From Black architect Paul R. Williams, who designed homes for Hollywood’s biggest stars, to Gira Sarabhai, who cofounded a design school in her native India, BIPOC talents have too often been overlooked. Here, some of today’s brightest stars shine a light on eight visionaries who deserve a fresh appraisal.
Riten Mozumdar (1927-2006)
Following India’s independence from the British Empire in 1947, artisans moved to revive the subcontinent’s ancient handicrafts. One of the most notable was Riten Mozumdar, whose work significantly shaped the country’s post-colonial modernist designs. An apprentice of pioneering artist Benode Behari Mukherjee, Mozumdar has a multifaceted résumé, ranging from furniture and art-work to fashion and sculpture. He gleaned inspiration from India’s rich history—at one point traveling throughout the country to learn more about fabric-dyeing techniques—as well as abroad, in places such as Finland, where he worked in textile manufacturing and absorbed some of the no-frills elements of Scandinavian design. His works are minimalist but often feature bright, bold colors, as seen in his graphic linens for Fabindia and his Kashmiri rugs, awash in fluid calligraphy. Mozumdar designed pavilions and exhibitions in India and showed his work around the world at such prestigious venues as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Copenhagen.
More from Robb Report
Courtesy of Chatterjee, Lal, and Ushmita Sahu
“Unlike many modernist Indian designers who emerged from the National Institute of Design with a more Western-focused approach, Mozumdar studied at Santiniketan as an artist and approached modernism from a more indigenous angle. Working with Kashmiri felt-rug makers and Gujarati tie-and-dye artisans and drawing inspiration from both traditional Mughal calligraphy and Bengali script, he developed a modernist design language that felt fresh and new but was still deeply rooted in Indian traditional craft. For me, Mozumdar’s work resonates because it synthesizes traditional Indian motifs and patterns with Western minimalist and abstract art.” —Puru Das, DeMuro Das
Sami El Khazen (Circa 1943-1988)
Born in Lebanon in the early 1940s, El Khazen was a pivotal interior designer in the Middle East, though much of his work has been lost. Many of the homes that he decorated were destroyed in the Lebanese Civil War that ravaged the country during the latter half of the 20th century. Still, bits and pieces of his influential oeuvre remain. He received one of his biggest commissions remarkably early in his career: the interior design of the Lebanese Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. The centerpiece was a massive, nickel-plated-bronze and acrylic chandelier (pictured below) that he made in collaboration with Italian manufacturer Arredoluce. The Shah of Iran purchased it and displayed it in his palace dining room after re-engineering it into a slightly smaller piece; it sold at auction for $32,500 in 2018. What defined El Khazen’s approach was his ability to combine Eastern and Western traditions while also prioritizing Islamic art. His sensibility is most evident in his studio and home on the ground floor of the Rose House in Beirut, a colorful building constructed in 1882. El Khazen softened some of the Arabic architecture’s characteristic geometries to create a more calming environment for work. It was featured in Architectural Digest, which referred to him as “one of the Middle East’s most innovative designers.”
Bonhams/Paul R. Williams: Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library
“Sami El Khazen was a Lebanese designer in the ’60s and ’70s whose legacy was interrupted by war, cut short by an early death and then erased by Beirut’s constant growth. The homes he had designed exist by word of mouth, and very little has been documented or published….
“The project that our studio takes a lot of inspiration from is his home and studio in the Rose House in Beirut, which is decaying now but was a beautiful rose-colored home in traditional Lebanese architecture. His space within the home was published in 1974 in Architectural Digest, and the article notes Sami’s creation of ‘Oriental Contemporary,’ blending East and West. The space is timeless, chic and, above all, has identity. We bring it up a lot to our clients who like contemporary design and architecture as a case study, since a lot of them are from different countries or first-generation born here in the States. We ask them to pull from the different identities within them to create a unique space that’s actually reflective of their journey, not just a Western image of what contemporary is.” —Homan Rajai, Studio Ahead
Paul R. Williams (1894-1980)
His architecture defined the Hollywood aesthetic in the mid-20th century, and yet Williams had to sketch his ideas upside down: The trailblazing Black architect consciously opted to sit across from his white clients rather than next to them, cognizant that such proximity to a Black man might make them uneasy. It’s just one example of the rampant racism that Williams faced in his profession. His contributions to the Beverly Hills Hotel (pictured below) include its instantly recognizable swoopy logo and pink-and-green color scheme, as well as his work on its Polo Lounge, but he was not permitted to stay there. He designed 2,000 homes in Los Angeles—celebrity clients included Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra—but many were in neighborhoods where he would have been barred from buying a house. His legacy, however, is indelible: As the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects, he hoped that his work would ultimately open doors for the next generation.
Slim Aarons/Getty Images
“The Hollywood style and Art Deco of California’s charm is all to do with his presence in the structures. He set the standard for the cinematic style and glamour for Hollywood and the film industry—something that is still replicated throughout Hollywood today….
“It does alot for me to think about what he may have been experiencing during the designing period, knowing the state of the country during the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s and its treatment of Black Americans. He pushed through to produce memorable works to be used by the public; his works were wanted by the very Americans who rejected his Black body, and that speaks more to me as a Black Caribbean designer in 2021.” —Leyden Lewis, Leyden Lewis Design Studio
Demas Nwoko (1935- )
Both an artist and an architect, Nwoko has prioritized his native Nigeria’s traditions throughout his lengthy career. Now 86, he studied fine arts at the College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria and later studied scenic design at the Centre Francais du Théâtre in Paris, experiences that exposed him to many different aesthetic traditions. In the late 1950s, just before Nigeria gained independence from the UK, he founded an art society, which became known as the Zaria Rebels, with a handful of other students, among them the renowned artists Bruce Onobrakpeya and Uche Okeke. Their goal was to reintroduce indigenous ideas and forms into the postcolonial landscape while simultaneously incorporating a few of the techniques brought by Westerners. The objective carried over into Nwoko’s architectural practice, where he worked with local materials in order to create a new, distinctly Nigerian design tradition. One of his first major projects, for example, was for the Dominican Mission in Ibadan, which wanted to redesign its churches with African motifs following independence. Nwoko’s chapel (pictured) features a semicircular design evocative of indigenous architecture and stained-glass windows in the shape of crosses scattered, off-kilter, along one wall. Nwoko also built a cultural center in the same city, as well as a theater in Benin.
“Demas Nwoko is a Nigerian artist with no formal training as an architect but nonetheless has designed beautiful buildings and special projects and is at the forefront of creating a modern African vernacular in design. He has a very distinct style that’s almost a deconstructed, African maximalism.” —Tosin Oshinowo, CmDesign Atelier
Gira Sarabhai (1923-2021)
Sarabhai was born into a prominent family in India in 1923 and moved to New York when she was a teenager. In the following years, she trained under Frank Lloyd Wright at his Taliesin West studio in Arizona, then returned to India to create the project that she’s best known for: the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad. The architect was a cofounder of the institute, along with her brother—the two collaborated on the design of the campus’s main glass-and-concrete building (pictured). Sarabhai was instrumental in enticing talent from abroad to join the new school as consultants, including Finnish designer Helena Perheentupa, who set up NID’s textile department. Sarabhai helped create an Indian design identity, as the academy not only preserved the past—she stocked its library with important works from the country’s history—but also nurtured young talent for the future. NID still operates today, as does her Calico Museum of Textiles, which houses an extensive collection of Indian fabrics.
National Institute of Design
Gira Sarabhai, who passed away earlier this year was a visionary in Indian design education, modern architecture and research. She achieved too much in her life to put in one or two sentences, so I would have to focus on something I got to experience: the National Institute of Design campus. Walking through the campus as an outsider, I couldn’t help but feel jealous of the students who got to live and learn in such an incredible space. While she is credited with having brought numerous global design icons to India as it transitioned to being an independent nation, she is no less an icon herself through the impact she has had and will have over the future of Indian design.” —Urvi Sharma, Indo
Clara Porset (1895-1981)
Porset was born in Cuba in 1895, but she traveled the world to hone her craft at institutions such as the famed École des Beaux-Arts and the Louvre, in Paris. After returning home, she created furniture for schools and gave lectures about the importance of modern design, but her outspoken support for the Cuban worker uprisings quickly led to political exile in 1935. Porset decamped to Mexico, where she married painter and muralist Xavier Guerrero. The two entered the Museum of Modern Art’s Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition as a team in 1940—the first time that Latin American designers were included in a call for proposals—but only Guerrero received credit. While in Mexico, Porset advocated for the use of traditional handicrafts and techniques, in contrast to the prevailing enthusiasm for more efficient industrial manufacturing methods. Perhaps her most notable achievement is her reinvention of the Butaque chair, a low-slung seat that was originally introduced by Spanish conquerors but was later appropriated by Mexicans as a symbol of nationalism. Porset took that activism a step further, tapping local artisans to make the popular design with regionally sourced materials, including wicker, oak and leather.
Courtesy of Archivo Clara Porset/CIDI/FA/UNAM/Mexa Design
Within the design industry there’s no doubt that Porset is considered a pioneer. However, in the mainstream, her work is often lesser known to that of her contemporaries, including architect Luis Barragán, who himself commissioned her now-iconic Butaque chairs. Porset was one of the leading voices of Mexican modernism, believing that contemporary Mexican design should also honor its craft history. She was part of a group of progressive designers in Mexico who encouraged the use of local materials, age-old techniques and indigenous design motifs to create a distinct Mexican modernist style.” —Natasha Baradaran, Natasha Baradaran Interior Design
John Moutoussamy (1922-1995)
In 1971, Moutoussamy became the first Black architect to design a high-rise in Chicago. In 2021, he remains the only one. The commission came from John H. Johnson, the powerful founder of Johnson Publishing Company and the first Black businessman to appear on the Forbes 400 list of the richest people in America. Moutoussamy designed the 11-story concrete, marble and glass building (pictured) as the headquarters for Johnson’s magazines, led by Ebony and Jet.
The building received city landmark status in 2017; two years later, apartments replaced the offices, but the exterior signage for the original publications remains. The Chicago-based architect continued designing in the Windy City for the rest of his career, working on projects such as Harry S. Truman College and the Chicago Urban League building. He is also remembered as the first Black architect to be named a partner at a major firm, a milestone he achieved in 1966.
Chicago History Museum/Hedrich-Blessing Collection
“One of my favorite Black American architects is John Warren Moutoussamy, who’s best known for designing the Johnson Publishing Building in Chicago. It is more popularly known for its bold interiors (often heralded as a celebration of Black American culture), but I also appreciate the simplicity of its understated, geometric facade. The minimalist aesthetic is most often credited to Mies van der Rohe (under whom Moutoussamy studied), but I also think it’s important to examine the ways in which modernism was largely inspired by African aesthetics. I think the juxtaposition of the minimalist exterior with the colorful, pattern-rich interiors makes for an interesting conversation about Black ownership over different styles of American design.” —Tariq Dixon, Trnk
Jaya Ibrahim (1948-2015)
As one of Indonesia’s pioneering and most prolific interior designers, Ibrahim helped define the much-imitated look and feel of Asia’s luxury hotels. But he never formally studied design. It wasn’t a popular discipline in Indonesia in the 1960s, so Ibrahim earned an economics degree at the UK’s University of York instead. After graduating, he took a job as an assistant to a friend, actress turned interior designer Anouska Hempel. It turned out to be his first big break. Hempel noticed the attention to detail that Ibrahim brought to arranging table settings for her lunches—always symmetrical and color-coordinated—and started training him. By the early ’90s, Ibrahim had returned to Indonesia and was making his mark with commissions for prestigious, five-star hotel projects such as the historic Aman Summer Palace in Beijing, the Legian Bali and the Setai Miami Beach. The prevailing aesthetic was simple: symmetry above all else. Ibrahim also had a keen eye for creating spaces that felt calming and tranquil while still leaving a lasting impression on visitors. Following his death in 2015, his legacy endures via his interiors firm and furniture-manufacturing practice, and his projects continue to influence hospitality designers.
Courtesy of Jaya Hotels and Residences
Jaya Ibrahim was an Indonesian designer who lived and studied in London and Singapore. I share with him that experience of both Western and Eastern culture. He was one of the first generation of Southeast Asian designers to create a new aesthetic of Asian design that was contemporary and bold.” —Andre Fu, Andre Fu Studio
Best of Robb Report