Seeds to Impact: A Journey from Design to Purpose
Editor’s Note: officeinsight is adding a number of new columnists to our pages who will regularly contribute on topics important to design. The idea is to create conversations within the industry and a place where you can learn from your peers. Look for periodic columns in coming issues. To that end, we are adding to our stable of columnists. If you are interested in contributing a design column to officeinsight, reach out to Rob Kirkbride at email@example.com.
by Maria VanDeman
If you met me in the industry, I would introduce myself as an interior designer. I also happen to sell fabulous furniture, appreciate a well-designed workplace, and love connecting with people and impacting those around me.
Originally from northern Indiana, I grew up in a suburban community set in cornfields and fueled by RV manufacturing, waiting for my chance to depart the ordinary for an exciting big city life. After a few post-recession years in Atlanta in a youthful workplace design firm, I’ve spent the last 12 years in Miami. No, it’s not the South Beach you’re thinking of, but my Miami — the culturally rich, diverse, artful, energetic, yet laid back town of opportunity with a lively design community. Miami is the perfect place for a Midwesterner who hates the cold, loves having friends from every continent, and comfortably accepts being the only non-Spanish speaker in a room. Here, I ventured into healthcare design, worked on many projects with incredible people, spent years deeply rooted in the local IIDA chapter and capped my interior design career with an award-winning tech company workplace project. Then, I dove headfirst into the chaotic, fascinating, lovable world of commercial furniture.
The first significant opportunity to share my voice and perspective happened in 2020 when I received a desperate call to fill a last minute speaking position at the BIFMA Conference in Miami in place of none other than The Cheryl Durst, Executive Vice President and CEO of IIDA. When I started in sales just a few years prior, my hands shook nervously during luncheons around the conference table. How could I possibly speak in the place of a veteran communicator like Cheryl Durst? I accepted the invitation, but was completely terrified. On the day of the conference, in front of over 100 leading furniture and industry executives, I managed to rise to the occasion and deliver a passionate and personal plea for the industry to rally behind the need for greater diversity and to support IIDA’s pathway program for people of underrepresented populations, Design Your World.
From there, my leadership and involvement with various diversity, equity, and inclusion committees, IIDA’s Design Your World program, mentoring opportunities, and local speaking and teaching engagements blossomed. I found that sharing my story of being a minority in the industry, my love for design, mentoring and helping to cultivate inclusive office cultures was a welcome message, and also a deeply fulfilling path of purpose and impact. A HiP Leadership award from Interior Design Magazine in 2022 was a humbling affirmation that my time and effort had been meaningful and fruitful, yet I knew there was more I could and should be doing for others.
When whispers began about creating a children’s book with Imagine a Place, I jumped at the opportunity to co-author with friend and colleague, Doug Shapiro. We wanted to honor the IIDA program and encourage elementary age children to explore the design profession while encouraging diversity in design. Through our many conversations and drafts of the story, Doug and I knew the book, Design Your World, would be special, but we had no idea of the full meaning it carried. I’ve met teachers, students, and industry leaders who connected to our story of Serena, a young Black girl finding her way into the power of design by taking control of her environment. It’s a story for all walks of life, but my favorite comment from the child of a colleague was “Wow, Serena has hair like me!” This was a welcome sign of a step in the right direction.
At our official Design Your World book launch party at the IIDA Chicago headquarters, we celebrated, signed books, and spoke to the audience to spread this important message of industry inclusion and equity. During the party, I was reminded of where I started when I was reconnected with officeinsight Editor-in-Chief Rob Kirkbride who heard me speak at the BIFMA conference and remembered my similar plea for our industry. Reconnecting over our love of design, the latest furniture gossip, and moving the industry forward was a reminder that having a missional outlook on life and the industry had unknowingly planted a seed which grew into this very opportunity you’re reading today.
As I begin the editorial journey of sharing my heart and insights, I aspire to plant good seeds. The goal of how I lead and write is to impact those around me for good, advocate for the underrepresented and challenge our industry to think forward. If we all plant good seeds, imagine how far we will grow.
Maria VanDeman, NCIDQ, IIDA, is an accomplished Interior Designer and Workplace Advisor at OFS, as well as a published children’s book author and advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. With a passion for people and designing for human needs, Maria strives to make a positive impact on the world through her work and mentorship.