December 7, 2020 Students Design Spaces for Black Entrepreneurs in Cal Johnson Building

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Gaining a global perspective is essential in the design process, and this fall, students in Assoc. Professor
Liz Teston’s Interior Architecture studio began that process.

A global context helps designers consider social, cultural, economic and ecological issues and
understand the implications of these issues on the design and use of a space.

In a studio themed, “People, Spaces, Experiences and Politics,” Teston led her second-year students to
investigate these societal issues and how they have impacted the built environment of downtown
Knoxville, particularly for the Black community. A key structure in this study is the Cal Johnson Building.

The Cal Johnson Building was built by Cal Fackler Johnson (1844-1925) in 1898. Johnson’s remarkable
story begins as he was born a slave and became a successful businessman and philanthropist. Although
all other buildings and enterprises built by Johnson have been demolished for urban renewal, the
Johnson Building remains, and Teston’s students used it as a focal point for their studio’s project.

In its prime, the Cal Johnson Building bustled with several businesses, including numerous clothing
manufacturers, car dealerships and others. Inspired by this spirit of entrepreneurialism and addressing
the challenges Black-owned businesses often face, students speculatively designed a co-op-style retail
and maker space for Knoxville’s Black community in the building’s ground floor. The co-op design would
enable business owners and makers to crowd-source and collectively sell their goods.

To help students gain a diverse perspective, they learned from and collaborated with local makers and
entrepreneurs throughout the semester, including Enkeshi El-Amin of The Bottom and Black in
Appalachia podcast; Tanika Harper of Harper’s Naturals; Rachel Fletcher of Knox Upholstery; and Jade
Adams of Oglewood Avenue. Students also studied and made representational collages and models of
quilts from Gee’s Bend, AL, and the Smithsonian’s National Quilt Collection.

Student Lily Tigor says, “Increased representation in the design process makes for a more inclusive end-user experience. The opinions, experiences and perspectives of various ethnicities, religions and more must be considered in order to create a truly inclusive and safe space for all.”

Creating a space that adapts to fit the community’s needs was the focus of student Kaleigh Powers,
whose centralized design incorporates a conversation area that can be transformed into a stage area for
community interaction.

“This studio helped me get a strong understanding of designing a space for a community and what that
can entail,” said Powers. “I learned that every detail in the spaces I have designed can have such a
strong impact on the communities who may use them. This is definitely a lesson that I will carry with me
into future design work.”

Cal Johnson Design

With a goal to create a welcoming space for Black entrepreneurs, the students worked to include
research in designing spaces that are inclusive and enriching for the community and to show how
designers can support inclusion in all communities but especially within our own.

Student Elisabeth Walker said, “The most important thing that I learned was how to create a design for a demographic that I am not directly a part of. I attempted to connect the design with Black makers through form, materials and products based on research and not stereotypes. In doing this, I hoped that Black makers could see themselves represented in the environment around them just as all people deserve.”

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Learn more about how our college enhances diversity and inclusion.