Kia Weatherspoon is a U.S. Air Force Veteran, a current member of DC Air National Guard, an advocate for design equity, and the owner of the design practice Determined by Design. Here, she spoke with Julia Gamolina, founder of the website Madame Architect, about her experience in the military, her brother’s incarceration, and why good interior design should be a standard for all, not a luxury for the few.
Julia Gamolina: How did your interest in design first develop?
Kia Weatherspoon: When I think about it now, I believe the universe was always guiding me. My interest in design was developed when I was deployed with the U.S Air Force after September 11. I was at Al’uied Air Base, and my billeting—lodging—was a tent with 14 other women. I needed privacy and comfort, so I took some sheets and hung them from the top of the tent to make three sheet walls. It was the first space I ever created—I cried for 15 minutes in that special place. I would deploy four more times, and every time I used the resources available to create a space able to bring me comfort.
JG: What did you learn about yourself in studying interior design?
KW: For me, it wasn’t about having the best technical drafting, drawing, rendering, or artistic skills. I was focused on having the strongest concept. Studying design, I learned a strong concept enhances the context and fabric of a community, and communities are a direct reflection of people. I learned that I love telling the stories of people through spaces. I also learned that I have a naturally strong voice. Not everyone can say that or achieve that. I thrive by making sure unheard stories and voices are heard in interior environments.
JG: How did you get your start in the field?
KW: My military experience was pivotal. But also, my brother was incarcerated for 15 years. I would visit him, and I remember that it was the most undignified and disheartening experience I had to endure. At one point, I began to question—what is this experience like for a child? The staff? The men who were imprisoned? All these moments led me to a field I did not even know existed. For my undergraduate thesis at Moore College of Art & Design, I examined a male prison facility. All my classmates did hotels, retail, and restaurants. I knew then my path in the profession was meant to be different. These experiences also keep me on a path of making interior spaces equitable for everyone.
My first design-related job I created for myself. I started out as a receptionist at a hotel management company. I saw they had a need for formal interior design on their capital renovation projects. I was starting to pursue my education formally, so I planned, presented, and created a position for myself as a design coordinator. I literally jumped headfirst into facilities management, renovation budgets, site assessments, and overseeing the design of public areas across four major hotel brands. It was the operations and budget-focused needs of this position that made the experience invaluable.
JG: When and how did you start Determined by Design?
KW: There is no perfect time to start a business, nor a set amount of experience you have to have. There is only a feeling. I started my business when I was becoming disenchanted with my craft and the burnout culture that plagues architecture and design firms. I felt defining my path and taking control of my career was the only option. I wanted whatever I did next to be specific, focused, and mission-driven.
DBD’s first project was a nonprofit project for domestic violence survivors. While everyone thought I was crazy, that project led me to my mission of design equity. That’s when I realized the people who need access to well-designed spaces don’t know they don’t have it or need it. They haven’t had someone to advocate for them. My business was built on eradicating this issue.
JG: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned while running your own practice?
KW: I learned to be specific in knowing who you want your clients to be. Situational awareness means you must understand who will have the most buy-in in your business and you as a person. Determined by Design’s first client was a small black-owned development firm, Dantes Partners.
I also learned that growth for the sake of growth will burn you out. Leadership without mental health awareness will catch up to you and effect your team and business. While these four years also had significant project milestones, more importantly it was a time of growth—personally and professionally—as a business owner. Running a business is a whole person operation. There was so much momentum that I forgot to check in with myself as a person. Momentum and sharp growths can move you into a burnout mode quickly. It can also lead you to growing your business for the sake of it, and not the mission. While the mission never wavered, scaling up was what I thought I had to do—not what I wanted.
JG: How do you continue to instill the importance of design equity?
KW: Teaching is how you make the greatest impact and reach the most people. I presented my first equitable design strategies programs first to a developer and then another to Stewardship for Affordable Housing of the Future. DBD’s mission reached 15 development managers and 12 different affordable housing entities and agencies in two hours. We completed Cherry Blossom Intimates, a boutique lingerie space for breast cancer survivors. This retail space was about bringing dignity and equity to the prosthesis experience. The project type differed, but the impact was the same. DBD has four projects completing in 2020, and three starting construction. It’s truly a long game. Our development projects take three to four years to complete. We are proud to have a portfolio of new work, but the lasting impact of design equity in these communities is what is really rewarding and exciting.
In terms of design equity, my architecture and design counterparts are doing developers and communities a disservice. Being unabashed about saying it is not to diminish their work—it’s to remind them that they have to leave their egos at the door, listen, and approach design, both interiors and architecture, with an empathic lens, especially in poor communities.
JG: Looking back at it all, what have been the biggest challenges?
KW: In retrospect, the challenges seem like lessons now. I’d say one of the biggest challenges was the lack of knowledge surrounding best financial practices as a business owner. As a service-providing business, cash flow is queen [laughs]! Keeping your overhead low without saving doesn’t allow you to flourish and profit when your business inevitably peaks.
The other challenge has been “should-ing” myself. There was a time when the metrics I was measuring my businesses success to were based on what others were doing or did. Realizing the importance of mental health was a big lesson learned from that. Momentum can push you and your business forward fast, however, you have to slow down and make sure your mental health is in check. A business can only grow based on the overall health of its leadership, which goes back to the challenge above. I was so busy “should-ing,” I didn’t notice when my mental health was declining—and then it started to directly affect my business. I had to check in with myself to ensure that I, my purpose, and my practice were all aligned.
JG: What have been the highlights?
KW: The highlights are overcoming the challenges. Seriously—the moment you see challenges as growth opportunities is when you know you’re making progress. Growing pains are always followed by movement to the next level.
Just recently a developer engaged us on South Bridge, the largest public housing development project in Chicago. My small practice is becoming the savior, literally. The large architecture and design firm they originally engaged for the project provided a design they were not happy with. I listened to them and developed a concept based on community. They love the vision we presented! It’s a highlight because yes, our client was happy—but also because we were able to better serve the community and tell its story.
JG: What is the impact you’d like to have in on the world?
KW: I want black and brown boys and girls to grow up in spaces that inspire them. Whether they can describe it or not, I want them to feel valued in their homes and inspired—it just may spark their own interest in creating elevated environments. I also aspire to be the most renowned interior designer and entrepreneur of my time, so others can see they are equally as capable. Representation matters. I want young designers of color to see themselves in my success and strive to surpass me.
JG: What is your core mission?
KW: Design equity is the mission. Design outcomes are not equal in low-income communities. I want my architecture and design counterparts to acknowledge, empathize, and engage designers and leadership that represent these communities.
JG: What does success mean to you?
KW: That’s a tough one! Success for me will be when I’ve shifted my equitable design housing best practices to the interiors of prisons. The realization of establishing A Determined Step, a professional development program that connects diversity, back-to-basic design skills, and a whole person growth approach to design. It is the respect of whole person and diversity that will ensure all spaces are equal.
JG: What advice do you have for those starting their career?
KW: Constantly ask “Why?” You can’t understand or learn, if you’re afraid to ask. Ask once, then ask again, “Could you expand on that?” Our craft is about listening, and not to respond, but to solve. You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.
My other piece of advice is to remove “I” from all professional correspondence. “I” personalizes it and allows personal emotions to seep in. Emotions in the workplace can stifle design outcomes. Think as “we.” It constantly keeps you in the mindset of the communities and people you should be serving.
JG: Would your advice be any different for women?
KW: My sisters! Your voice is powerful. Your presence is essential. Now, bring other women to the table. Sisters, we must learn to navigate bringing other women to deals, projects, and teams to make money! Never feel threatened by another woman. My non-sisters of color, micro-aggressions toward each other will keep us as adversaries not allies. We have empathy engrained in us—use it as a tool to help each other and serve the greater good.