It’s a misty summer day in July outside of Oriana Residences in New York City. Guests – including NYC-based influencers and photographers – walk through the revolving doors to an upscale condominium designed by Venus Ebony Starr Williams and her interior design firm (named after Williams’ middle name), V Starr Interior. In a three-bedroom, two-bathroom design unit showroom — we await her arrival.
Williams whose successful tennis career ranks her number one in the world has her hand in many things. She is a 21-time Grand Slam winner, garnering 49 career single titles, 22 career double titles with her sister Serena Williams, and is co-owner of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins football team (which made the Williams sisters the first Black Americans to have a financial stake in the NFL). Off the court, she designs a fashion-forward activewear brand called EleVen by Venus, and the multi-hyphenate makes time for another passion of hers — interior design. And, while this may be news to some, Williams has been running V Starr, a Jupiter, Florida-based interior design firm, which launched in 2002 since she was 23-years-old.
“I went to school, and did my master’s in interior architecture.” At 6 foot 1, Williams commanded the room wearing a lace turquoise shirt, black pants, sneakers, and her hair in a bun. “I’m a nerd, and I love interior design. I love school. So, you know, it helps me to guide my team, and hopefully, give them input, and be able to add to the conversation. Seeing the final installation at Oriana’s model apartment was rewarding. It was exciting to pair up with West Elm for this project, and we were able to put everything together, and finish the project in record time.”
This isn’t V Starr’s first go around when it comes to securing awe-inspiring partnerships. Prior to Oriana, V Starr Interior’s portfolio consisted of homes crafted for professional athletes like her first client former NBA player Carlos Boozer, her sister Serena’s Miami home, and she partnered with Airbnb and Niido in 2018 to design a 324-unit building in Kissimmee, Florida, and a plethora of others. While Williams was expanding her roster, she began simultaneously learning the ropes of entrepreneurship and interior design.
This did not hinder Williams from using her star power, accolades or expertise to secure these high-profile clients.
In 2002, Cheryl S. Durst, Hon. FIIDA, LEED AP, was four years in hitting her stride as the first Black woman to be the executive vice president and CEO of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA). When asked about her thoughts on Williams’ V Starr Interior design firm, and the Oriana Residences partnerships, Durst believes that Williams garnering these partnerships can shine a light in the world of interior design.
“I can’t imagine that you can’t come up with a more powerful brand than high-end residential, and Venus speaks to quality. It speaks to livability. She is such an icon in the world of sports. And then, in just the world of women, both she and her sister have been able to bring attention to pay equity,” says Durst. “I think having her shine a spotlight on how we can live and how we can live well — I think that’s a good thing. I think brands, real estate, landlords, developers, I think they’re starting to pay more attention to the spotlight of how Venus Williams can lend her hand, her name, and her expertise to how we live.”
According to IIDA’s 2019 Interior Design Compensation Report, the annual base salary for an average design professional in 2018 was $78,100, an increase from $73,300 in 2016. In 2018, the median base salary was $69,000, a four thousand dollar increase in comparison to 2016. Like many industries, research shows that education and certifications can influence an individuals’ salary in interior design. The IIDA report shows that of it s14,000 IIDA members, of the 2,208 who filled out the survey, 85 percent were Caucasian in comparison to two percent who identified as Black.
The numbers skew lower in comparison to other sources. Per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2018 report, it is estimated that there are 57,070 interior designers and the mean annual wage is $59,120.
There are a number of organizations created to uplift, connect, and educate Black interior designers in this industry. Organizations like Black Independent Designers Network (BIDN) was created to celebrate the diversity of Black interior designers, as well as be a resource to interior design professionals through workshops and their annual Black Interior Designers Network Conference.
Adair Curtis, a full-time interior designer since 2014, is the director of the Los Angeles-based, multi-disciplinary studio called JSN Studio. Owned by Curtis’ husband Jason Bolden, JSN Studio interior designs and style some of Black Hollywood faves. Curtis and Bolden are co-stars of Netflix’s Styling Hollywood where the show illuminates their personal and professional lives, their industry friendships, their upbringing as Black gay men, and their vision for the brand.
Curtis says there’s always been a lack of diversity in the art and design industry, despite the strides currently being made, and believes the answer to tipping the scale in diversity comes down to one word: representation.
“If you don’t see yourself represented, how do you know what’s possible? You know, representation is so powerful.” On a call with Forbes, Curtis reflected on his time in interior architecture classes at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and says that he was only one of two or three Black students. Curtis, whose clientele includes actresses Sanaa Lathan, Gabrielle Union, and actor Dulé Hill, also believe that upbringing and parents’ opinions play a responsibility.
“It’s that they wanted us to go and do these jobs, and the careers that we’re guaranteed [jobs], and you’d be able to pull yourself up, you’re guaranteed to be able to support yourself, support your family, and build a lasting career,” Curtis said. “You know, something that someone can’t take away from you, and you can absolutely have the same thing in interior design.”
Durst knows this storyline all too well.
“I remember when I told [my parents] that I wanted to work in a museum, their first response was, as wonderful people as they are, ‘You know, that’s not a career that we as people of color pursue. You won’t be happy. You won’t see other people that look like you,’” Durst reminisces about the conversation with her parents. As a result, Durst earned her degree in print journalism and economics from Boston University. Yet, Durst couldn’t stay too far away. She stayed adjacent to the art industry by volunteering at the Smithsonian museum. In doing so, Durst earned an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the New York School of Interior Design.
Durst said there were several instances when she experienced racism as the head of IIDA . In 1998, when the organization first announced that their CEO was a Black woman, Durst received an anonymous letter that threatened her and her family. “And the words in the letter work to the effect, ‘There will never be an n-word that will be the head of this organization.’” Unfortunately, two decades later, Durst still faces discrimination and microaggressions.
“[At an event] somebody handed me their plate and said that I gave them the wrong order,” Durst said chuckling. “I said, ‘Let me get somebody to help you and I hope you get it quickly because I want you to hear the presentation I’m about to give.’”
Because of these experiences, Durst’s mission to push the envelope at IIDA with an emphasis on certain initiatives. One of IIDA’s goals is to educate by helping people understand what interior design is and the benefits of this profession. Durst states that children make career decisions as early as elementary school, which is why IIDA is dedicated to creating this pipeline program with Chicago’s Public School program.
“It’s become very important for IIDA,” Durst told Forbes over the phone. “We’re working with the city of Chicago’s Chicago Public Schools on a pipeline program for kids who are third, fourth, and fifth graders, simply to expose them to design as a career option. We encourage all of our members, regardless of their ethnicity, to go back and talk [at schools].”
Age four Williams was introduced to tennis thanks to her father, Richard Williams. Williams does recall a lesson her father taught her when it comes to business. And, while she was ready to take the interior design industry by the horns, she admits there was a bit of a learning curve.
“My father always taught us to be business-minded, so I looked early on at my interests and other types of work,” Williams told Forbes via email. “It was a huge undertaking to open an office, put together a team, learn how to structure the business, and how to get clients when first starting. Finding talent that aligns well with our team in West Palm Beach, where the talent pool is smaller, was also challenging. We have a strict no drama policy and a great working environment.”
When asked what’s her leadership style Williams describes it as, “Empowering our team to think outside the box through communication and teamwork.” And if you’re wondering if there’s any overlap between being a world-class athlete and a businesswoman for Williams — you’re right. “ Ambition and passion motivates me to keep up with rapidly moving matches and projects, whether working with a new client or facing a new opponent on the court. There’s also a sense of camaraderie in both worlds,” the businesswoman told Forbes.
Williams plans to continue to see V Starr grow their work in the multi-family residential space.
When asked what advice she would give to rookies Williams said, “While creativity plays a huge part in being a designer, I would say you really need to have a passion and drive to succeed, especially when first starting out. ”