Alexandria Dauley & Sophie Ashby

August 26, 2021

darc magazine – along with sister publication arc – has uncomfortably recognised the lack of representation of ethnic minorities across the lighting and design communities. It wasn’t until a horrific act of violence towards George Floyd in the USA, which triggered international media coverage in 2020, that we looked inwards at our reporting of the lighting world. As a result, we are now working to better this and ourselves as impartial journalists to ensure we are covering the full breadth of the industry, bring recognition to those that deserve it and support making the design industry an equal one.

To begin our journey in ensuring more of an ethnically and culturally balanced representation of our community, in our recent edition of darc designers in 3d, we brought you a collection of profiles that celebrate some of the top international professionals in lighting from various backgrounds. This is by no means an extensive depiction of the ethnic minority community in design, but merely a snapshot and starting point to further promote its members and their important work. 

To start us off, darc caught up with founders of United in Design, Alexandria Dauley and Sophie Ashby, who explain a little more about their initiative, which aims to support those entering the interior design industry.

Can you give us a little background about yourselves and your careers? How do you know each other?

Sophie: As is the case with so many interior designers, I moved a lot growing up. With a South African mother and a British father, my childhood was spent living for stints in London, Stellenbosch (South Africa) and Devon and, with 14 or so moves, I got used to unpacking and rearranging my bedroom. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of home and how much it can mean to people. I was very lucky to get an apprenticeship with Victoria Fairfax, where I worked on some very special projects. Studio Ashby was born as soon as I got my first private client. I was lucky that within a couple of weeks, one client quickly became three and things have continued to grow steadily from there.

Alex: My love of interior design started when aged 19 I moved to London from Wales and I began working in the property industry as a relocation agent and property finder. I was fascinated by the wide ranging property styles, architecture and how interiors influenced the way you live and feel within your home. Having renovated my own homes and once my daughters were a little older I decided to follow my passion, studying at KLC School of Design in London and then setting up my practice, Dauley Design. My mentor Evey Dunbavin-Hands has guided me over the years and I now work on wonderful residential projects in Surrey and South London for great clients. I am passionate about creating well-designed homes for my clients and feel incredibly lucky to be able to have a career that I love, which allows me to indulge my creativity

Sophie: Alex and I discovered quite quickly that we were simultaneously having the same conversations, thoughts, ideas and were independently beginning to put the edges to some kind of initiative. We spoke on Zoom a few times, got on instantly and agreed that one strong message was better than many quieter ones so we joined forces!

What are your experiences with diversity, or the lack of, within interior design?

Sophie: On 4 June 2020 I issued a statement on the Studio Ashby Instagram in response to the murder of George Floyd and the global anti-racism movement, acknowledging the studio’s shortcomings in running a diverse company and also some uncomfortable home truths about the elitist and exclusionary nature of the design world. The response I received was overwhelming; I spoke to at least 20 people on Zoom over the course of the following week, mainly black designers and students who had a story to tell me. I heard some very real and desperately sad stories and received the most extraordinarily heartfelt and open responses to my post that I felt motivated and compelled to figure out how I could help.

Alex: As a black interior designer I am very aware that the industry is not diverse. There are many stories of designers from ethnic minority backgrounds having negative experiences trying to access the industry and that needed to change. My passion for United in Design was ultimately fuelled by first-hand experience of this reality – which is why having trained and tutored at KLC School of Design I began to reach out to leading industry figures to specifically promote the benefits of addressing the inequality.

What triggered the formation of United in Design?

Sophie: On #blackouttuesday, in light of the murder of George Floyd and the #BLM protests, I, like millions of others put up a black square on our @studioashby Instagram feed. I took the implied intention of that day very seriously and vowed to myself to do much more than just post the square; I took the day off work and tried to give the complexities of the problem thought whilst also considering my position in all of this. I put out a statement a few days later acknowledging my failures with regards to running a diverse company and acknowledged some glaring issues within my industry.

Alex: I was inspired by my own positive personal experiences of outreach programmes and mentoring and I knew that incorporating those initiatives, amongst others in the industry could make a difference. The name signifies what we would like to see happen in the world, not just in Interior Design…Unity. People of all races, colours, creeds and genders all need to come together and work together to create unity.

Can you describe the initiative’s concept?

Alex: To face the inequality head-on and provide actionable avenues for change. We hope to play a part in making interior design an accessible and obtainable career choice, by working with the industry to tackle the obstacles preventing this – correcting the balance and levelling the playing field.

How did you get the initiative off the ground and circulated within the industry?

Sophie: Time, love, commitment, a drive for change and an excellent steering committee and teams of trustees and councillors!

What was the aim you were striving to achieve with the programme? Why is it so important?

Alex: We aim to become an ongoing sponsored initiative that can nurture, coach and develop high potential candidates from diverse backgrounds, eventually funding scholarships, apprenticeships and bursaries for programme participants via annual subscription fees and events.

Who is involved in the running of United in Design?

Sophie: We’ve worked pretty tirelessly to get it up and running in a tight timeframe and of course the context of a global pandemic too. We’re really fortunate to have such a dynamic, informed, and perceptive team of trustees and councillors that we can lean on. Admittedly, it’s been a challenge – but a hugely rewarding one, and one we are so proud of! Alex and I work well together – she is a ‘doer’, as am I, and we both seem to be solutions-driven, fast-moving people so the combination of us together works.

Who is currently taking part in the programme? Which brands / studios signed up? Are you trying to approach more?

Alex: By pooling groups of four design studios, makers and suppliers together we are able to provide a 12-month apprenticeship placement with the apprentice spending three months in each organisation. The apprentices are paid a junior designer salary, split across the four studios, giving each the scope to gather a broader set of skills, knowledge and contacts in order to progress through the industry.

Our first pool of apprentices are already in action, gaining experience over the year with companies such as Laura Hammett Interiors, Turner Pocock and Brady Williams Studio and many other leading firms.

What feedback have you received from the participants?

Sophie: Overwhelmingly positive, inspiring and hopeful for change.

Alex: Sophie and I have been so thrilled with the response so far and we have now had more than 120 partners signed up for the initiative. We are also starting to receive emails from applicants who wish to receive mentoring, work experience and apprenticeship placements and many new outreach projects are being set up in partnership with United in Design.

Are you working on expanding the programme for longevity?

Sophie: We know that fundraising will become quite a big part of what United in Design is about; we want to make it easier for those given work experience, internship or apprenticeship opportunities by helping them on their journey with financial support for travel and accommodation. This year we piloted our United in Design Apprenticeship scheme and hope that this becomes a long-term initiative, run by businesses and individuals that have a significant impact in providing a foot in the door for those who need a pathway into our world. We also dream of setting up a United in Design scholarship fund. We will also be hosting our first festival – date soon to be confirmed.

Are you aware of anything else happening in the industry that addresses diversity issues?

Alex: There are some brilliant initiatives like Design Can, which are helping to provide actionable change. It feels like there is real momentum from across the industry.

What can the industry do to help?

Alex: If you are an interior designer, maker, supplier, magazine, stylist, photographer, interior architect or anyone working in this sector looking to take actionable steps toward equity and inclusion – please visit our website to register your interest. We would love to have you as part of the conversation.

Alexandria Dauley and Sophie Ashby, Founders of United in Design