As executive vice president and CEO of the International Interior Design Association, a Chicago-based global consortium of top practitioners, you’ve spoken a lot about underrepresentation of certain people in the field. Is there a root cause?

Interior design has always been a very white space. For people of color, for immigrants, for families sending their first member off to college, career viability is important. Interior design has often been perceived as a hobby — something that happened on the North Shore or on the Gold Coast. It hasn’t been recognized as something one does to earn money. I have seen that substantially shift in the 24 years I’ve been in this position.

What’s inspiring the shift?

In all these movements we’ve seen in the past two years — people fighting to be seen and heard — design has been a part of that. Access to comfort, to beauty, shouldn’t be relegated to a specific demographic. And HGTV! Just the simple fact of seeing designers of color on these shows. I’ve talked to people who enrolled in design school because they saw someone who looked like them doing something they were unsure was open to them. It took a lot of small gestures and big movements to reach a tipping point for young designers of color. Now you walk into SCAD [Savannah College of Art and Design] or RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] or UIC, and students see teachers who look like them. They see curricula that are decolonizing design — instead of a very Eurocentric curriculum, they are seeing how people live around the world, like in the round houses of Nigeria.

How do you get people to understand the importance and the democratic nature of interior design?

I had an interesting experience in the West Loop recently. I was standing outside of Sweetgreen, and two young Black women stopped and asked if I was going in. They said they didn’t feel comfortable because “that’s where white women go for lunch.” I had never thought about it that way. So I said, “Come with me. I’ll buy you lunch, and we’ll discuss why you don’t feel comfortable in here.” Sweetgreen uses a lot of local art, and one of the women recognized a piece by an art teacher of hers from the South Side and that changed everything. Simply connecting with a piece of art altered her perception of a restaurant and her experience in that space.

What do you consider “design” to be?

My favorite mantra is “Design is what happens on the receiving end.” Therefore, the feeling you’re trying to convey should be overtly reflected in a space. We are moving into a period away from austerity and cold to warmth and comfort and accessibility. Whether it’s postpandemic or a greater degree of attention to culture, the built environment is becoming more human.

Are there places in Chicago that capture the inclusive design you advocate?

I think of Eva Maddox, who designed the interior of Swedish Covenant Hospital about 25 years ago. There are around 30 languages spoken in that neighborhood, and Eva was very cognizant of incorporating the culture of the people it serves. The Chinatown library by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill was designed thinking about the current and future audiences. When we talk about welcoming Black people into a space, I don’t mean draping kente cloth all over. That’s pandering. I mean deliberately thinking about all the things that make us welcome. When we feel comfortable, we feel safe. The [Old] Post Office was redesigned with comfort, safety, and beauty in mind. You feel the history, but it’s not a museum. The McDonald’s headquarters is all about the history of an Illinois-based company, of food service, and of so many people who got their first job there.

Last summer, you launched a new program in Chicago for high school kids, Design Your World, and you’re extending it to Miami this year. What’s your vision?

We work with After School Matters, which creates career-based programs. We had over 300 applicants and could only take 20 kids for the six-week program. It allows them to see that interior design is a viable profession, it gives the kids access to top talent, and on our field trips makes them feel comfortable in these spaces — it gave them access to beauty. They talked a lot about how beauty had been denied to them, so we discussed how you have to find beauty and create beauty, but you should know it is granted to all of us. We went on a field trip to the Merchandise Mart, and as we walked through the showrooms, I had tears in my eyes watching the kids encounter beautiful textiles and tiles. We were in an office furniture showroom, and one student asked me, “Why do people in an office need this?” So we talked about how the work environment can amplify our quality of life. They had never thought about work as something that supports us as people. That led to a conversation about whether they would learn better if they had more daylight in their schools. We talked about how design gives you agency to create an environment that works for you and your family.

What was your biggest takeaway from Design Your World?

Whether we’ve created 20 new designers or just one, it was interesting to see how the students crafted a community center, which was their final project. So many kids had areas for their pets. They created multigenerational areas for their grandmothers to go. We got such an insight into the kids. Many live in small spaces with a lot of people and noise. Quiet was precious and prized. There were a lot of thoughts on places to easily charge your phone. One thing I found that was subtle: things at your fingertips — access to a book, a chair. I don’t know if that was reflective of their small spaces. What we’d like to do next is take those kids to a design firm and have them sit with designers. Their young viewpoint on innovation could be important. They weren’t jaded, cynical. There was no “A client is gonna hate this.” There was a certain amount of risk taking and making things easy for people. That’s what design should do: Strip it down to the beauty of simplicity.