Words have meanings—and as the Black Lives Matter movement has shown the world, some meanings go beyond the seemingly innocuous to suggest disquieting if not appalling definitions. That holds even when the subjects under discussion are interior design and architecture, not necessarily topics that attract controversy in the general public.
Racism has always been embedded in design vocabularies, though, depending on the historical period and notably in the Western Hemisphere, typically through depictions of nonwhite individuals, from Asians to Native Americans. African figures commonly known as blackamoors can be found in everything from jewelry (see Princess Michael of Kent’s decision to wear a blackamoor brooch at a British royal family Christmas lunch attended by Meghan Markle, who is biracial) to furniture (exquisitely crafted 18th-century blackamoor tables and pedestals are a common sight at TEFAF Maastricht, the European art and antiques fair, and versions are still made in Italy). The genre was brilliantly explored in 2015 in “ReSignifications,” an exhibition—part appreciation, part smackdown, part reinvention—that was held at NYU Florence, which is New York University’s Villa La Pietra campus in Florence, Italy, as well as at the same city’s Museo Stefano Bardini. Curated by Awam Amkpa, a Nigerian-born NYU professor, and restaged in 2018 at Harvard, “ReSignifications” was a genius response to the more than 30 blackamoors that the school inherited in 1994, following the death of the 14th-century villa’s last private owner, Anglo-American aesthete Sir Harold Acton.
Then there is the N-word. A vulgar epithet spawned by the Latin word for black, it was once unashamedly utilized as a modifier for colors, most of them tones of black or brown, in fabrics, paints, dyes, and footwear, as well as a butterfly and a sweet pea introduced in 1905 by British nurserymen Isaac House & Son. Journalistic offenders in the early to mid–20th century include the British edition of Good Housekeeping, along with The New Yorker, which, in a 1937 report on the latest fashion trends, deployed the slur as a chromatic synonym for fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s signature shade of shocking pink. It also widely appeared in fashion advertisements in smart publications such as Harper’s Bazaar and The Tatler, and even in a description of an interior cited in The Architects’ Journal.
Plantation shutters and blinds, anyone?
“One day, I just decided that the term made me uncomfortable, so I call them wide-slat shutters now,” Los Angeles interior designer Brigette Romanek, a Black member of the AD100, tells AD PRO. The status-symbol window dressing surely was born in sweltering climates—Asia, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, et cetera—as a way to regulate harsh sunlight before becoming ubiquitous in the United States in the 1980s. “Few window treatments can match plantation shutters for lending a room character and architectural interest,” declares Lowe’s Complete Home Decorating, published in 2001. “The plantation shutters create slanting bars of sunshine, so I can imagine that I’m writing on a tropical island like Graham Greene,” NPR essayist David Bouchier observed in his 2005 book Writer at Work. As for the word plantation—coined in the 15th century to define land that was purposefully planted with trees—firms ranging from J. Peterman to Lucky Brand have called it into commercial play (a type of hat, a shirt) to evoke the supposed romance of colonialism rather than of whippings, shackles, and rape.
“It’s so enmeshed in the world of slavery that marketing British Colonial mahogany furniture is going to be very problematic,” says Alexis Barr, an instructor of design history and humanities at the New York School of Interior Design (NYSID). “Speaking as a white woman in my 40s, there’s more tension than I ever realized. I’ve had students of color in my classes tell me that it’s hard for them to look at certain pieces of furniture because they see the suffering behind the beauty, and that’s a really valid point. Where did the silver come from that was eventually shaped into a tureen or candlesticks? It was mined by Native people and enslaved Africans under brutal conditions. We have to move beyond this sort of glamorous, early-20th-century idea of traditional decorative arts and think through some of the deeper issues of these beautiful objects and what the human costs were.”
The term “master bedroom” has been under heated discussion and targeted for elimination of late, officially so by the Houston Association of Realtors, even though scholars believe that its origins are innocent enough. “Merriam-Webster says 1925 is the first printed use of the term, and I did find an ad for a Sears home-building kit of that time in which ‘master bedroom’ is stated on the plans,” Barr continues. “My understanding is that it’s not so much hearkening back to days of enslavement or as an antebellum reference as it is simply another outdated concept for heteronormative, nuclear-family arrangements, in which the husband is the breadwinner and the master of the house.”
Still, she continues, “It’s ripe for being reexamined and even eliminated. If ‘master bedroom’ makes people uncomfortable, then that’s one more reason for it to be cast aside.” For her part, Romanek prefers to call a home’s master bedroom the “primary bedroom,” similarly recasting the terms “master bath” and “master suite.” It’s a shift that AD has recently embraced as well, in text as well as in captions. That being said, singer and actor John Legend—the first Black man to win an Emmy, a Tony, an Oscar, and a Grammy—recently posted on Twitter, “Real problem: realtors don’t show black people all the properties they qualify for. Fake problem: calling the master bedroom the master bedroom. Fix the real problem, realtors.”
While some African American design folk feel a wholesale re-think is in order, others are more measured in their approach. “‘Master bedroom’ is a gendered, outdated term, but I wouldn’t rewrite the development of housing and luxury buildings,” says Brooklyn-based Black interior and architectural designer Leyden Lewis, who teaches in the MFA program at NYSID and is also a founding member of the Black Artists + Designers Guild. “That’s how those rooms were designed, as master bedrooms. Words can mean different things at different times, and sometimes we need to update them; I totally agree with that sentiment. Language can change. But, for me, I’d continue using the term ‘plantation shutters’ because it references where they come from historically. If we don’t have a language to code, we will lose the story of its origins. Suffer no more these words and focus on how to change the thinking, so we create an equitable world where everybody feels valid and their lives have meaning. Let’s think a little bit bigger than the words; let’s change the mindset.”