Apr 13, 2021

Episode 62

Marquise Stillwell


It seems there’s nothing Marquise Stillwell and his New York design and research firm, Openbox, can’t do. Since founding it in 2009, his projects have promoted inclusion and equity, rethought the norm, and brought people together, as seen in forward-thinking concepts for Black Girls Code, the Lowline, and the DC public library. Stillwell is also a film producer and cofounder of Urban Ocean Lab, an organization focused on developing policy solutions for coastal cities. Our conversation spans the different, fascinating facets of his career, and it’s clear that Stillwell’s mantra can be boiled down to one succinct remark he made: “Empathy is a muscle. It’s something you have to practice and build every day.”


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi I’m here with Marquise. Marquise, thanks so much for being here with us today.

Marquise Stillwell: Oh, it’s great to be here and thank you for the invite. I really appreciate the platform that you’ve created and I’m very excited to be here.

SSR: I’m excited. I’m a huge fan. We always start this podcast at the beginning. So where did you grow up?

MS: I split my time between…I’m a Midwestern kid, so I was born in Ohio, but spit my time between early years in Ohio and Colorado, you know Denver, so kind of a Midwestern kid.

SSR: And were you always a creative kid or was creativity part of your growing up?

MS: I think every kid is. I mean, we grow up an artist and we’re all born creative and somehow life strips that away and we’re told we’re not supposed to be that, but I’m hard at listening, so I never believed that and listened to that and I always just maintained my creative energy from childhood on until now.

SSR: And were your parents creative at all?

MS: Yeah I mean I think that growing up in the community I grew up in, I would say music, and the arts, and dance, and all that is just a very natural part of my upbringing and the community that I grew up in. So I would say that I wasn’t say anomaly of kid who was creative. I think everyone around me was pretty creative and I benefited from that. My grandfather was an artist. As far as who are those individuals and where are those moments that kind of helped to amplify that, certainly those things are key influencers and going to art museums and things like that helped to amplify things that you already have or things that you’re interested in, but I wouldn’t say that I was the kid who was the only one who was creative.

SSR: Did you grow in a big family?

MS: Yeah, definitely. It was a big family. Lots of cousins, and uncles, and aunties, and things like that. Lots of influence. I was one of the younger ones in the family as well, so a lot of people that I would follow behind and learn from.

SSR: I feel like as kids we have ideas of what we want to be, but what did you want to be when you grew up and did you go to school, how did you decide what to go to school for?

MS: I don’t think that most kids that look like me even have the privilege to think about those type of things. I think that for me it was, yeah you had some dreams about doing certain things, you enjoyed sports, you know creative, but you also didn’t have individuals that look like you in positions that you may have desire to be if you don’t see those faces. It’s not like I grew up with someone who is an architect or a lawyer or doctor that looked like me. That didn’t limit my vision of myself, but I would say there wasn’t this clear path of saying, “I want to be X.” I think for many individuals like myself there’s a balance between knowing what you don’t want to do, which is just as important as know what you want to do. So I think those are my guiding principles of how I go to where I am today is I also knew what I didn’t want to do and where I didn’t want to end up.

SSR: Right. Yeah, which is as you said, just as important.

MS: Yeah, definitely.

SSR: So what did you do before you launched Openbox?

MS: I always say Openbox is a third iteration of things that I’ve been doing pretty much through most of my 20s and 30s and just playing and experimenting. This idea of start-up culture is fairly new. Before you were just someone who invented stuff or someone who just tried stuff. We’ve created a culture of start-up, but for me I was always starting things and doing things. I had my own paper route when I was a kid. I shined shoes. So this idea of the hustle and getting things done, it used to be very much that was life. I mean, small businesses are the backbone of this country. We’re the ones who actually hire the most and employ and grow careers. So I am just a part of that culture and community of people who have constantly built and started things even if it was just a one-person shoe-shining stand or a paper route, all the way to have different iterations of partners that have been doing what I’m doing up to this point. So Openbox is just an extension of the hustle.

SSR: Love it. If you described Openbox to someone, how would you describe it?

MS: I would say that what we do as a design and research firm is really understanding how people come together and that’s what we design for is the “we,” and when we think about everyday life, even as individuals, what you’re really trying to do is get to the “we.” No matter how much you may like to spend time alone, you ultimately want to get to the “we” to tell the story of you spending time alone. Even if you go on a hike by yourself, you can’t wait to tell a friend what you saw.

SSR: Right.

MS: And too many times design has been focused on the individual user experience and the shiny object of design, and for us, we’re really looking at the design of how we come together, why we come together, and how to create better conditions for when we come together.

SSR: And what’s the story behind the name?

MS: Well the name is kind of two-prong. One, I wanted a name that really represented this openness, this idea of iterations and fluidity, and then I also wanted to embed it in a story of some individuals who had overcome something. So, Henry Buck Brown is a pretty famous story of someone who was a slave and basically mailed himself to freedom. He mailed himself from the south to the north in a box and I love that story because it’s leveraging the things that are oppressing you, things that are holding you back, to actually leverage that to create your own freedom.

So I love the fact that the government that was creating the conditions of him living in slavery, he actually used the system of the US Postal to mail himself out of freedom as well, and I really believe that when we think about design and we think about the process of design and what it means to design for a community, how might the community also leverage the culture, the excitement in the moment of what it means to live in their neighborhood where everyone wants to come to and people are excited about, but don’t always recognize it. So for us, it’s about creating a platform to help those voices be more recognized and how might we leverage that to hopefully create conditions to be surprised.

SSR: We featured you in our November issue and you said that listening was the most important aspect of the human-centered design approach and that design is there to listen. Can you talk about why that’s so important and how you use that in your everyday practice?

MS: Yeah, I mean listening is so important. I always ask the question, are you listening or are you waiting to be heard. I think most conversations are a dialogue between two individuals who are waiting to be heard versus individuals who are listening. For us, we’re there to listen. We’re not there to be heard. I always say life is not about coming up with answers. I talk about my education, but it’s not something that I like to lead with. It’s not something that is the top of what has made me successful. Education is all about teaching us how to answer questions. We’re graded on how well we answer questions on a test. I think the gap in education is helping to teach people how to ask better questions, and life is about asking better questions. It’s the yes/and. As you grow in your career, as you develop new projects, the results of those projects are because you asked better questions, not because you had better answers, and better questions require really good listening, intentional listening, and garnering insights really quickly through listening, not sitting around waiting to be heard.

SSR: I love that. I’m going to instill that in my boys. I absolutely love it and I think more people need to hear that. What kind of projects are you working on right now, or is there a project that you think really defines the work that you do at Openbox?

MS: For us, it’s really important for us to work on projects that allow us to be at day zero and before day zero when it comes to really engaging the community, walking in with intentions to really truly listening, getting to a place where… The challenge with development, the challenge with the work that we do, architects need stories and language, but at the same time you don’t want to get so ahead of that that you present communities with something that really questions your intention for how they’re involved. One adage that we also say is save your renderings for the third date. So when you’re trying to show renderings, the general public doesn’t understand that it’s a rendering, meaning that it’s just kind of a prototype example of what could potentially be possible. They take it as full-face value, saying wow, so you didn’t even think about asking me and you just took what you thought I wanted and turned it into something.”

For us, being able to work at day zero, and even before day zero, to be engaged, that’s what we love. Those are the types of projects that we’re touching. And you know, even partnering with Nina, which I love, she and I share that type of thinking of, “Let’s start creating better conditions, whether it’s hospitality, hotels, restaurants, communities are changing rapidly, how might we create better conditions for how communities are being developed, how restaurants are being built, how hotels are being built, by getting ahead of the curve of actually engaging with the community in a meaningful way and then taking all of us on a journey to when actually the keys are turned.” So those are the types of projects that we’re honored and love to do.

SSR: How do you approach that? How do you engage the community? Is there something that you all are doing?

MS: It’s all about being organic. It’s about looking at both formal and informal leaders within communities. It’s not about just going to the same organizations, whether it’s churches, community centers, schools. It’s looking beyond what we would consider those core individuals that are always showing up to community meetings. Community meetings also are very difficult, when they are, where they are, not everyone can show up. So we go to the homes. We go to where people are. So for us, community engagement begins with going where people are, being where they are, speaking the language that they’re speaking, and making sure that the people on your team also can reflect the community, be a part of the community and that, again leverage, using the language. Sometimes were so academical. We’re always using all the acronyms and you’re afraid sometimes, “Well if I boil it down, then how do I bring it back?” Well you can, you can, and you can speak to communities in a way that allows them to understand the process without always speaking architecture and design language. I think that we all need to get better at learning how to do that.

SSR: Is there anything you’ve learned from any communities that you’re working with that has been surprising, or motivating, or innovative?

MS: I think the lessons of saving your renders for the third date, understanding that development isn’t a bad thing, that we all that, and design by committee, that’s not what we do. We’re not creating a platform, or putting out a survey and seeing who likes this color and this is the favorite color of the community, that’s not what we do. What we do is go out and understand what is the fabric of the culture, who are the individuals and being able to translate that into the built environment. That helps us to decide how we’re displaying, whether it’s through color, through materials, we’re great at understanding and building that bridge, and having the language of designers translated into architecture, but also translating that back into community and continuing to build that bridge in between both of the organizations.

There’s a goal here. The goal is to build something. This isn’t just about making everyone feel perfectly good and having the community check boxes. That’s not what this is about. This is about progress and we’re really good at helping to create conditions for progress. Communities want to do better and if we come to the communities early, often, and we go to them and not ask them to come to us, you’re creating those conditions.

SSR: Got it, I love it. You said in that same interview, and I’m going to read it, “Spaces tell stories. When people don’t see themselves in those spaces and aren’t involved in the design process, they don’t see their stories be told,” which I think is super powerful. How can design be more inclusive and equitable?

MS: Day one, design needs to bring people of color, women, at leadership roles in design firms, create better conditions for them to start their own design firms. Secondly, we got to get rid of the pro bono stuff. People need to be paid. Pro bono is unfair to small business and minority owned businesses who cannot afford to participate in your broke pro bono design challenge. Though you may believe that may get you the best, those organizations should be paid, so I definitely challenge the notion of design challenges that are asking design firm to do things for free, because unfortunately you’re going to get the best from firms that can afford to do that, and not those who cannot. So hire smart, hire great people, people of color, women, pay those people, and then also work with them.

This is not about, “Oh take a risk.” You’re not taking a risk because you every time you work with the same organization that you’ve been working with for the same 15 years, you’re taking a risk of marginalizing excellence. Because you’re going to keep getting the same thing. So when you say, “Hey, take a risk and hire a black firm or hire a woman-owned firm,” that’s not a risk. To me, you’re actually stepping into a next level of excellence because to me the risk is to keep doing the same thing over and over again. I would argue if you keep with the same firms that look just like you, you’re not really growing. You’re not really challenging yourself. So go out and hire, pay them well, and continue to help grow them.

SSR: Right. How do you hire for your own firm?

MS: Intentionally. Yeah, I mean I’m very intentional whether I’m working with a recruiter, working with individuals, I’m constantly making sure that I have a good mix of people within minorities, individuals who look differently, come from different disciplines and backgrounds. I also am constantly just meeting people. Most of the engagements that we have, most of the people that we bring on, it’s very organic. The challenge that I say with this country a lot of times when you talk about empathy, we’re empathetically out of shape one, secondly we don’t have a good mixture of friends. So, those CEOs who are complaining, it’s obvious that you don’t have friends that look differently than you. If I walk into a room and I am constantly around people who look like me, even me as a minority, I’m not going to grow. So make sure it’s organic.

Everything I do is about meeting and greeting and crossing paths with people that are different than me that requires you to be a big uncomfortable. That’s the challenge with continuing to build your empathy muscles. Empathy is a muscle. It’s something that you have to practice and build every day. So if you’re a head of a company and you find yourself in the same circles every day, that’s why you have the same problems.

SSR: Yep, I totally agree. Talking about empathy, do you think you’ve become even yourself more empathetic as a leader over the past year, since today I think today is a year of lockdown?

MS: Oh. Yeah, I would say that I think what has happened over the course of the year, particularly for individuals like myself, is that I think we are engaging in better language with individuals who may not have had to go through things. It’s like someone who may go through something that you’ve been through many times and now you have language to actually communicate and amplify it at a higher level. I think that we’re all vibrating at a higher level, at least those who want to be plugged into this vibration. We’re vibrating at a higher level because now we have certain language of what does it mean to let go, what does it mean to have, loss, changes?

We’re all collaborating and being open like, “Yeah, I don’t know how we’re going to make it without partners and how are we going to make it without being more open to something that’s different that we’ve never had to do before?” Yeah, I’m open to no one’s in the office, no one can be in the office, so yeah everyone’s working from home, so we need to be open and understanding for those conditions that change the condition of the business. I think that for women and minorities who have always had to live like that, who have always had to make adjustments, it’s great that the vibration of that language and where we are today has allowed me to be able to amplify things that I’ve always been doing and thinking and having to switch and pivot, and now my counterparts who didn’t understand that, now we’re having a better conversation and that’s what I’m excited about.

SSR: Where have you spent this past year?

MS: Here in the city, New York City. At the beginning of the pandemic, obviously just the fear and everything that was happening was a lot, but what I was really enjoying was just the quietness and I really enjoyed the pace. I was doing close to 200,000 miles traveling around the world, and all the sudden that just halted. It stopped. And the routines of going to the gym, going to here, going to there just totally changed. What I’m enjoying is the new behavior and new changes that have happened. For the first three or four months of the pandemic, still through the summer, through the fall, there were no tourists, there was no one there, and the city became the city. This is who lives here, who’s here, like this is us, and there was just a different energy and I enjoyed slowing down and just watching and feeling that energy.

Hopefully we will never have to go through this again. We certainly won’t go through it with the same lens that we went through it this time. As a designer, as someone who watches behavior and watches people, it was really fascinating to see the behavioral changes that have been happening over the course of the year.

SSR: Yeah, I’m in Brooklyn and it was just so quiet. I’m in Williamsburg and it’s usually packed with people and it was just like gone.

MS: Yeah. Just like being able to watch across the bridge, and traffic had changed. I really enjoyed that because I knew it was a moment. If you’re safe and you’re not fighting to live and survive and you’re healthy, this was a moment that you could actually just slow down and kind of do things and go places that you would have never gone in the past.

SSR: Do you watch people a lot as a designer?

MS: Yeah definitely. It’s definitely fun. I think one of my favorite past-times though is really getting lost. I love going to the city. The art of getting lost is gone, or is lost. You have your GPS, you have your phone. It’s hard to get lost. So I love going to a new city, not only watching people but engaging with people by getting lost and being forced to have to ask questions about how to get somewhere. I think we’ve… a big core of design for me is not losing the human side of what we do and because technology has pushed us to where we don’t know if we’re the robots or the robots are the robots.

SSR: That’s a little scary.

MS: Yeah, it’s a little scary and I don’t want to be a robot. Anytime that I can be on analog and very human to human, I take advantage of that opportunity.

SSR: Yeah, because when you get lost, you almost push yourself to be uncomfortable and that is where I think you learn so much about yourself and your surroundings when you are kind of on that edge.

MS: Yeah, yeah definitely. And that’s the opportunity I feel the future of hospitality has is that how might we create conditions for that human to human connection and allows us to amplify storytelling through that. What does the lobby mean today, which is one of the intersections within hotels and restaurants? What does the open kitchen look like now? What was it doing? Is it still the same? Does it provide the connection of through line? I think we need to continue to amplify that human to human connection in everything we do.

SSR: Totally agree. What do you think the lobby means now? I mean, what are you looking at in the hospitality?

MS: The lobby is interesting. For me, it is a place of real vulnerability for particularly people of color. The incident that happened at the Arlo Hotel, that happened to be a good friend of mine. Keyon is a friend and I happen to know the owners of the Arlo of course. So that was an interesting episode where I was kind of in between the different conversations talking to Keyon and talking to the guys from Arlo about the challenges. It’s nothing new.

I was at Detroit during the pandemic. I drove because I didn’t want to fly. I parked my car and I got out of my car to go into the hotel, and I was coming out, something that happens more often than it should, there was a white gentleman, older gentleman that was coming out and asked me to get his car because he thought I was valet. I was in no way dressed like a valet parker. It’s something that happens quite often and it’s unfortunate, but the transition between the getting from my car or a taxi into my room is always a vulnerable space. Because my face, unfortunately, consistently represents a service. My face doesn’t represent a person that requires service or desires service. And hotel lobbies sometimes can be very confusing where there’s just this mix of energy that’s going on, and when you are a certain person, there’s an energy there.

I’ve had women say the same thing. When they’re sitting there traveling alone, the lobby can be a very vulnerable place where people can infer or think something or feel like they can just talk to you in a certain way. I do believe that us studying and understanding lobbies from the side of what does safety actually look like for different individuals. For you and I, safety is different than someone that may be an older white man. What does it mean for them to provide certain services and conditions that allow us all to feel safe? Again, when we talk about social justice and the opportunity that we have, hospitality has an opportunity right now, because we’re all amplifying this language, to talk about not just diversity and inclusion and all these things, but where does it apply into the built environment? Where does it apply into the program and the design of spaces? That’s one of the areas that I believe is just low-hanging fruit for re-imagining what does it mean to feel safe.

SSR: Right. That’s really interesting. And I always say too, for women, hallways.

MS: Yeah. That’s right.

SSR: Long dark hallways are just…yeah.

MS: Yeah and so this is where I’m hoping we are going in hospitality design and design in general is being empathetic and open to wider spectrum, and it’s not just about the user experience of some individual that we make up, because you and I can’t make up what it feels like when we walk into unsafe spaces.

SSR: Right. So true. You’re a man of all trades. You also create films correct?

MS: Yeah.

SSR: How did you get into the filmmaking business and why?

MS: Filmmaking is really just design research amplified on a screen. The work that we did in South Africa, spent three years back and forth to South Africa for the film Shield and Spear. Our latest release of The New Bauhaus film, spent three or four years back and forth between German and Chicago and understanding the Bauhaus from so many different points of view and what design meant, in particularly Moholy-Nagy, which is the central character of the film. That was just a fun journey. Again, I’m kind of a design geek in a way that I loved going to the original Bauhaus and seeing the artifacts and connecting with the people there, and also seeing the response that people seeing me as a filmmaker and the work that we were able to do. So the film is out if people want to see it, they can certainly reach out. We’re going to be officially releasing the film later in the summer because of COVID. We released it in 2019 because 2019 was the 100-year celebration of the Bauhaus, so 2020 obviously we know what happened there, so we’re finally just releasing the film. But for me, filmmaking is storytelling and I love the ability to do the research and then take that and then actually provide a real artifact that you can see the stories come alive.

SSR: Amazing. Does your filmmaking influence your physical making as well?

MS: Yeah, absolutely. Everything we do is about storytelling. I want people to walk into the spaces that we’ve helped design and see themselves. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier. If you don’t see yourself, then you don’t feel welcome, you don’t feel safe. For us, telling stories and amplifying those stories and making sure that people see themselves, whether it’s in the built environment, as well as in filmmaking. You know, the Bauhaus, the central figure in the story was Moholy’s daughter, Hattula, and the director of the film, Alysa, is a woman, but we also understand the Bauhaus left out a lot of women.

There’s a huge hole and even the women that were there got pushed into leaving, and there’s a whole rabbit hole of conversation that we can have there, but we were intentional in that the filmmaking side and the voice came from women, because when we think about the Bauhaus, Moholy in particular, there were strong women leading the Bauhaus, not strong women behind him. These were women who were leading and he was behind being pulled. That’s the type of stories that we want to share and make sure that we’re putting forth. Everything that we’re doing, we’re always finding that balance of intentional equity and balance of voices in the design process.

SSR: How do you pick these subjects to dive into?

MS: I think some of the subjects pick us and pick me.

SSR: There you go.

MS: Yeah. When you’re open and you’re curious, things happen. My theory, I said it earlier, this ideal of creating conditions to be surprised starts with opening yourself to the proximity of luck. New York City is a great example of the proximity of luck, of riding on the L-train, you never know who you’re going to stand next to, good or bad. You sit at a park, you walk down the street, you and I are just degrees apart in people and things that we’ve been doing, so when you create conditions to be surprised, the proximity of luck allows you to not be too far away from the things that inspire you.

SSR: Yeah. So true. I’m just looking at your website as we talk. The work that you all do is so diverse and interesting. You have done a lot of work with schools, and education, and Black Girls Code, and XQ Super School, just naming a couple of them. Why is working in education so important to you and rethinking what education is in a way?

MS: For us, we say that we work at the intersection of people, cities, and planet. The way that I see cities as a systems design, similar to like an iOS on your phone. You have this operating system, the operating system is the city. Within that operating system, you have education, you have healthcare, you have mobility. So the projects that we take on help to weave together the different nodes within the system and education is really important in regards to understanding how we’re actually going about our life, both access to education and then the outcome of education as well, and making sure that we’re helping to design better conditions for those types of platform. That’s the reason why when you look at our work, not only are we continuing and even more touching larger mass planning projects within cities, it’s also important for us to think about the different verticals within the operating system, like education, like the work that I’ve done in prison reform, healthcare.

I also helped to start an Urban Ocean Lab, thinking about coastal cities and climate change as a social justice issue, and what does see love rise mean for communities of color who are going to have to move away and manage retreat. Some people will say, “Oh wow, Marquise you’re kind of everywhere.” No, I’m a systems designer. We don’t live in these little boxes. We all drive around and we’re all influenced by the things that have happened, like Superstorm Sandy. It affected us all. It affected schools, it affected roads, it affected people’s jobs and health. So not only do we work at that level from an environmental standpoint, we’re also working at the level of the effects of that on those different verticals, like education. One exciting thing that I’m working on, we just received a grant from Rockefeller Grant for the urban Ocean Lab.

SSR: That’s cool.

MS: The core of the grant is thinking about innovation and collaboration on the Urban Ocean Lab, the three co-founders. Founded originally by Ayana Johnson and co-founded with myself and Jean. We have a policymaker, we have a scientist and we have a designer. What I really understand from the grant, why they brought us in, was that they want to understand what collaboration looks like. For us, the core of what we’re expanding on is looking at this platform with the Green New Deal and thinking about… So we had the Green New Deal and then needed to expand because the Green New Deal left out oceans, so Dr. Ayana Johnson and a few others really pushed to create the Blue New Deal and thinking about the importance of oceans.

Right now, one of my most exciting projects is down at Red Hook. Through COVID, we pivoted out of Flat Iron in the city of Manhattan. We were right there in Flat Iron area and we moved down to Red Hook, down on the water, and the office down there sits right on the pier. Red Hook itself is just a vulnerable neighborhood to sea level rising and Superstorm Sandy did create damage to that whole area. For us, understanding what managed retreat is looking like, what it’s going to look like, what it’s continued to push, everything from sunny day flooding, all the way to storm surges, everything to sewage as we know here in New York City, we don’t want to go surfing or go under water during a rainstorm because it’s disgusting and very dangerous.

I was also part of AI in New York’s comprehensive waterfront plan initiative and so really thinking about coastal cities and thinking about climate change is something that very much keeps me up at night and that coupled with the work that we’re doing on the development side, and this again does go back to hospitality. I’m going down to Miami in a couple of weeks and that’s a city that, who knows. The studies say that we do know what’s going to happen, but from people’s standpoint and the development standpoint, particularly in hospitality, we need to make some hard decisions as soon as possible and going down there, staying in hotels right on the water, I sit there sometimes and I just imagine, “This is not going to be here.”

We keep pumping money in and we’re not planning for what’s next. So again, from a systems designer, being part of the Urban Ocean Lab, being able to leverage that to inform the work that we do, helps to accelerate how we amplify the insights for the built environment, because we have to think about those things.

SSR: Yeah, for sure. What do you hope to do with the grant?

MS: It’s to continue to do study and then we’re working with… I mean the outcome of the lab is to help to influence policy, both at the national/federal level, all the way down to the city/neighborhood level as well. This grant allows us to continue to expand that research and develop it even more. We’re looking to grow and making sure that we can have influence that’s necessary over policy as companies are developing. Hospitality/hotels are still building on the water and having waterfront property is still a big deal. We need to reimagine that. We need to think about that and hopefully the work that we do there, coupled with the design work that we do, can help better inform the future of particularly hospitality along coastal cities.

SSR: Yeah. I’m sure this is a very challenging project that you’re working on, but looking back, what has been one of the most challenging or one of the most eye-opening projects you’ve worked on?

MS: I mean the Lowline, which was an ambitious project to build an underground park on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was one of the founding board members and ended up being the co-chair of the board. That project itself was such an eye opening to how do you get things done in the city, how do you get things done in the lower east side that has a really strong community base, and how do you raise money? How do you go out and raise money while not getting too ahead of engaging with the community, and how do you try to secure a space that’s run partially by the state, MTA, but it’s in the city? So it was such an amazing journey for us, and me personally, in understanding how a major city like New York City works and how do you actually get a project going here and over the course of, you know seven or eight years, I definitely was on this amazing journey of learning how to do that.

It definitely has sprangboard many of the things that we do at Open Box because of having to understand different communities, different aspects of the community, I mean the Lower East Side has so many representations of communities. As soon as you have one side, the other side is mad, and you have to work in between the nuances of why people are angry. A lot of times it had nothing to do with us, it had to do with things that had happened way before we even got to the scene. So that project definitely is one that has stretched me, pushed me, has given me a lot of good insight, lessons that I’ve learned that I’m applying today in real time. So obviously, that’s definitely one of the defining projects of my career.

SSR: You also recently launched Deem Journal. You’re again just…

MS: Yeah, yeah.

SSR: Do you ever slow down? I thought I was busy.

MS: No, we are all busy. Deem Journal came out of the desire to have a platform that allowed us, particularly myself, to speak about design in a different way than having say a blog or something through Open Box. I wanted something print. Print because evidence is really important and having an artifact of evidence like filmmaking, but this one you can actually touch. The swipe culture of swiping up and liking is one thing, but this is where I go back to not losing what it means to be human and particularly what it means to be human and having your own private experience with a magazine, a journal, that is not just this quick read but you can actually curl up to it and dive in and come back to it and it’s engaging.

It’s speaking about design without overemphasizing shiny objects. So there’s very few design journals out there that have a really good voice of brown and black individuals and women that’s focused on design as a social practice that allows you to go in and it’s not about urban, best word I can say is urban porn of like, “Oh god, look at this graffiti, look at this building, look at this Black kid did.” No, this is not what this is about. This is about looking at the thinking behind what people are doing and the intentions and the energy and the intellect of people that you may not think, because they didn’t go to the right schools or join the right affinity group or have the right certification, but they have the right spirit, they have the right heart, and this is the work that they’re doing. And we have a great balance between academia and social practice in real time.

So Deem Journal, we’re launching our second edition coming up, and we have Lauren Halsey, who is going to be on the front cover, who is an amazing artist whose always exploring architecture and design. She’s out of LA. If you haven’t seen it, check it out.

SSR: How do you constantly stay inspired and motivated through everything that you’re doing?

MS: I’m so curious. Its just that balance between curiosity and vulnerability. You can’t be truly curious if you’re not willing to be vulnerable, meaning that you’re willing to wake up every day and start over and say I know nothing. I feel like the older I get, the younger I become because I realize I know nothing at all. This pandemic has just been a great example of, “Wow, we’re really not that smart.” We can’t even figure out why she would wear a mask and how to control this thing. I’m just so curious about life and really believe in the power of “we” and believe that justice begins with just us and we need us all to come together through collaboration, through partnership, through conversations like this, to continue to move us forward and help us to ask better questions.

SSR: Is there anyone throughout your career or recently that you’ve just learned so much from or looked at as a mentor or an inspiration?

MS: There’s plenty of people but for me, I find inspiration through the simplest things. I try my best not to attach myself to one individual or one mentor or one thought leader. I would say the same thing to anyone who might be hearing me or read about the things that I do. I’m just trying to figure things out and I happen to be in a place where people want to talk to me, that doesn’t mean I’m an expert. I definitely do not believe I’m an expert at anything outside of being curious. I have individuals that I look to, I read, I love art, I love just seeing someone on a subway whose playing music and they just stop you. Those are my favorite moments where you just see something out of the blue that just makes you forget that you’re supposed to be somewhere. Those are the magic moments for me.

When I see at sunset the shadows hitting the city, I’m again a designer, just my eyes and seeing color, I love that. Those are the things that really inspire me and really spark new thinking in me is when I see new moments that I’ve never seen before because I’ve either been forced to slow down because its just so beautiful, or I’m slowing down because the world has pushed us to slow down. Now I’m actually bringing that more into my practice. I think hopefully we all walk away from this pandemic moment knowing how to slow our feet at least a couple steps slower. I’m still going to get a lot of things done because I keep a lot of smart people around me, I’m intentional about the work, and I am constantly being inspired.

SSR: So what has been your greatest lesson learned along the way?

MS: I would say my greatest lesson learned is believing in your gut there’s something special about being human. This is where I go back to empathetic muscle and being able to really trust that thing that you can’t explain. If you can trust the things you can’t explain, then you’re probably heading in the right direction. Most of the time people are going to question it and go, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it?” It takes 10-12 years to have overnight success and I’ve just been pushing for a very long time and I am finding the sweet spot because I trusted my gut.

SSR: Amazing. Well, congrats on all that you are doing and welcome to the publishing world. This was just…thank you.

MS: No, thank you.

SSR: This has been an awesome conversation.

MS: No, this has been so much fun. I really appreciate you supporting me and the work. I really appreciate being in the magazine. I love what you’re doing and whatever I can do to help and support, please let me know.

SSR: I will. Don’t say that, because you’ll hear a lot from me. But thank you, and please keep in touch on everything you’re working on.

MS: I will.