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How 2019 Designer of the Year Malene Barnett Blurs the Line Between Art and Design

May 1, 2019

“Malene, you’re an artist.”

These were the words spoken to Malene Barnett by a brand consultant, in the midst of a transition period. Up until that point, Barnett, through her New York art and design atelier Malene B, had projected herself as solely a designer.

Malene B, Designer of the Year 2019

She’d hired the brand consultant after years of making bespoke carpet designs – creating carpets and rugs for corporate companies like Viacom and WeWork and buildings like The Chatsworth and The Astor in New York.

Barnett was painting still, but much of her work was being done on a computer. She needed to use her hands again, start fresh. That’s when she hired a brand consultant, who brought in a different perspective.

“That really resonated with me,” she says, “I thought, ‘Yeah, I am an artist.’ I hadn’t been living that way, as far as with my branding.”

Now, Barnett is blurring the lines between her art and design work, while striving to inspire and lift up the next generation of artists and designers of color with the Black Artists + Designers Guild, which she founded in November 2018.

Creative Spirit

Raised in a small Connecticut coastal town, Barnett began painting at a young age, and at only eight was selected for an artistically talented program. She eventually went on to study textile design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, where she discovered a textile program while studying fashion illustration.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” Barnett says. “It allowed me to paint, use color and texture, and create a product that people could use.”

After graduation, she went on to work for a textile manufacturer, designing for mass retails stores and working in marketing as well as design – and learning the ins and out of the industry along the way. Things slowed during the recession that stretched from late 2007 to mid-2009.

That’s when Barnett took the leap to launch her own company, Malene B, which focused on designing bespoke, high-end carpets for interior designers – always inspired by her world travels and her African and Caribbean heritages.

“Of course it was hard,” Barnett says. “It was 2009. Building wasn’t going on. Designers weren’t having work. I bought a house in Brooklyn at the same time. I was drained financially. But my mother always told me you work with what you have, so I did. I networked like crazy. I went to every major design event, studied the magazines, studied the players. I was not afraid to introduce myself.”

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Now, she’s been featured in a number of interior design magazines, designed rugs and carpets for major hotels, and has also produced collections for home fashion brand Kravet.

Artist or Designer: Why Not Both?

Over time, Barnett found herself feeling, well, bored. That’s the experience of a creative, she says, having the desire to experience different mediums.

“In the middle part of my life, I think more about legacy and what mark I want to leave,” Barnett says. “Some may think I’m still so young, but legacy is about starting young. What story do you want to tell? What mark do you want to leave on the world? I don’t want my life to only be about rug design. I love it, but I know there’s so much more in me.”

YouTube offered her a plethora of videos on different mediums, and she felt most drawn to ceramics, something she had never tried before. She also revisited the stories of well-known African American female sculptors that had inspired her rug work.

She took a few classes, then thought there must be a place for someone like her, someone in transition. Enter: Greenwich House Pottery, where Barnett was accepted as a resident artist. For four months in late 2018, she had a space to herself to work with her hands again.

By the end, Barnett had created 25 hand-built vessels inspired by mud house designs in such places as Ghana, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Barnett now includes fine art, as well as commercial design, in the repertoire of Malene B.

The experience helped Barnett realize how much creativity can be lost when working as a commercial designer, thoughts filled with numbers and budgets. “What’s key is we always have to have that creative outlet” as well as the technical side, she says. “There’s this fear that [interior designers] can’t go back [to exploring other mediums]. There’s a perception of how their business is going to look.”

Who says there had to be a separation between fine art and functional design? “I’m seeing more designers tapping back into their art and vice versa,” Barnett says.

As for her, Barnett says her mother told her she was always playing in the mud as a kid. “I’ve come full circle,” she says with a laugh.

Inspiring the Next Generation

As she looks toward the future, Barnett aims to focus on those who will follow her in the industry.

“Challenges of black artists in this industry are not new,” she says. “I think about my days when I was in design school and looking for role models who looked like me. It was always a challenge.”

In 2018, Barnett called out the New York Design Center’s What’s New, What’s Next event, held every fall and spring, on social media. Not one black designer was moderating or speaking that year. Barnett thought, how many times are they going to send this message?

She’d connected with many black artists and designers in New York, as well as globally during her travels. She reached out to colleagues and friends and put together the Black Artists + Designers Guild.

“We need to put this out there to show that there’s no excuses on how we’re not visible or we’re not there,” Barnett explains.

What’s Next

Combining clay and carpet is something Barnett is thinking about next, from treating wall surfaces with clay to create texture, to incorporating carpets on the wall. She hopes to do a solo show with both her clay and carpet work.

“I want to blur the line between art and design and create more installation opportunities for that,” she says. “I’m looking to create my own language within patterns. That’s what we do when it comes to black culture. Patterns have meaning and symbolism, so I’m looking at figuring out how to create that and representing the black experience today in America.”

Barnett doesn’t have to be limited to just one label, after all. She’s a designer, an artist, a sculptor, a maker, a creator. The list can go on.

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