A young design student recently reached out to me for help with one of her senior assignments. Below is a snippet of what she sent me:

My name is {removed for privacy}. I am a senior Interior Design major at Howard University. I plan on specializing in Holistic Interior Design. I was excited to come across your website because I have not been able to find many African American/Black Interior Designers that specialize in Holistic Interior Design. Also, like you my background is in IT as well and I am pivoting into Interior Design.

One of my assignments requires that I interview Interior Designers that are working in the field that I am interested in for my thesis.  Please let me know if you would be open to answering some questions via email regarding Holistic Interior Design, your career-design path, interests, design philosophies and your perspective as an African American Interior Designer. 

Naturally I could not resist. At this point in my design career – I am semi-retired – I am all about paying it forward & inspiring the next generation of leaders in the business.

Her questions were so thoughtful that I wanted to share them with you. Since it would not negatively affect her assignment, she has graciously given me the go ahead to share the full interview with you.

I hope you enjoy learning a little more about the direction I chose in Interior design.

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N'Ckyola - Holistic Interior Designer & Owner of Xtraordinary by Design | XbD LLC
N’Ckyola – Holistic Interior Designer & Owner of Xtraordinary by Design | XbD LLC

What inspired you to choose a career in interior design?

My Grandmother, who had amazing personal style, inspired me to go into interior design.

As a child I watched her pick out fabrics to reupholster furniture, make in home appointments for custom draperies, and create a home & garden almost out of thin air.

All this in the 70’s & 80’s while working as a nanny & housekeeper, and later in retail. And all “on credit”.

I didn’t know until much later in life that I had that creative gene too. I did much the same in my own apartments & homes before turning that passion into a business.

It was then that I realized that even though I had more disposable income to work with, many people – who deserve beautifully functional homes as much as anyone else – do not. And with that, a “niche” was born. I prefer to say it’s a calling.

What led you to specialize in holistic interior design? Were there any pivotal moments or influences that shaped your direction?

Mental health disparities in general & specifically in BIPOC communities.

In 2012, I met a client who had a career she loved but was really stressful at times & wanted to come home to her own personal sanctuary every day.

Less than a year later, I worked with a couple that had a child who struggled with mental illness.  They too wanted a sanctuary.

And of course, everyone has a budget, whether they know it or not. So that niche I had in the beginning – “every budget deserves great design” – got narrowed down even more.

What specific holistic practices, such as Feng Shui, Vastu Shastra, or Pher Ankh, do you incorporate into your interior design projects, and how do these practices influence your design decisions and outcomes?

This is an excellent question! While many of these ancient principles share similar theories, I personally use a combination of Pher Ankh, Feng Shui, in addition to my background & love of psychology in my approach to every project, including my own.

As a person living with multiple mental health disorders, I am acutely aware of the difference between (general) aesthetics & functional aesthetics and how design can have a profound impact on the individual as well as the whole. Businesses can benefit from these principles as well because they can have a major impact on how teams are formed and workspaces arranged.

There is so much untapped potential in this area of interior design that is yet to be explored, researched, & implemented across the board.

How do you continue to grow and evolve in your career? Are there specific areas within interior design you are currently exploring or plan to explore?

After 20 years corporate & 20+ in the design industry, I am now semi-retired. I always have my ear to the ground and continue to learn, grow, and share whatever I can with others.

As a non-traditional interior designer, I am always ready to talk to anyone who will listen about the benefits of being an entrepreneur & changing lives – including your own.

What is your design philosophy?

My goal is to bring great style home by decorating consciously, holistically, and sustainably without the limits of trends & budgets.

In your opinion how does holistic interior design contribute to sustainable living and environmental consciousness?

The lifecycle makes it simple. Only buy what’s necessary & buy local or from companies who have a commitment to sustainability (i.e. planting trees, using eco-friendly materials like bamboo, etc.). Keep all the beloved & functional things clients already own. When curating pieces, keep it beautifully functional.

That way everything used in the design project is meaningful, lasts at least a lifetime, and never has to end up in a landfill.

How do you balance aesthetic appeal with functionality in your designs, and what do you prioritize when the two are in conflict?

Functionality always wins. Always. If it doesn’t fit aesthetically, we can always change that. We can tweak things like color and even shape, to a degree (so long as functionality & stability are not compromised).

How do technology and innovation play a role in your design process?

Honestly, they do not very much. Beyond the renderings that I create as part of the design process, technology doesn’t play a huge role even with AI. I believe that is because nothing can match the human interaction, the personal touch that the interior design industry requires.

We have to get to know our clients, understand their pain points, how they live, how they work, how they want to live. Technology can’t capture that.

As for innovation, unlike many designers, I don’t feel the need to do something “new” with every project. I am strongly drawn to what my clients need & want, how they want to feel at home. Sometimes that means keeping it simple, other times it means doing something novel.

It all depends on the client & their specific project.

In what ways do you believe the interior design industry can become more inclusive and representative of diverse cultures and backgrounds?

The design industry has become so saturated that whatever is trending becomes it’s definition of inclusion & diversity. For example, right now Boho style is hot and as a result industry leaders and “the powers that be” seem to believe that showcasing homes & home goods in that style – whether African, Indian, Asian – is enough representation.

I would challenge anyone to look beyond these styles – which are not truly “trends” – and dig deeper into the origin & actual lifestyle of the people who created & love them.

There are many media outlets starting to do this more & I think that goes a long way toward educating the public.

As an African American interior designer, how do you see your cultural heritage influencing your design choices, work and philosophies?

It’s not so much my personal cultural heritage that influences my design choices, but that of my clients. As a designer of African descent, I try to be mindful of my clients’ background and incorporate that into the design process. Many times their cultural heritage is unknown but there may be something they are drawn to based on their childhood, travels, or other experiences. I try to tap into that as much as possible.

Can you discuss a project you are particularly proud of and how it reflects your unique approach as a holistic and culturally informed designer?

Because I take on projects many designers wouldn’t touch due to things like budgets & (physical and/or mental) health conditions, I’ve had some very memorable & life changing projects.

My all-time favorite project is one of the first non-residential projects I ever worked on back in 2013. It’s a children’s library at a Catholic school in the inner city that served children from Pre-K – 5th grade. It was a huge volunteer effort that brought the entire community together, including my contractor & my own family. It was a lot of work that paid off big when we re-opened & dedicated to “new” library and saw the pure joy it brought to the children. I’m brought to tears every time I think of it.

How do you tailor your holistic interior design approach to meet the diverse needs and preferences of your clients while still maintaining your design integrity?

Doing my job well means really getting to know my clients. We don’t have to become the best of friends, but I need to know more than just which style of planter you prefer & how many pillows you like to sleep with. Taking a holistic approach means understanding the backstory of why a potential client reached out to me in the first place.

During my consultation, I inform clients up front that we’re going to get a little personal – “how personal depends on you & your project”.

In your opinion, what is the most overlooked aspect of interior design that can significantly enhance a space’s holistic value?

Sound. It’s important to engage all the senses in our homes and I think sound is often an afterthought that only arises when it’s bad – like loud outside noise in a bedroom.

We easily notice & address things like smell, lighting, & textiles. But even if we do notice sound it’s more of a byproduct of everyday life – we expect to hear the hum of the fridge or music or TV in the background.

But when things are really quiet & you close your eyes in a space, that’s when you can literally “feel” the effect of noise – good or bad.

Are there any trainings, certifications, books, advice etc that you would recommend for learning about holistic interior design or being an interior designer?

I believe that interior design is part creativity, part technology, and part psychology. CEU’s are important in maintaining technical industry knowledge & certification, but in my opinion it’s the psychological piece that is most important. As designers, we work with & for people – being able to do that in a way that is understanding, caring & considerate, often empathetic is key to changing lives through interior design.

Thank you SO much for reading

If you’ve made it this far, I’d love to know what you think of my interview with this young scholar. Let me know in the comments.

I would also love it if you would consider subscribing to my emails. You’ll get updates like this and more.

And if you’re looking for an interior designer for a full project or just need a little help, shoot me an email. I am semi-retired but I still enjoy helping people whenever I can!

All the best from your designer friend!

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