Pride by Design – K Kaczmarek + Designing Beyond the Binary
Blog.007 | Sarah Woynicz
K Kaczmarek (they/them) is an Interior Designer and one of three researchers at Mithun currently working on Designing Beyond the Binary, an interdisciplinary study of gender equity in the built environment. Through a series of surveys and interviews, the research team aims to better understand the lived experiences of trans, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, queer individuals and communities as they navigate everyday spaces. The end goal is a set of actionable tools that support designers in their project work and design practices.
Through connecting with K via social media, we had the opportunity to virtually sit down and share in a conversation about K’s path into the design profession, their lived experiences, and how they are seeing their research impact the built environment already and their hopes for future impact. It was an honor and privilege to sit down with K and continue on my own journey of learning.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Woynicz (SW): So there are two things I would love to hear more about today, and maybe one of two places to start. I would love to know more about how you got into design and about the research you all are doing with Designing Beyond the Binary.
K Kaczmarek (KK): I think it makes sense to talk about how I got here because that was a fun journey. I was not always in the design profession. For 14 years, I was a teacher and hair stylist. I would say that I was never academically-minded; not that I didn’t do well in school, but I never felt like my education spaces allowed for queerness. School was my first real interaction with how a body exists in space, and how I wasn't really welcomed. People ask, “When did you know you lived outside of the binary?” I’ve always known, I just never had the tools or the language. When I would try to explain my experience to people as a little kid, the response was like, “Oh, well something is clearly wrong with you, you are broken.” That lack of understanding or empathy turned into hatred and fear. I internalized a lot of transphobia and self-hate because that is what was taught to me. It wasn’t until I started doing hair and interacting with queer people regularly that I realized I was not alone. That is really where I first found my queer community, through hair. Being in any place felt like a difficult decision that I had to make - I could either be myself and feel fulfilled or I could be safe. I had to constantly be making these decisions. Unfortunately, I sustained a career ending injury and I could not do hair anymore - so I was like, “now what?” I didn’t grow up dreaming of being a designer, but I knew because of my students and clients how important it was to create a safe space for our health and wellness. I wanted to take that spirit and apply it into my next career.
Although it didn’t feel like it at the time, I feel so fortunate to have gotten a chance to take a leap of faith, and enter the design professions. Once I found the right firm and the right people, I could be more expressive in who I am and bring that into this conversation. Many times people say, “I don’t want to say the wrong thing or hurt someone’s feelings.” I am like, “you need to get over that fear baby because we need you to advocate for us when we don’t have the platform!” It has been a really exciting journey to get to where I am now. I never in a million years thought that I was going to be writing and researching in a very academic way. My firm took a chance on me right out of school and supported my goals to bring trans/nonbinary voices into the discussion on gender equity in the built environment.
I was talking with my mentor when I first started at my firm. A concern that I brought to our conversation was about being a “token trans person” within the industry. Wanting to avoid that, he recommended I root my work in design through a lens of queerness, not the other way around. It really helped inspire me to look at the inequity I faced in the built environment as a design challenge that could be solved- that’s how Designing Beyond the Binary started.
"..recommended I root my work in design through a lens of queerness, not the other way around."
SW: Have you been with Mithun since you have been in the design world?
SW: So there has been this continuum of opportunity and discovery to get you to this point you are now?
KK: Mithun has always supported me and these endeavors. Our firm is very research oriented and has always lived by this ethos of learning and curiosity. We have an internal R+D program where anyone in the firm can apply for a grant and if you are selected, you receive time and grant funding to study a design-related problem. That is telling of the people who are leading the way at Mithun, but also the people who are attracted to work here. There is this curiosity to push the boundaries of how we design.
SW: Many of the conversations that I hear the most around gender, binary, or even a world in which a binary does not exist is typically around bathrooms and educational settings. To hear for your research that this is about space, and the giant chasm that could be defined as, is so unique.
KK: We originally wanted to look at the design process at several stages, from making a connection with a client, moments of intervention in the design process, and final outcomes for better user experiences. When we looked for existing research to help designers make gender-inclusive decisions, we realized there was almost none. (And if anyone finds something, please let me know because I read like 90 articles and have yet to find something that is really solid that relates radical gender inclusivity with spatial design practices.) We had to take a step back and say - since this data does not really exist, how can we rethink the way we collect information?
Our research methodology is broken into three sections. The first is the one we are on right now where we are surveying users of space and emphasizing participation from individuals who identify as trans, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, and queer. The hope from our survey is to better understand the joys and struggles of trans bodies in space and see if there are trends in spatial qualities like scale, adjacencies, lighting, and materiality (to name a few). These are all things we as designers can change! There will be a second survey after we dissect the information we have learned in this survey that is specifically for architects, designers, landscape architects to figure out what the needs are of these professionals who want to design more inclusively, but aren’t sure how.
The third form of data collection has been my personal favorite. Looking to bridge queerness and design professionals, semi-structured interviews really help us have rigorous conversation through a queer design lens. That has been partly so exciting because this field is so broad. From Interior Designers, furniture reps, business owners, and landscape architects, the breadth of design knowledge is intense. It really helps put the pieces of the puzzle together particularly when thinking about the scale of intervention. I am an Interior Designer, Jake is a landscape architect, and Claire, the third person on our research team, is an architect. We made sure when we were putting together this team that we had a representation of thinking at different scales. In my project work, one of the biggest opportunities for change is in materiality and language. Materiality is very gendered. The way you put materials together gives the user an opportunity to project gender onto a space. When we talk to landscape architects, binary and genders don’t really exist in nature so the relationship you have with your surroundings is different. It’s been really exciting to start to understand the breadth of information that exists out there.
SW: To hear you speak about the range - from materiality all the way to something that feels so massive and intangible like the world around you - is an incredible perspective to think about.
KK: Oh yeah! There are days where I geek out and we are starting to see trends. Then there are other days where I am like, “how are we going to write something about this?” SW: What are the big milestones to your three sections, and then the end goal?
KK: The first round of surveying we are planning on closing at the end of March. Our goal is 1,000 respondents. The interviews are ongoing. The hardest part has been finding people. It’s not a very big group of designers and it’s generally hard to approach someone.
We want our final deliverable to be as queer as possible. We don’t just want to write a white paper, but to think about the whole process queerly. Currently we are working on a zine and an art show alongside an academic paper. We are hoping this type of sharing of information helps to humanize this very real problem we have in design. I want to showcase the joy, the sorrow, the harm, the celebration in a way that is really interactive and speaks to us as architects and designers to really show that these stories matter, people matter.
SW: I love this. It feels like anybody can access this and say "I can relate to this".
KK: Something in the built environment that I have observed is that if you see yourself reflected in the space you occupy, you are more likely to feel free to be yourself and feel like you belong in the space. An example of this can be found in workplace meeting rooms. If you start to look at conference rooms that are client facing, versus spaces like phone rooms, you can start to see the effect that gender has on how people are perceived and how they act. Conference rooms that are client facing tend to be serious, have little to no color in them and read as masculine if you were to project a gender on them. Whereas phone rooms tend to be small in scale and have soft materials, colors, and patterns. They read as feminine because we subconsciously perceive these design elements alongside the small gathering spaces as being a place for femme presenting individuals. It continues to uphold this “who belongs where” mentality. I want to challenge that and say, we can have a broad spectrum of space typologies and design characteristics and aesthetics that don’t belong to any gender. Anyone should be able to enter a space and feel safe.
SW: I am continually struck by how you talk about visibility and belonging tied to the design of a space. Person to person interaction that is informed and influenced by the space you are interacting within feels like the tip of an iceberg to dive into truly challenging the decisions that designers make.
KK: When I talk about these issues and people get defensive, I imagine they have a hard time understanding because their identity is likely always accepted in space. When I talk to my queer friends who are cisgender, I ask them to think about what it feels like to go into your favorite gay bar versus walking into a sports bar. The way that you act in a cis/straight normative space versus the way you act in a queer space is different. I act differently in queer spaces because I feel safe, I feel like I belong, I feel like I am allowed to express myself in a visible way. When you start putting it into a context of that, people are like “Oh I have been in spaces where I feel like I can belong.”
SW: What does visibility mean to you?
KK: So much of existing means coming into a space and altering yourself for some reason- whether internal or external. It could be motivated by a fear of physical harm, a lack of social acceptance, or a desire to belong. For me, visibility within the design field in particular is creating an environment where we can have the hard conversations on how we are upholding oppressive systems within the build environment. Without visibility, there can’t be a voice leading the conversation in a meaningful, informed, and empathetic manner. Research like this matters because it helps to fill in the gaps within the ACE industry. Although there are times when it is really hard to keep going and feel motivated that this work can create change, I know that collectively we can make a difference in the world around us.
SW: Is there anything else that you want to share?
KK: Take our survey! Share it with your friends and communities! We greatly appreciate every response we get and are excited to share our findings in the near future.
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Pride by Design looks forward to continuing to stay connected with the Designing Beyond the Binary research team. You can take the current survey at the following link - https://beyondthebinary.typeform.com/survey. If you would like to connect with the team, reach out at email@example.com or on instagram at @designingbeyondthebinary