In a design world oversaturated with Martha Stewart and Nate Berkus types, local African-American home-wares designer Jeanine Hays has forged a conspicuously different path. She's got the know-how and plenty of TV-ready sparkle, but, honestly, when's the last time you flipped to HGTV and saw a host with dreads talk about how black people are decking out their homes? It's this excess of white, upper-crust-serving "design stars" that propelled the former policy attorney to launch her own blog, AphroChic, in 2007.
"There weren't many features on [decorators] or artists of color," says Hays, who was then living in San Francisco. "No one was speaking to [us] as consumers or enthusiasts of interior design." With an emphasis on blending modern interiors with accents influenced by the African diaspora, Hays' new medium allowed her to speak directly to black design lovers, sharing seamless ways to create living spaces that "truly reflect the lives and heritages of the people who live there." And readers ate it up.
In the first two years, the blog attracted 15,000 visitors a month. With that momentum — and a neatly crafted business plan from her husband, Bryan Mason — she launched an online store selling pillows designed on her computer. "I've always been crazy about pillows," she says. "If you live in an apartment where you can't paint the walls, or don't want the hassle or expense of getting a new sofa, the right pillows and accessories can ... [add] those pops of color that give new life to your space." Many of her original textiles incorporate bold, stylized lines that are made more "soulful" with the incorporation of sleek, Afrocentric silhouettes. "By creating a straight-on look at a woman with an Afro, we updated a traditional European design motif to speak to an African-American experience," says Hays.
But what truly defines AphroChic, she explains, is the way her patterns celebrate not only the diaspora but cultures all over the globe. Her Mandala pillow collection, for example, features a spiraling kaleidoscopic image that "references concentric patterns seen in Hindu and Buddhist designs." Before long, her far-reaching design concepts began garnering attention from design-community pros — showing up on Design*Sponge and California Home + Design's annual Hit List, and in the pages of Elle Décor, and Lucky. She even earned regular guest spots on HGTV.
Now firmly established nationwide, the couple decided it was time to bring their success back home. They returned to Philadelphia in 2011, taking up residence in a refurbished 200-year-old walkup in Old City. "Being homesick for the East Coast, and Philadelphia in particular, is one of the reasons why the ... line first got started," says Hays, who by then had added wallpaper, placemats, table runners and shower curtains to her merch list. "Philadelphia is very much a part of AphroChic, influencing the vibe of our collection and how we present it." The pillows in her newest line, Brooklyn Renaissance, are a good example — and a nice get for spring. Inspired by traditional French toiles, the vibrant pieces are splashed with NYC artist Samantha Hahn's pastel watercolor illustrations of an urban chick "enjoying the quiet repose of home." Sticking to Hays' penchant for infusing cultures, Hahn's forward-facing female plays on the traditional European silhouette while furniture images like antique settees and old-school record players recall design elements familiar to East Coast style.
Their biggest project since returning to Philly is putting together a book that's slated to be released in fall 2013. Hays says the work will be divided into two sections. The first talks about design from around the world and offers readers "new ways to incorporate culture into their ultra-modern spaces." The second part will be photo-heavy, featuring a variety of AphroChic-approved house tours — some of which were shot in Philly — that provide real-world examples of how people are successfully incorporating soulful style. "Writing this book has been a great learning experience," says Hays. "Even our understanding of what AphroChic is and what we want it to represent has expanded as we've gone through the process."
So, can we get a sneak-peek tip? "We spend a lot of time talking about how to cultivate an emotional theme," Hays offers. "Whether you want a room to relax and reflect in, or someplace that gets you energized and ready for the day, there are ways to create that feeling." For instance, "instead of picking up random tchotchkes, look for pieces from cultures you have some relationship to, whether they are part of your ethnic background or just a culture you admire. An engagement with world culture that goes beyond trinkets or trends is one of the cornerstones of [AphroChic style]."