When New York-based interior designer Sheila Bridges was decorating her elegant and eclectic apartment in Harlem, she faced a design challenge. She couldn’t find a toile that spoke to her. So the inventive designer created her own. “Toiles often have narratives,” explained Bridges, “and I wanted mine to lampoon some of the stereotypes commonly associated with African Americans.” In her Harlem Toile De Jouy, a playful take on traditional pastoral motifs, African-American characters braid hair, jump rope, dance beside a boom box, and picnic with fried chicken and watermelons. “I’m an interior designer but I also consider myself an artist, and when I have the opportunity or freedom to push the envelope I try to,” Bridges says.
Pushing the envelope has led to widespread acclaim for Bridges. She has designed residences and offices for a number of high-profile clients, including the 8,300-square foot office for former President Bill Clinton, and has been named“America’s Best Interior Designer” by CNN and TIME. Her Harlem toile has also become a part of the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt Museum’s permanent wallpaper collection.
Despite her successes in the field, Bridges still struggles for respect as an African-American woman in design, and in the following interview, she talks about how she forged her own path as a designer, how other African Americans can break into the business, and her dream project.
What does good design mean to you?
Good design is about creative problem solving. Good design stands the test of time. It feels so great to visit residential projects that I designed over a decade ago and see that they still feel relevant. Thoughtful design is timeless design.
Is design an elitist profession? What challenges have you faced as an African American?
Interior design continues to be an extremely elitist profession. The challenges are endless and, like many African-American professionals (whether corporate or creative), I often feel as though I have to work twice as hard for half as much. I continue to be frustrated by how rarely I see other faces of color editorially, as well as present at design events or industry functions. I don’t even want to share how many times I have had to take the service elevator, or been handed a Fendi fur because someone mistakenly thought I was working at an event instead of attending it. It is certainly better now than when I started in this business, but as an industry, we still have a long way to go.
What advice would you give to African-American designers who are trying to break into the business?
Design is a really tough profession no matter who you are. I always encourage young African-American designers to network and get to know other designers of color because it is important to have a great support system. I have gotten to know a lot of young, talented designers in the past few years. I’m excited to see the next generation of design talent emerging.
What other African-American artists inspire you?
Wow, too many to name! Toni Morrison, Alma Thomas, Roy DeCarava, Kerry James Marshall, Jill Scott, Archibald Motley, Robert Glasper, Maya Angelou, Andre Watts, Roy Ayers, Kara Walker, Gil Scott Heron, The Roots, Lorna Simpson, Marvin Gaye, Sanford Biggers, Mary J. Blige, Miles Davis, Langston Hughes, Kehinde Wiley, Prince, Beauford Delaney, Carrie Mae Weems, Gordon Parks, Glenn Ligon, W.E.B DuBois, Sam Gilliam, Mickalene Thomas, Zadie Smith, Mos Def, Alicia Keys, Jacob Lawrence—how many pages should I fill?
You also pull inspiration from other cultures and your travels. What is your best advice for people who want to find pieces for their homes while on vacation?
Travel is by far my greatest source of inspiration. I usually tell clients not to buy the first thing they see (particularly if they are in touristy areas), but to tag along with a local when shopping and circle back if they can’t stop thinking about a piece. To me, part of what makes one’s home truly unique is having things that have real and authentic stories behind them. A lot of the art and furniture in my own homes is from my travels, places like France, Vietnam, Sweden, Morocco, Cuba, Quebec and Copenhagen. Somehow it all works together because I usually only buy one very special thing from each trip.
What is your current obsession?
Iceland. I recently bought a home there, which I’m in the process of renovating.
What is your dream project?
I’ve always wanted to design a small boutique hotel and to have a collaborative partnership with a design-conscious developer or hotelier who would let me be involved in every aspect of the project, from the overall design of the space—including the furniture, art and furnishings—all the way down to the selection of the cocktail napkins used at the bar, or the aprons in the kitchen. Think of a more contemporary version of the Ian Schrager/Philippe Starck relationship in the ’80s and ’90s.
In your book, The Bald Mermaid, you said “no regrets, but many lessons learned.” What is one lesson you can share with us?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to be more “present,” which is sometimes tough in this new world where we are constantly being bombarded with information and over-stimulated to the point of distraction. I try not to worry as much about what happened in the past or what may happen in the future. It’s about really living, enjoying, and fully appreciating what is in front of me—right here, right now.
Photos in order of appearance: photo courtesy of Sheila Bridges; portrait by Ari Michelson; photo by Laura Resen; photo by Laura Resen; photo courtesy of One Kings Lane; photo by Dana Meilijson