- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 18, 2006

At first glance, it’s just a patch of fake grass surrounding a tile floor that supports a life-size model kitchen and family room. On closer observation, however, the visitor might notice the circular floor plan — the leather sofas and exquisite dining furniture arranged inside a circle in the middle of the bustling NAACP 2006 National Convention.

A subtle yet significant move.

Renowned Maryland architect Josiane Raphael stands inside the circle she created and speaks of things much deeper than greener-than-life grass and tiles too perfect to look real. She speaks of the richness of black heritage and culture and what the circle represents.

“As multiple generations blend together, we have to keep thinking about the bond,” Mrs. Raphael says. “The circular floor plan conveys a lot of generations and people in the same place.”

No place holds the familial bonds tighter than the heart and hearth of black living — the kitchen and family room. Even if several generations aren’t living together under the same roof, they come together to celebrate family at reunions and gatherings, says Jevona Page, a Bolingbrook, Ill., resident attending the convention.

The exhibit, therefore, focuses on the nucleus of community: the place where food and social space are shared.

Indeed, in a joint effort to celebrate black heritage and culture, Ikea and Homes of Color magazine presented the model as part of the “Home and Heritage” exhibit at the Commerce and Industry Show. The exhibit, which ran Saturday through Tuesday at the Washington Convention Center, drew a crowd and provided access to a variety of design elements, including some, such as the circular floor plan, that are unique to black culture.

To illustrate the multigenerational appeal, Mrs. Raphael’s design allows viewers to imagine children at a desk set up with a laptop. Then she describes the scene of mom at the stove and grandma reclining in a chair in the connected family room. Mrs. Raphael says these rooms are the best places “to entertain and still talk with grandpa and grandma.”

The room models were furnished by Ikea, and the layout of the kitchen table and family room sofas made an appealing offer to passers-by looking for a comfortable place to rest for a few minutes.

“It feels like you’re at home,” says Ms. Page, relaxing on a camel-colored leather sofa in the family room model. She says her living room is decorated with the same brown hues.

Ms. Page and friend Amania Drane, a resident of Darien, Ill., say the exhibit provided them with ideas for their own homes. In particular, both hope to emulate the displayed centerpiece on their own tables: a glass bowl filled with colored water and floating tea candles whose light is reflected in stemmed wineglasses.

“I have earthy tones at home with African accents like cloths, masks on the wall or certain prints that create an eclectic look of African accents,” Ms. Drane says.

Indeed, the talented efforts of Mrs. Raphael and Ikea designers produced what Homes of Color magazine publisher and editor in chief Corriece Perkins Gwynn says was the “perfect match because it fits in with what we’re about as African Americans.”

“We look for basic elements, sleek furnishings and subtle nuances that are associated with our ethnic heritage,” Mrs. Gwynn says, speaking of her own interior design work. She points out some of the African artifacts displayed at the exhibit, such as the cloth draped over the sofa, the table runner and the statues above the cabinets, which she says are “related to who we are as a people, our culture and heritage.”

“African artifacts are simple but can be carved into something that represents the home and community,” Ms. Drane says, reflecting on design accents that make her own home unique.

Ms. Drane and Ms. Page spoke of the importance in black culture of the home providing a place of celebration of the family — whether that includes hosting family reunions or just enjoying and using the natural human appeal of the kitchen and family room.

Mrs. Gwynn says she asked Ikea to do a home makeover on a house in Northern Virginia for the feature story of the July/August issue of Homes of Color. Thus began a partnership that led to the “Home and Heritage” exhibit.

“I hope people see a deeper experience when they walk away [from the exhibit],” Mrs. Gwynn says. “Ikea has an upscale look that fits a variety of lifestyles and is multigenerational.”

Though the model kitchen and family room would appeal to any family regardless of ethnicity, the details make a home reflective of black heritage and culture.

Such details include items such as authentic woven tapestry, carved images or, as Mrs. Gwynn points out on the exhibit wall, photographs of family members who are recognized as integral parts of the family’s heritage and, by extension, part of the home itself.

According to the design experts at the “Home and Heritage” exhibit, the backbone of the black home is preservation — to preserve the structure of the family unit, the generations that ebb and flow through a household and the authenticity and depth of one’s heritage.

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