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    The interior designer on the importance of good design and why she co-founded the United In Design initiative to improve diversity in the industry

    THE ROYAL EXCHANGE: What is your background in design?

    ALEXANDRIA DAULEY: I’m a residential interior designer and I work in London and Surrey (for the most part) with my practice, Dauley Design. The majority of my work is renovations and extensions for families who are time poor and need someone to come in and just sort it out. I have a contemporary, modern aesthetic that is very functional and practical. Because I mostly work with families, all the materials I use look beautiful but will withstand the test of time, young children and a collection of pets. It means they’re not having to replace things all the time, it allows them to just live.

    We are excited to hear more about United in Design, the charitable organisation you set up recently with fellow interior designer Sophie Ashby (pictured above with Alexandria), to address the lack of diversity in the UK interior design industry. How did you and Sophie meet and what led to you founding the initiative?

    AD: Sophie and I didn’t know each other at all until a few months ago. I had followed her career and admired her work from afar. And then, when I was reaching out to people in the industry about this issue of diversity, a mutual contact put us in touch. It came just after George Floyd’s murder and the start of the Black Lives Matter protests. Sophie issued a well-thought-out statement on how this period had led her to reflect on how her practice, and the industry as a whole, lacked diversity.

    Sophie spoke about how she has always wanted to work with more ethnic minority designers, suppliers and makers but she felt that they were never coming forward. And she kept questioning what more she could do to try to open the door to more people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

    My experience in interior design has actually been quite positive as a Black woman. But when I trained at KLC I was the only Black person there, and when I returned to help as a tutor, years later, there still weren’t many Black or Asian people in the classrooms. So, I could definitely see that within the industry we weren’t well represented.

    Also, in my personal life, there have been instances of racism and I am very aware of how Black and Asian people are subject to unconscious bias. Whether that is my husband having to change his car, because we’ve been stopped and searched too often, or my daughter, when she was seven years old, being told by two young white girls that they wouldn’t sit with her because she is Black. My husband and I purposely didn’t give our children names with any sort of ethnic connotation attached to them because we felt they would be at a disadvantage when they were looking for employment when they were older. And it was the conversations about unconscious bias that made me think we need to address it across the board and in the interior design industry as well.

    In early June, Sophie and I arranged to have a Zoom call and we got along really well. We then set up the idea of United in Design before we even met in person. When we finally got to meet at her office, I think both of us felt that we’d known each other forever. We’re both very similar in our personalities, very driven and focused. And we could see what could be done to change the interior design industry. United in Design launched officially in July.

    I am very aware of how Black and Asian people are subject to unconscious bias

    TRE: What are the aims of United in Design?

    AD: United in Design has been set up to create a pathway for people to follow. We realised there wasn’t an easy way into the industry, especially for people from an ethnic minority background. We found in our research that there are quite a few ethnic minority students studying at university level, but the pinch point comes when they try and find work. And then, obviously, the issue lies with the people who are doing the hiring. The interior design industry has long been the preserve of white people with the right contacts to get a foot in the door. We’re trying to create more of a level playing field.

    We have a mentoring programme. A lot of success can be down to confidence and having the right information, and a mentor can be invaluable for that. United in Design is matching mentors with mentees and we’ve also teamed up with existing charity, the Creative Mentor Network, who provide diversity and mentor training. We also have a School Outreach Programme, where design professionals will go into schools, colleges and youth organisations to give talks about career pathways in interior design.

    United in Design will offer an apprenticeship scheme. We are pooling together four companies: two interior design studios, one maker and one supplier. And then an individual would be able to spend three months in each of those businesses and get a year’s worth of work experience at a junior designer’s salary. It was important for the apprentices to get a fair wage as most of these businesses are located in London and people need to be able to live. Hopefully it will help cut out the premise that you can only study interior design if you’ve got the financial backing of parents or a partner, and it will give apprentices the year of experience most practices require for job applicants. Plus, lots of new contacts in different areas of the industry.

    We’re also working with Interior Educators, a charity that operates in 50 universities up and down the country, to offer their students apprenticeships, work experience and mentoring. Work experience will be a one or two week placement in one of our professional design studios, or with a maker or supplier, to help supplement learning to give students insight into an area of design they want to explore. We’ll also be doing a “day in the life”, career insight day that students can just pop along to. And then United in Design is asking for PR and press to be more open to promoting and advertising designers, makers and suppliers from ethnic minority backgrounds – people need to see people that look like them.



    TRE: What is the United in Design Pledge?

    AD: The Pledge is a promise, which businesses have to commit to in order to become an accredited partner. It’s made up of seven actions and we ask partners to sign up for at least three. Many will sign up for all seven but there are many smaller companies that have a lot to give, but can’t take on all seven. The seven actions are: to actively push for diversity; join the United in Design School Outreach Programme; embed the tenets of diversity in your organisation; offer open days and work experience; offer guidance through mentoring; provide professional insight into the world of design to schools and universities; and be part of the apprenticeship scheme.

    Once businesses sign up, we give them information, support and guidance on what’s expected of a United in Design partner. We didn’t want companies to be taking on anyone for training and then have them just making teas and coffees. Partner businesses have to sign a contract to say that they understand the best practice initiatives and will be following them. Then every trainee on a placement is monitored and visited and there are feedback forms for both the participant and the business to complete as well. United in Design will be at the end of an email or phone if there’s any sort of problem. People have to be held to account; this is a very serious commitment.

    TRE: What advice would you give to someone thinking of training to be an interior designer who thinks that issues with diversity might negatively affect their career?

    AD: You have to believe in yourself and have a lot of confidence. Yes, there are always knockbacks in every walk of life but I think that if you are the best candidate and the best person for the job, then that will shine through. I think at the moment it has probably never been a better time for people from ethnic minorities to push themselves because the issues around diversity are on people’s radar now. At the moment it is really difficult to name 10 interior designers from ethnic minority backgrounds that are working consistently in the industry. But we know in three or five years time, when United in Design is still running, some of our young people will be going to design studios that are run by people who look like them and from backgrounds similar to theirs. We’re not there at the moment, but hopefully we will be.

    If you’re not in those institutions and representing your culture, then they will never change. I think that everybody should have the opportunity to train with the best and so while our applicants will probably be going into design studios where they won’t see people who look like them, the hope is that these companies are open and warm and welcoming and will make everyone feel comfortable, wanted and valued.

    A lot of success can be down to confidence and having the right information, and a mentor can be invaluable for that

    TRE: United in Design already has an impressive steering committee and partners, with
    Martin Brudnizki Design Studio, Fran Hickman, Joyce Wang Studio and Peter Mikic having already taken the Pledge. Have you found that the people you’ve spoken to have been really keen to get involved?

    AD: Yes, really keen. I think people were initially quite nervous as to how to approach this because it is a sensitive subject. It was finding the right way, and Sophie and I have come up with something that is easily accessible to lots of people: it’s simple, actionable and expandable. I think it’s been popular with everybody because we’re kind of just wrapping it in a bow and saying: Here you go – here’s your lovely mentee, here’s your list of guidelines for you to follow. Please go forth and use those guidelines and then create this relationship. And they know that there’s somebody always there, that they can refer back to, if they need any additional help.

    TRE: How, as consumers, can we try and encourage inclusion and diversity in interior design?

    AD: Over the next few months, I think you’ll see more designers, makers and suppliers from minority backgrounds being showcased. And as consumers, we need to be more open to using different people than we’re used to, not reverting to default but expanding our networks.

    TRE: What do you think are the benefits of having a more diverse creative team on projects?

    AD: I think culturally, we kind of look at things in a slightly different way – our heritage gives us a special perspective on colours, fabrics, materials. Having a team member from the same ethnic minority background as a client is fantastic too because they have a unique insight and ability to relate to that client. My vision is not just having more ethnic minority designers, makers and suppliers; it is also about introducing interior design to other cultures. From my own family experience, they didn’t know what interior design was and they certainly wouldn’t ever dream of hiring a designer; they just thought that it was for very rich white people. So it’s about opening the industry up on every side.

    People need to see people that look like them

    TRE: Do you think interior design will also be crucial in adapting office spaces to new health and safety regulations, and encouraging people to return to the office?

    AD: Yes, it will be absolutely crucial in the commercial sector in terms of design and the materials they’re going to be using. Everything is going to need to be antibacterial and with social distancing there will be a lot of spatial planning, ergonomics and flow coming into play.

    Businesses will need professional advice on everything from hand washing stations to wipe-clean surfaces. We’re going to have to clean more than ever, and make it as easy as possible for ourselves. I think we’re going to be seeing new things in bathroom design, including more single pieces of non-porous materials, getting rid of grout lines and anything that harbours bacteria, disease and viruses. Marble is absolutely beautiful, for example, but it’s porous. The trend for copper will come back in because it has antibacterial properties.

    TRE: How do you think good design can have a positive influence on our day-to-day lives and wellbeing?

    AD: People underestimate the power of good design, because it’s not just about looking aesthetically beautiful, it is about the function and practicality. I think coronavirus in particular has really thrown a light on how important home design is, as people have spent months staring at their four walls realising they need change. Homes now have to perform so many different functions: it’s an office, a classroom, a workout studio. All my clients come to me because their home isn’t working for them. Some of them actually come to hate their house, and it can cause tension and arguments. Good, clever design is about knowing how everything works, where everything goes and making sure you’ve got plenty of storage for everything, so that you can feel relaxed. If you like to entertain, making sure you’ve got ample space and opportunity to do so. It definitely improves your wellbeing if you live in a place that is well designed, organised and flows well. It might sound ridiculous to say it’s life changing, but it literally is.

    Alexandria Dauley is the founder of Dauley Designs, a multi-disciplinary design practice in London and Surrey. In July 2020 she established United in Design with fellow interior designer Sophie Ashby. United in Design is a charitable organisation with the aim of addressing the lack of diversity within the UK interior design industry. Find out more about United in Design and how you can get involved at 

    A conversation with… is a monthly series that invites today’s leading minds to discuss current topics, exchange points of view and explore new ideas with The Royal Exchange