Celebrate Black History Month with Historical Design

Sharing Black History with Interior Design

For Black History Month, it’s both important to understand the torrid and sometimes disturbing history of Black individuals in our country, and to hold up Black individuals and their voices. We would like to take some time this month to explore artists and interior designers who showcase our world’s history of racism, colonization, and exploitation.

Yinka Shonibare is a British-Nigerian artist who has focused his career on exploring race, class, and cultural identity through sculpture, painting, and photography. In his exposition The Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour, Shonibare displays the new form of colonization from British philanthropic circles during the late 70s and 80s where it became popular to invest in non-white soccer players of African and South American nationalities.

Philanthropist's Parlor display at a museum with bold and rich textures and patterns
The Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour, 1996-97
Reproduction furniture, fire screen, carpet, props, stanchions, Dutch wax printed cotton
Collections of Peter Norton and Eileen Harris Norton, Santa Monica, California. Image from the Smithsonian Museum of African Art.

Shonibare designed a victorian parlor for an imagined philanthropist with all of the expected fixtures; a chaise lounge, fireplace, dramatic drapery, and decorative wallpaper. There is a catch though, the parlor tells the story of where the philanthropist acquired their wealth. From afar, the wallpaper and fabric just look like a colorful pattern, but when you get closer the figures of Black soccer players emerge to expose the real source of wealth. You can read more about Yinka Shonibare’s work at his website and keep up with his current project on his instagram.

Colorful and textural patterns tell a story in this interior design exhibition
The Victorian Philanthropist’s Parlour (detail). Image from the Smithsonian Museum of African Art.

Shonibare is not the first artist to use interior design as a way to express racism and classism within western culture. Renée Green, an American Black artist designed Mise-en-scène: Commemorative Toile in 1992, an installation about enslavement uprisings in the US. Her spaces showcase the design of upper class family homes, typical of slave owners in the pre-civil war era. Green pairs idyllic rural scenes and violent slave uprisings on eighteenth-century upholstery fabric to create a powerful juxtaposition of racism, exploitation, and wealth distribution. Renée Green is an artist, filmmaker, writer, and professor at MIT. You can see more of Green’s work in the Bortolami Gallery and learn more about her career here.

Renée Green, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile (exhibition view), 1992
Renée Green, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile (exhibition view), 1992. Pigment on cotton sateen upholstered furniture, and on paper-backed cotton sateen wallpaper. Dimensions variable. Photo credit: Will Brown. From FabricWorkshopAndMuseum.org

Merging interior design with art and history, Yinka Shonibare and Renée Green are able to bring racism and class issues into a tangible space where it is impossible to ignore the disparities in our history. We welcome and thank these artists for sharing this burdensome past with us in such an innovative light.The more we can understand about racism, classism, and more in our country (and the world), the more armed we are to do our best to move beyond it.

How does viewing and understanding these works affect you? What did you learn or come to realize by looking at them? Let us know in the comments what you thought.

Posted in Interior Design News & History.

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