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Local nonprofit design group lead by LGBTQs make impacts for Richmonders who need it most

CarsonBrown | July 23, 2015

It’s been almost 5 years since Richmond’s Storefront for Community Design first started beautifying Broad Street along the Arts District. What started as projects dealing with building facades has grown into a multifaceted system for community members in need of design support with everything from sheds to logo design.

“I think the scale that Storefront works at is very unique, and I think that’s why it’s successful,” said Storefront’s Outreach Associate Manon Loustaunau. “As an organization, it’s based on relationships and the projects are very much relationship scaled.”

It can be hard to grasp what Storefront does considering a lot of their projects start on paper and they often work more to connect people rather than start and finish projects.

“We’re just here to bring projects to a point of initiation,” said Tyler King, Program Director at Storefront. “We’re helping people with the first 10% of [the] project. Sometimes introducing people to what it’s like to work with a designer and setting them free.”

But King said the work doesn’t end there. Often they work with business owners or community members to help continue the dialogue.

In 2014, the Kinfolk Project (pictured below), which aims to meet a range of community needs by self empowering some of Richmond’s most in-need residents in Mosby Court, engaged Storefront to design the courtyard and apartments in two 16-unit apartment buildings near Mosby Court formerly owned by the housing authority.

The buildings in question stood vacant for 10 years before Kinfolk acquired them and turned them into affordable housing units. The developers needed visual plans to include in a grant proposal and asked Storefront for help.

Loustaunau said the project was memorable because of the clear vision Kinfolk had and the opportunity to get to know the clients so well. “Going back and forth between what are the needs of the community, what does the developer want, and what’s feasible” made the project interesting.

“A lot of times the people that we assist are working through some sort of application process or they’re fundraising,” King said. “They come to us with an idea and they need to be able to show their potential investors or stakeholders what it could look like.”

Storefront’s leadership team: Ryan Rinn, Tyler King, & Manon Loustaunau

Part of Storefront’s mission is making sure the experts in the room are recognized by either side. Storefront understands that residents most intimately know the needs of the community and they are the experts on the future of any project post completion.

“We see the people that we assist just as much a stakeholder as anyone else,” he said. “There’s no imposition of my expertise over yours. Both parties are experts with different skill sets.”

Although Storefront began along Broad St., their design projects now come out of neighborhoods across Richmond, like Highland Park and Church Hill.

Lousaunau stressed that much of the work Storefront does in the community is very informal and grows out of existing relationships.

One example of this organic organizing is Storefront’s relationship with residents of Highland Park. Their Executive Director Ryan Rinn has years of experience working in the area on a broad range of quality of life projects.

Rinn has a wealth of friendships in the neighborhood. “It wasn’t until probably last year that design needs specific to our mission began to grow out of those discussions,” King said. “I’d say for us, it’s really about sustained presence.”

Loustaunau said her work is focused on the people in the neighborhood, making her own identity secondary to the work. “We’re there for the people in the neighborhood, not for us,” she said. “They asked us there because of the work Storefront can do because of the relationship Storefront has.”

On the other hand, when Storefront hosted the Association for Community Design conference last month, King said he had a conversation with people from Newark’s Hector Design Services about working on queer safe spaces.

“We were just talking about the whole experience of the community design conference and just the nature of the field itself,” he said. “Why is it that we actually noticed a lot of LGBT+ representation in the conference?”

photo from their 2015 Association for Community Design conference

All three members of Storefront’s leadership self identify on the LGBTQ spectrum, and while this doesn’t define the project, King and  Loustaunau think the two relate in unique ways.

King said community design “operates between established institutional design practices,” which “can lend itself to a queer reading.”

“And that’s maybe more a theoretical take on it, but I think that’s interesting and there’s more of a discussion to be had on why it is that it operates between disciplines and where does that ingenuity come from, where does that gumption come from?”

Loustaunau is cautious in her approach. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say community design is inherently queer,” she said. “I think if we’re thinking about queer as a theoretical, I think that’s why community design is successful, because you’re not just doing the normal.”

Storefront hosted the conference with Middle of Broad (mOb), a partnership they have with VCUarts. mOb students are majoring in one of three design area: graphic, fashion or interior. They work with Storefront to push innovation in Richmond’s design projects. This could be anything from redesigning bike racks to renovating entrances to the river. They aim to make Richmond a place where where citizens participate more fully in their environment, their government and their culture.

The mOb offices which connect to Storefront in their Broad St. office space

Loustaunau was a mOb student and graduated from VCUarts. She appreciates the relationship between mOb and Storefront because of the room for creative exploration. “If you have an idea or there’s something you want to try or learn or get involved in, this is the place to do it.”

She said the flexibility is reflected in Storefront’s engagement with community involvement. “As opposed to an architect saying, ‘Oh, it’s not a good idea to do that,’ they say, ‘okay, if you want to do that we can make it work,’” she said. “I think that’s really unusual in the design world, because I think design is really about rules.”

King said the trick to that engagement is finding the balance between the experimental ingenuity of the mOb students and the need for practical solutions Storefront must present to clients in the community. Searching for this balance creates an intentional tension that benefits both entities.

“We want imaginative pragmatic solutions,” he said. “When you see those two things come together, it’s really a beautiful thing, but it is a tension. We know the idea isn’t to resolve that tension and get over it, it’s to learn how to live with it.”

If you’re interested in checking out Storefront’s work, check out their website or visit them this year at Virginia Pridefest.