Iteach in the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Charlottesville, Va., surrounded by artists, designers, and performers. At VCU, we wear our student diversity proudly. Each morning, I drive to school along Monument Avenue, parking
my car on a block bookended with a statue of J.E.B. Stuart to the east
and Robert E. Lee to the west.
This summer’s events in Charlottesville amplified this juxtaposition.
Repeatedly, I ask, “When matters of social justice and equity arise, what is
the role of interior design, and what should I, as a designer and an educator,
be doing about it?”
In this issue of interiors+sources, we consider art, fashion, and their
relationship to interior design. Fashion designers, artists, and interior
designers have agency with respect to social change. However, the
critique artists and fashion designers offer differs from interior designers
in three significant ways: voice, speed, and visibility.
Although artists like Richard Serra or designers like Rei Kawakubo
work in collaborative teams, their voice is essentially singular. In 1998,
Alexander McQueen guest edited Dazed and Confused’s Fashion-Able
issue and exerted his autonomous voice by featuring models with a
range of different physical abilities, questioning conventional depictions of
beauty.1 Interior design almost always has a responsibility to another—the
client, the user, or both—that must be respected in order for the concept
to succeed. The voice of interior space is polyphonic.
Often, the artist can swiftly respond with social critique. In 2008, an estimated
9,000 schoolchildren died in the devastating Sichuan earthquake.2 Building
failures associated with lax governmental oversight were largely responsible.
Shortly thereafter, Ai Wei Wei memorialized this tragedy through a series of
searing critiques of Chinese officials that used the type of backpack ubiquitous
among Chinese children as his medium. In contrast, interior design often
moves slowly. Its scale—structurally, legally, and financially—mandates
consensus, collaboration, and coordination, necessitating a longer gestation.
Many fashion designers and artists communicate their critique via highly
visible vehicles. When Prince performed “I Wanna Be Your Lover” in an
animal-print one-piece on national television, he engaged an entire nation in a
conversation about conventional gender definitions, a discussion that, nearly 40
years later, continues to have significance culturally and politically. By contrast,
the essential characteristic of interior design is its interiority. Interiors are
always private; at best they may be semi-public. Users must be aware that
an interior space exists, and then agree—and be permitted—to engage it.
Given these obstacles, how do we educate interior designers to be
agents of social change?
We do so by emphasizing criticality, empathy, and advocacy as the
most important characteristics designers can develop.
Criticism is the bedrock of design education. Criticism thoughtfully and
rigorously challenges the normalized. Education is about making critical
questioning instinctive, because criticism is not only fundamental to design,
it is the foundation of citizenship. The designer who critically filters the
mountain of data associated with a million-square-foot upfit could expertly
navigate the information and misdirection that floods contemporary society.
Empathy requires us to solicit, understand, and consider other viewpoints
in the design process. “Listening,” according to improvisational artists, “is the
willingness to change.” The empathic designer puts a premium on seeking out
and respecting another’s viewpoint in service of design. The empathic citizen
could overcome the increasingly binary nature of public discourse today.
The critical, empathic designer is also an advocate. Like many schools,
ours has an innovative interdisciplinary program—the Middle of Broad studio—
that pairs our students with communities in need of design assistance, but
advocacy opportunities are present at many scales. When accessibility is posited
as civil rights advocacy, it is no longer a
space planning conundrum. Plumbing
code requirements are opportunities to
advocate for our trans community. If we
can educate designers who understand
that they can empower people, that ethos
could translate into many other areas.
We need students to join us in
transforming interior design. Together, we
can combat sexism and homophobia.
Together, we can reach out to under-
represented populations and engage
them with design, and then provide
those designers with mentoring and
support. Together, we can advocate
for people whose voices, overtly or inadvertently, are silenced in design
conversations. Perhaps most of all, together we must reflect on our own
profession and ask difficult questions about diversity and inclusion. The
recent work by the IIDA Diversity Council is a start, but a comprehensive
study across the profession is grossly overdue. Consider this a call to
action, and I pledge my participation.
When speaking of good design, Harry Bertoia wrote, “[T]he assumption
is that somewhere, hidden, is a better way of doing things.” Equipping our
students with a critic’s eyes, an empathic ear, and an advocate’s voice is
the first step.
Roberto Ventura is an assistant professor in the Department of Interior
Design at Virginia Commonwealth University and maintains a solo practice,
roberto ventura design studio. Exploring the intersections of multiple disciplines
in terms of form, type, process, and communication, his academic and
creative scholarship ranges from the curation and design of exhibitions to
the introduction of improv performance to design students. Ventura earned
his M.Arch from Miami University and a bachelor’s degree in Math-Physics
from Albion College.
70 interiors+sources october2017 interiorsandsources.com
By Roberto Ventura
the Future of
In today’s society, interior design students should be molded to
understand and utilize the collective voice of the industry.
1 Rigg, N. (2015) The dazed history of Alexander McQueen. Dazed and Confused. Retrieved from
2 Branigan, T. (2009). China releases earthquake death toll of children. The Guardian. Retrieved from