University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Associate Professor Liz Teston’s interior architecture studio students began realizing last fall that a global perspective is essential in the design process.
A global context helps designers consider social, cultural, economic, and ecological issues and understand their implications for the design and use of a space.
In a studio themed People, Spaces, Experiences and Politics, Teston led her second-year students to investigate these societal issues and how they have impacted the built environment of downtown Knoxville, particularly for the Black community.
A key structure in this study is the Cal Johnson Building, built by Cal Fackler Johnson in 1898. Born into slavery in 1844, Johnson went on to become a successful businessman and philanthropist. Although all his other buildings and enterprises were demolished for urban renewal the Cal Johnson Building remains, and Teston’s students used it as a focal point for their studio project.
In its prime, the building bustled with numerous businesses, including clothing manufacturers, car dealerships, and others. Inspired by this spirit of entrepreneurialism and addressing the challenges Black-owned businesses often face, students speculatively designed a co-op-style retail and maker space for Knoxville’s Black community in the building’s ground floor. The co-op design would enable business owners and makers to crowdsource and collectively sell their goods.
“We’ve learned from business-owners in the Black community that their main challenge is a lack of logistical and spatial infrastructures—it’s hard to get products out to new customers,” Teston said. “We imagine that a co-op and maker space, like this, would enable makers to crowd-source and collectively sell their goods. Our studio speculated on what it would be like to re-appropriate the ground floor of the Cal Johnson Building for the Black community and to promote more variety in downtown Knoxville shops. This approach would also encourage inclusion and return thriving Black-owned business to the downtown area.”
To help students gain a diverse perspective, they learned from and collaborated throughout the semester with local makers and entrepreneurs including UT sociologist Enkeshi El-Amin of The Bottom and the Black in Appalachia podcast, Tanika Harper of Harper’s Naturals, Rachel Fletcher of Knox Upholstery, and Jade Adams of Oglewood Avenue. They also studied and made representational collages and models of quilts from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and the Smithsonian’s National Quilt Collection.
Student Lily Tigor said, “Increased representation in the design process makes for a more inclusive end-user experience. The opinions, experiences, and perspectives of various ethnicities, religions, and more must be considered in order to create a truly inclusive space for all.”
Creating a space that adapts to fit the community’s needs was the focus of student Kaleigh Powers, whose centralized design incorporates a conversation area that can be transformed into a stage for community interaction.
“This studio helped me get a strong understanding of designing a space for a community and what that can entail,” said Powers. “I learned that every detail in the spaces I have designed can have such a strong impact on the communities who may use them. This is definitely a lesson that I will carry with me into future design work.”
With a goal of creating a welcoming space for Black entrepreneurs, the students worked to include research in designing spaces that are inclusive and enriching for the community and to show how designers can support inclusion.
Student Elisabeth Walker said, “The most important thing that I learned was how to create a design for a demographic that I am not directly a part of. I attempted to connect the design with Black makers through form, materials, and products based on research and not stereotypes. In doing this, I hoped that Black makers could see themselves represented in the environment around them just as all people deserve.”
Learn more about how the College of Architecture and Design enhances diversity and inclusion.
Amanda Johnson (865-974-6401, firstname.lastname@example.org)