Cheryl Durst Headshot

Cheryl Durst Talks Agency, Equity, and Why IIDA Is Engaging Kids

The organization’s vice president and CEO shares her excitement about a new pipeline for young talent and her hopes for the upcoming year.

This month’s NeoCon furniture fair in Chicago, held in-person for the first time since 2019, presented a special opportunity for the IIDA to “provoke audiences to take action through thoughtful conversation around agency, place, equity and collaboration,” according to its ’s vice president and CEO Cheryl S. Durst. Now, on the heels of that positive industry jumpstart, she told Metropolis how well those efforts are going for the industry in general.

Cheryl Durst speaking

Kelly Beamon: We’re emerging from a time that some might refer to as the “pandemic year” — a year we lost touch. If next year could be, as we hope, the opposite of that, what’s the nickname for 2022 ? 

Cheryl Durst: I would say 2022 will be, “the year of quality hyper-connection.” The pandemic has taught companies and individuals the importance of empathy and in turn how to be more inclusive . . . in a way that was not considered priority in the past. For this reason, people are forging new connections in interesting ways, listening versus hearing, and understanding the value of kinship. 

KB: Many designers are just accepting the idea that their decisions give them agency on issues outside of the profession. Realizing that power is amazing, but how can firms prioritize their good deeds, faced with so many important causes? Design is both altruistic and optimistic – and the nature of design is inclusive. It must be about doing for while doing with a generation of designers that all believe in the work on that level. Designers are empowered to serve the larger purpose of design and extend our reach to the world at large when firms build a strong internal culture and foundation to empower those actions. 

It has been IIDA’s mission since the organization’s inception to focus on agency, equity, diversity, and inclusion – and this starts with the team and the culture. It is a company’s responsibility to start communicating those values for employees at hiring, acclimation, and retention so that people feel seen, heard, and fully knitted into the fabric of the work culture. Once that support is generated, employees are both inspired and validated to use their creativity and their voices to impact real change. 

KB: You’re a great connector of industry players (interior designers and architects; practitioners and manufacturers) Now you’ve launched IIDA’s Design Your World, which exposes high school students to careers in design and architecture. Please expound on why now was the right time for this? 

CD: IIDA has long known that one of the challenges to building diversity in the architecture and design industry is the lack of early exposure, opportunity and access for BIPOC high-school students at various stages of education and development. At that age, it’s often hard for students to not only feel like they have some power over their environment, but also to fully understand spatial awareness and how the built environment impacts how we move, live, and thrive in our surroundings. For many, it is a time in life that also marks the beginnings of a vision of a future, professional self : ‘What career might I have?’ And ‘What kind of life will I have in that career?’

Design Your World is something we’ve worked toward for years but did not have the resources to bring to fruition in the most impactful way until this past summer in Chicago, in partnership with After School Matters. With heightened focus on diversity and inclusion prompting a groundswell of attention in corporate America, we were able to offer a smart, impactful avenue for our industry to participate in effecting change. 

IIDA session with students

Our mission is for students to consider design as an accessible, viable profession but also to feel something – for design to prompt a reaction to their environment in a deeper way and for that feeling to create a ripple effect across the country. We announced during the NeoCon furniture fair that the program will expand in 2022 in one of the following locations: Atlanta, Austin, Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, Minneapolis, or Washington D.C. 

Additionally, we partnered with presenting sponsor OFS and supporting sponsors 3form, Configura, and Mannington Commercial, to leverage their expertise across design disciplines to offer students a more holistic experience. Our six-week design curriculum focused on topics such as spatial concepts, space planning and fundamentals of light and color with some of the top industry leaders providing hands-on guidance. 

KB: Many are looking for ways to normalize sustainable practices in day-to-day work. How is IIDA experiencing that challenge and what are some solutions firms can model? 

CD: As an organization, we’ve broadened the conversation around sustainability to challenge designers to think about sustainable practices in holistic terms — not only considering the ecological impact of materials and design choices but also the impact on the health and well-being of occupants, and the connection with the surrounding community. And, we recognize that importantly, sustainability is not “disconnected” from the conversations we are all having about equity and inclusion and physical and emotional well-being. 

IIDA supports its membership in embracing this way of thinking through education and continuing the conversation through the programming we pursue. In terms of workplace sustainability, while we’ve come to terms with the fact that the hybrid model is here to stay, IIDA has also placed a large emphasis on creating depth and making the work experience more personal. We have our “morning chats” (whether virtual or when we’re in the office) where we all take time to bond over personal happenings and reconnect. We’re also accepting of the fact that as re-entry into the workplace occurs, there will be a level of re-learning as it relates to social and spatial awareness, so it’s OK to create new rituals and ways of doing business. Silo’ed thinking, is truly a thing of the past, isn’t it? The “interconnectedness” of life, work, design and the human condition, should all be considered as we approach a more holistic future. 

Students at the IIDA session

KB: Professionally speaking, you grew up in the design industry. But you’re not a designer. What are the lessons in that career trajectory that you share with designers who still feel marginalized? 

CD: As a Black female CEO, I would say I’ve had to endure many obstacles to drive change and facilitate action not only surrounding equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice in the design profession—but also quite simply just to get my day-to-day work done. My background is in education, and I am not a designer, which makes me a great example of how “different” you can be and still find a fit within this creative world of design. But the truth is, most of us have had that experience of being the “only” or the “first” — the first woman at the table, the only person of color in design school, the only interior designer on a project or in a studio — so we all understand on some level what that’s like. 

We want to foster greater inclusion to get to a place where no one ever has to feel alone (or be alone), where everyone can be supported and their talents celebrated and recognized in the design industry. In my 20-year career, I’ve launched many initiatives and scholarships that focus on just that — to highlight and recognize women and people of color doing great work in the profession. I’ve also made it my mission to promote an understanding of how design impacts human behavior and affects all aspects of shared spaces. 

I encourage those still feeling marginalized to seek out organizations like IIDA as well as programs, groups and businesses that are changing the perception so that design looks like everyone. We find strength and power in like-minded communities, and we continue to build just that every day in design. 

KB: It’s fair to say that when you joined IIDA, the interior design professionals were only beginning to distinguish themselves from decorators. Now that scientific research and case studies support a view of design as contributing to users’ health and our well-being, how has your messaging changed? 

CD: Prioritizing people, longevity and well-being are now essential ingredients to imagining and creating public spaces. For example, in workplace design, factors such as ergonomics, natural light, airflow and individual work area adjustability/flexibility have become vital to retention and increasing performance. Sustainability and community in all public spaces are also key from the inception of the project to completion. Tenants are yearning for a deeper context for connection – to the natural elements and to their neighbors. Designers must now consider how the function of a space results in high-functioning, high-frequency human beings. 

KB: In past interviews you’ve said it’s important to use the lens of your personal experiences to enhance the organization’s work. IIDA’s incoming president Angie Lee also told us, in her Specify magazine interview, that she’ll be filtering leadership through her own lens as a mother as well as a professional designer. In what ways did that philosophy helped steer the organization through the recently bleak time? 

CD: IIDA’s DNA is built on many of the same pillars and values that have always been important to me: connection and community, optimism, agency, creativity, integrity and inclusion. Those same core values proved invaluable through the current challenges — even as the pandemic and social and ecological upheaval forced us to re-examine the status quo, we realized that we have the tools we need to tackle whatever comes. Our connections to each other as humans and designers, our deep integrity and desire to change the world for the better, and our creative spark are exactly what the world demands. That realization helped us also recognize that a crisis doesn’t reinvent the world — it just helps us evolve into the things we already saw coming next, and hopefully to design a next that is better for humanity. 

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