Black & White: the art of ethnic design

  By Barbara Garnes

A revealing look at the culturally based and ethnic inspired products in the US market place and guides  buyers to find diversity and do business outside of the box. Author includes list of indie designers.

(This article originally appears on Street Marketing brochure)

According to the fashion forecasters grass roots design has made its way back to mainstream. One of most challenged segment in this genre has been the ethnic design aspect. In the home décor industry, many large companies thought they would cash in on this movement after 9/11. Unfortunately the true art and design of other cultures seem to be lacking if one looks closely at the offerings. Not even the procurement of licensing agreements with popular brands have guaranteed success.

Where does a buyer go when there is a lack of distinction from classic styling and there is no information where to find existing products?

Go to root of the matter.
Look outside the normal channels to find smaller businesses that specialize in the lifestyle of other cultures. Many of these companies are owned by independent designers who create products in themes based on heritage and personal experiences

Keeping it real.
In the movie “Woman on Top”, the character of Penelope Cruz was asked to be “less ethnic” and to change her recipes and staff to appease the mainstream television audience. She quit because she was not being true to herself or her heritage.

Continued below-

Liberia African Toile Tea cup                                                   Mali Dinnerware collection

Ethnic design embraces other cultures. It is not subtle. If it is watered down and looks like everything else, it looses is diversity or its flavor. There is no “wow” factor. It has no soul. Expect the designers in this category to keep it real without apology.


When consumers go about home decorating, they seek what’s comfortable and familiar which includes family ties. They will express themselves by acknowledging their heritage in their home sooner than wearing it to the office. Some just want to surround themselves with the beauty of other cultures. 

I’ve chosen to create heritage based products with the purpose to target a niche market. During this journey these past 18 years, I’ve learned that my products were appreciated by people of various backgrounds and cultures. Some customers were brought to tears when seeing my Liberia African Toile bedding and porcelain tea collection because it comforted them knowing someone designed a product that reflected their heritage. For others it reminded them of family life usually in another country.

My service to the African American community embraces African heritage which also includes
Caribbean and Latino. For me, culturally based products go beyond the classically carved statues, bright colored dashikis and straw mats. It is bringing the American lifestyle, of which I was brought up, together with the art of Africa.

Southern Hemisphere Design Group, Inc. does just that and more. The name means that I am inspired by the art and cultures from the southern part of the globe therefore embracing more than just the African Diaspora. My product line includes bedding, bath, tabletop, loungewear and gifts. One-stop shopping for heritage design.

Thinking outside the “Big Box”
SoHe Designs has decided to showcase the home décor collection in a live setting rather than the booth typical situation. Buyers of the trade are invited to shop the SoHe Designs line and meet Lifestyle Creator Barbara Garnes at the SoHe Design Home Décor Showcase during Gift and accessories market - August 18 &19, 2008 at Hotel Pennsylvania 401 Seventh Ave @ 32nd & 33rd Streets. Call for appointment 347-753-4889. 

SoHe Designs is also in an exciting position to offer small businesses a unique service.The SoHe Designs Cooperative Buying Programs will help retailers be more competitive with Big Box stores. By using the economic power of retailers, it becomes a win-win situation. The retailers get the best of cultural and heritage inspired products at below wholesale prices while the designer gets the numbers for production and sees dreams come true. There is also the sense of sustainability when the retailers support local and domestic business.

More information on the SoHe Designs Home Décor Showcase.

SoHe Designs—home textiles, porcelain table top, robes

BONUS    List of companies that create culturally and grass roots inspired products. Visit these independent designers and let them know how you found them.

Dobson Products– mugs, light switches, gift items , Greek Fraternity-Sorority

LaidBack– home

Aviva Stanoff– home textiles, rasin