. The ritual emblems, known as vèvè, are drawn on the ground by Vodou priests during ceremonies and are usually geometric in nature. The purpose of drawing the vèvè is to summon the spirits associated with each emblem.
The depictions on Mason Chenet’s earrings are representations of spirits called lwa, and each has its own symbol. These earrings show the emblem for a pair of cosmic snakes, a couple composed of Danbala Wèdo and his wife Ayida Wèdo. The snakes curve around central staffs on each earring and are framed by scroll designs on the top and to the left. To the right, there is a small cross. On the back of the earrings, the words “Chenet d’ Haiti” are visible, referring to the designer's mark she employed beginning in 1949.
Seating Across the African Diaspora
Boat seat with spider web design from Ecuador and Dan Chair created by Michael Puryear
This boat seat was the first object collected by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The seat originates in Ecuador and was made sometime during the 20th century. Though the original creator of the seat is unknown, it was used by Deborah Azareno, the grandmother of the object’s donor, Juan García Salazar. Azareno lived in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, a maroon community made up of self-emancipated Africans.
Esmeraldas’ northern waterway system made travelling by boat especially convenient. While the men rowed the canoes, the women sat on individually crafted and personalized seats. In the center of Azareno’s seat, a spider is carved into the wood with a large web surrounding it. The spider is believed to be a reference to the cunning spider known as Anansi, a character from West African folklore. The web emanating from the spider also brings to mind the dispersal but interconnectedness of African diaspora communities.
Ideas about ancestry are also present in Michael Puryear’s Dan Chair, which draws connections between West African design and America’s colonial history.
The inspiration for this chair came from a low-sitting, wooden chair popularized by the Dan people of West Africa. Puryear constructs the chair using wood from the estates of President George Washington and President Thomas Jefferson, who both exploited the labor of enslaved persons during their lifetimes.
The opportunity to work with woods supplied by Historical Woods of America, specifically poplar from Monticello and pecan from Mt. Vernon, provided me with the opportunity to honor and acknowledge the contributions of African American slaves to this country. Like my own ancestry this heritage began before the founding of the United States. African Americans have fought with honor and loyalty in every war of our nation. They have significantly contributed economically, socially, culturally and politically to American culture. The Dan Chair is an expression of my pride in being a descendant of slaves.Michael PuryearArtist Statement
For his Dan Chair, Puryear creates raised marks resembling lashes on the chair’s legs, using a Japanese mark-making technique called Ukibori. The chair is finished with burnished graphite, giving it a metallic shine. Puryear’s interpretation links the traditional Dan design to the experience of enslaved Africans in the Americas. Puryear’s materials evidence the struggle of enslaved, while his design offers a reconnection for those displaced from the African continent. Similar to the boat seat connecting West African folklore to Afro-Ecuadorian heritage, the Dan Chair bridges West African design to American history and African American identity.
NMAAHC is delighted to share these stories of Black creatives and the narratives that their designs reveal. The materials featured here are a small sampling from the Museum’s broader collection that includes documents, objects, archives, ephemera, and interviews. Over time we will be increasing digital access to our collections and updating our online records with recent acquisitions. In the meantime, we invite you to learn more about design initiatives at NMAAHC and the design networks in your community.
Written by Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Curator of Architecture and Design, and Renee Harris, Black Designers Research Intern, 2021
Published on December 16, 2021