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Designing While Black

The Black Design Collective confronts isolation, insensitivity, and straight-up racism in San Francisco’s interior design and architectural world.


From left, interior designer and Black Design Collective cofounder Shawn McLean-Bergel, Rashanda Udekwu, and DeQuese May, one of the collective’s other cofounders.

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Members of the Black Design Collective meet in San Francisco’s Herman Miller showroom.

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Chasa Toliver-Léger.

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Nyles Scott sports the limited-edition Converse sneakers designed by Virgil Abloh.

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The BDC celebrates its one-year anniversary in October.

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McLean-Bergel and May show each other love.

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It’s the start of the magic hour, and a group of Bay Area design professionals have gathered inside the Herman Miller showroom. The arched windows frame a cityscape that looks more like an oil painting than real-life downtown San Francisco. Before long, the conversation drifts to an industry conference that took place last fall. Shawn McLean-Bergel, at the time the president of the Northern California chapter of the International Interior Design Association, moderated a talk with two other leaders in the field: Cheryl Durst, the executive vice president and CEO of IIDA, and Jessica O. Matthews, the inventor of a soccer ball that can be used as a power generator. The group reminisces about the event fondly; they ooze over having seen, for the first time, three women—three black women, three highly successful black women—onstage together for a design industry event.

But as the group chats and laughs, a latent tension becomes palpable. They already know the follow-up: At an IIDA event following the conference, Pamela Abalu, the noted architect (and a black woman), was going to be honored. But as Chasa Toliver-Léger, the director of PR for the Northern California chapter of the association, recalls, a sponsor voiced concerns about featuring yet another black woman. “It wouldn’t be relatable to a general audience,” she remembers being told. “We can’t have it be too black—that’s what was translated there.”

“One. Time,” McLean-Bergel chimes in, carving out the words. “One time,” she repeats more quietly, shaking her head.

McLean-Bergel has been working as an interior designer for nearly 25 years and has earned a reputation for being meticulous and efficient. Even her look is precise: bold glasses, matte-red power lip, tailored black slacks creased to high heaven. But throughout her career, she has struggled to be herself, she says. “I felt so alone. I had to manage my blackness.”

It was McLean-Bergel who organized the all-black-women IIDA panel—an opportunity, as she viewed it, to give people of color a platform they otherwise rarely get in the design world (only 2 percent of architects are black). “It was my challenge to myself in my year as president to make black designers and black folks who work in the industry more visible,” she says. “When I was recruiting for events, I would look out to see folks who I could pull in.”

That philosophy extended to the formation of the Black Design Collective, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this October. The group, which McLean-Bergel cofounded, holds monthly meetings at various offices and showrooms in San Francisco and Oakland, including Arup, All-steel, Gensler, and, tonight, Herman Miller. The first meeting, in October 2017, included seven people; now invites go out to some 80 members.

The motto for the events is “Each one bring one,” a challenge to existing members to bring new black designers into the fold. The 30-odd attendees, on average, who show up each month don’t come just for the cheese plates and cocktails; they come for support, a confidence boost, a recharge—and to strategize diversifying the next generation of design pros. A big plan for 2019 is to reach out to local black students as early as elementary school, McLean-Bergel says. “So we can get them thinking about other things besides military, sports, entertainment. How about design?”

That’s a huge concern, says Jascynda Jones, a design manager at Gensler. Jones grew up in Oakland and went to Howard, the historically black university in Washington, D.C. When she returned to the Bay Area for work, she was floored by the homogeneity in the field. “Our offices are in the same area I grew up in, but the workplace is not representative of where I grew up,” she says.

Julia Weatherspoon, an architectural designer at Perkins + Will and another BDC cofounder, was similarly dismayed by how few people of color were employed at major firms. “When we’re younger and we decide that this is our calling, we don’t understand what the industry landscape looks like,” she says. Being one of the only black faces within a company means frequently questioning yourself, says Rashanda Udekwu, who works in development at Global Furniture. “You’re wondering if you’re going to be able to get this business because of who you are, because the rest of the room is not you.”

DeQuese May works in development at Herman Miller and is the group’s third cofounder. “My job is to network and be a brand ambassador, and that’s easier when you can walk into a room and feel comfortable.” He continues, “When I go into a design firm and I can see a Shawn, I can see a Julia, that makes me a little bit more, um...” He pauses, and the others in the conversation collectively and audibly exhale as if on cue.
“At ease,” he finishes.

Nyles Scott
, who’s also in development, at Allsteel, stretches his legs out, putting on display his see-through Converse high tops designed by Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton’s first black artistic director—something Scott makes sure to state as he simultaneously replies to a flurry of compliments on the shoes. He recalls being told by a principal he was working with that he’d stand out in the industry precisely because he is black—as though he’d be a welcome curiosity. “It took some time of being out in the market to understand it wasn’t a racist comment—it was true,” he says.

Other remarks, though, are entirely racist—appallingly so. “People make comments all the live-long day,” McLean-Bergel says, rolling her eyes, and her neck. “Whether I told them I went to South Carolina and they made a comment about if I was picking cotton...” The group’s gasps interrupt her, and one of the men asks, “Who made a comment like that?” “I will never tell who,” she replies. “But I was bleeeeown away.”

Once the topic is broached, all sorts of other stories bubble up. McLean-Bergel tells of a colleague who tugged at her hair to see if it was a weave. May says a coworker once called him a cheeky monkey in front of his team. He waited for someone to come to his defense; no one did. “It’s not in-your-face, Confederate-flag racism,” he says. “But it is when you dab at me. When Black Panther came out, I had people I don’t know try to give me the Wakanda handshake.” At an industry party on a boat, Scott overheard someone tell his colleagues that he didn’t see a lot of black people on the deck, so they must be down below rowing.

These are stories that the attendees haven’t shared with one another before. McLean-Bergel, only half joking, says, “I want names.” It’s at this point that everyone falls quiet for the first time. Then Udekwu cheerfully inserts, in an effort to pop the lead balloon now hovering over the sleek gray Herman Miller couches, “And you just keep moving on! Because you know they just don’t get it.”

The group nods and mmm-hms. “Working in the field is a balancing act: We just auto-adjust all the time,” Weatherspoon finally adds. “You can’t be the angry black employee. You want to make sure you’re a professional, but it wears on you.... And we’re laughing to keep from crying.”

It wore on McLean-Bergel to the point that, in 2012, she decided to start her own eponymous design firm. “It was just exhausting,” she says. “The microaggressions. I just wanted to get away from it. Before, if someone said something offensive to me, I’d internalize it and just go home and get upset and freak out. Now that I work for myself, if people say stupid shit to me, I usually call them on it.”

Despite dredging up so many past slights, the group are able to snap back into a celebratory mood, even though it’s just a Wednesday after work. They are safe from all of that for the moment. They regard one another like they’re seeing glimpses of light through cracks in a wall. May reports that Herman Miller’s senior VP of North America and global strategy is “unapologetically black.” She met with him shortly after he started, welcoming him and commenting that the company was striving to be more diverse. “A simple gesture. It makes me feel like I actually have a shot at not being help,” he says. “All it takes is someone to say you can do it.”

He revises himself. “They actually don’t have to say anything,” he says. “They can just be there.”


Originally published in the October issue of San Francisco 

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