A new page in African-American decor

'Homes of Color' focuses on house design and decorating in the black community. It features often-overlooked African-American professionals.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

While house-hunting in the Washington, D.C., suburbs five years ago, Corriece Gwynn and her husband regularly scoured the shelter magazines for decorating ideas and inspiration.

Then one day she turned to him and observed, "John, you really don't see any black people in these magazines."

"Well, why don't you do something about it?" Mr. Gwynn, a Washington attorney, suggested.

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Eventually, she did, by using her journalistic background to launch Homes of Color: The Magazine of African-American Living & Style. Its mission: to capture the spirit and vitality of the African-American homeowner.

"I really envisioned it to be very similar to an Architectural Digest or an upscale magazine, but with a social twist," she says.

The twist is that the magazine targets underserved African-Americans, but not in a closed-door sort of way.

"The name of the magazine is meant to be more inclusive than exclusive," she says. "I wouldn't want to call it African-American Home, for instance, because that excludes people."

First published last summer, the magazine runs as an insert in the Washington Post and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Gwynn has plans to expand to other major metropolitan newspapers as the magazine grows. There are also paid subscribers in virtually every state, thanks mostly to word of mouth, especially among African-Americans. And the publication has a website, too: www.homesofcolor.net.

Getting lots of buzz

Gwynn, who calls the magazine a spinoff of her day job as the managing editor for a legal and business publisher, plans to beef up publicity efforts for Homes of Color. The magazine, however, has already enjoyed a lot of media attention.

A black shelter magazine - what's up with that? reporters want to know.

Home & Garden Television (HGTV) has called, intrigued by the magazine, and talks of exploring a relationship of some kind.

The cable giant is interested in learning more about African-American architects and designers, which pleases Gwynn.

"There are black children who grow up in this country who have never even seen a black architect, who didn't even know that blacks designed buildings," she says.

"It's not just about exposure, it's about access. And in order to create access you've got to let people know that you're there and can produce quality work. As a result, we'll always do features on architects, on interior designers, and artists, and gallery owners, and that's because I feel the African-American professionals in these areas tend to be overlooked."

The first issue carried a long article on Washington architect Charles Cassell, the son of Albert Cassell, best known for his work on Howard University's campus. On the cover and inside were interior shots of an Elk Grove, Ill., home that belongs to a friend of Mrs. Gwynn's.

Visiting this home in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 set the publishing wheels in motion. At the time, Gwynn was on a business trip and stuck in a downtown Chicago hotel until flights resumed.

Her friend invited her out to the northern suburbs, where they wound up discussing the magazine idea and started brainstorming about a photo shoot on the property.

The pictures that ultimately ran don't show the homeowners, nor give any hint of their ethnicity.

So how, then, is African-American decorating different?

"I get that question a lot," Gwynn says, "and I always say there is no difference because African-Americans have a very eclectic approach to decorating styles. Some prefer contemporary with a little flavor of their heritage thrown in. Others want classical or neoclassical or Early American or whatever."

Despite this eclectic approach, Gwynn acknowledges small discernible differences exist in African-Americans' decorating preferences.

Decor enhances identity

One difference - pinpointed by Roderick Shade, a designer and coauthor of "Harlem Style" who is interviewed in the latest issue - is a desire for more color, especially color accents.

"We [blacks] definitely have a tendency," Gwynn says, "to use a lot of pieces that enhance who we are, whether they be photographs of family members or masks or fabrics."

Because readers take differing approaches to decorating, the magazine avoids sweeping characterizations or stereotypes. Rather, it celebrates the variety of African-American homes.

Although most African-Americans reside in urban environments, the editors are careful not to promote a particular way of living as superior, be it urban, suburban, or rural.

"We're not trying to be purveyors of good taste," she says. "We're just trying to show a cross section, to show people what's out there and get people excited about it."

When it comes to city living, Gwynn believes establishing the historic significance of African-American homes helps to maintain the vitality of urban neighborhoods. Earning a place on the National Register, she explains, protects historic structures from the wrecking ball and encourages residents to preserve their communities and not feel they must move out of the inner city.

Gwynn wants her magazine to report on historic homes, such as those of 19th-century statesman Frederick Douglass. She also points encouragingly to a major new initiative to examine black properties and issues surrounding them that the National Trust for Historic Preservation will take up, thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.

Of course, how today's rich and famous live is often of interest to contemporary readers, including African-Americans. Because celebrity coverage helps drive sales, Homes of Color will occasionally follow suit. But Gwynn wants to show that to own an interesting home you don't have to be Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey - or a superstar of any kind for that matter.

Focusing on 'real people'

"People want to open up a magazine and see beautiful pictures," she says, "but those pictures are not always going to be high-end homes of African-American professionals." They're going to be the homes of what she calls ordinary people, who may live in town houses, condominiums, or apartments.

These ordinary people, however, may have accomplished extraordinary things in their lives, such as retired government employee Paul Jones, who owns one of the largest collections of African-American art in the world.

Gwynn wants readers to aspire to greater things, to dream a bit about the possibilities for their own homes.

"I want people to tap into the resources and talents the Lord has given them and to do extraordinary things in their lives," she says. "To be able to do that, you've got to see ordinary people who have done it."

The magazine's very existence helps to open the eyes of publishers, advertisers, and the public at large.

"All homeowners don't necessarily look like the Brady Bunch," Gwynn says. Many advertisers know that 71 percent of whites are homeowners, but don't realize that 47.7 percent of African- Americans are, too.

Misconceptions and ignorance about the black community are often a matter of limited vision.

She looks back to her own childhood in Decatur, Ill., where whites had little exposure to African-American culture and blacks and whites seldom stepped inside each other's homes.

"I think the upbringing I had was great," Gwynn says. "I don't have any problems with it, but there's more to African-Americans than Black History Month and Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I have a dream' speech. I think sometimes we get a jaded sense of who the homeowners are in this country."

Gwynn believes the magazine could raise America's consciousness about black home life much as Bill Cosby's hit comedy series - in which he played a father, husband, and doctor - once did. If the magazine can enhance race relations, all the better.

The magazine's air of sophistication sends a message, and not just to adults. Gwynn talks about an anticipated "trickledown effect" on African-American youngsters, who she expects will naturally be drawn to seeing people of color in such a stylish context.

One of the magazine's goals is to get into local libraries, including school libraries. This requires guarding the ad content.

"I made a commitment early on that we're not going to take liquor or cigarette advertisements or other advertisements that you traditionally see in African-American publications," Gwynn says. "I don't think some of the things our children are seeing are uplifting to us, so I don't want to depend on that.

"That's not to put down what other magazines are doing. It's just that I want the magazine to have a certain feel, to reflect the home and people who live in the home."

With Homes of Color expanding, from 24 pages to 48 and now 68, a limited number of how-to stories, requested by readers, will become part of the mix, and food coverage is under consideration.

Mr. Gwynn, the magazine's vice president and business adviser, would like to see stories about home entertaining.

His wife isn't ruling that out, but is determined to keep a tight editorial focus. She doesn't anticipate fashion layouts or beauty stories. "I don't want to spread out and cloud the vision," she emphasizes. "I want this to be the premier magazine for African-Americans when it comes to the home. Our mission statement is clear, and I'm sticking with it."

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