Prompted by the death of George Floyd in late May, a group of five Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) students and alumni were moved to rethink the power of design. “Most of us in the design school felt like design couldn’t provide immediate assistance,” says Yaxuan Liu, a current architecture master’s student at Harvard University. “In the larger sense, we can design for equity but it will take a longer time to achieve this goal.” Undeterred, Liu and peers Tessa Crespo, Grace Chee, Izzy Kornblatt, and Edward Han Myo Oo came together to invent a way that their industry could provide instant support for anti-Black racism, based on a concept pulled straight from imagery of suburban America: the yard sale.
After reaching out via survey to fellow students and partnering with co-sponsor nonprofit The Architectural League of New York, the group began Design Yard Sale, a month-long fundraising event that auctions and sells design pieces online. 100% of the proceeds benefit nonprofit The Bail Project and New Orleans-based architecture and design justice practice Colloqate Design, organizations that are dedicated to fighting systemic racism. Since its July 1 launch, Design Yard Sale has raised over $80,000 for racial justice.
The initiative kicked off selling the professional-quality work of students at the GSD, models and drawings from studio classes semesters prior that were donated by their makers. Then, word got out to Harvard faculty, many of whom are practicing architects and designers and finally academia-unassociated professionals began reaching out to donate limited-edition design objects, prototypes, drawings and sketches from their firms’ projects, past and present. The design items are sold in two ways, directly on the Design Yard Sale site where new objects are added every day, and via eBay auction: a venue reserved for editions by more well-known design professionals like Frank Gehry, Denise Scott Brown and Virgil Abloh.
But, beyond just fundraising, Design Yard Sale’s larger mission, says Liu, is education. Using the platform it has created amongst designers and enthusiasts alike, the nonprofit is “a call to the community to realize the inequity in the design field,” he explains. Since June 18, when the group put out its first public call for donations on social media, its Instagram page has amassed over 4,000 followers to which it spreads both sale announcements and awareness of racial injustices. The experience has also changed its organizers. “For so many students in the architecture program, a direct path is to go straight to a firm, but this has made me think about more ways to use design in a career path, more entrepreneurial ways,” says Chee. “It’s been a great way to see what kind of agency design can have.”
Because the students head back to (virtual) school in September, this week is its final auction. The Design Yard Sale was created “always with the intention being a pop up event,” says Chee. Items up for bid in the last few days of this month are focused around the theme of “home” and include a Swiss ash X-Rocker stool, an unreleased, signed design by architects Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron (starting bid $800); a hand-sketch of the currently under construction Queens Public Library by Craig Dykers, founding partner at Snøhetta (starting bid $500) and a signed graphic print by architect Farshid Moussavi (starting bid $500). The co-organizers have a goal to raise a total of $100,000 to donate to their chosen pair of organizations.
While the auctions may end, the work for equity does not. “For a long time I have been struggling with the way that architecture is taught and practiced in that it distances itself from social issues,” says Kornblatt, a 2019 Harvard GSD alumni who works as a self-employed design consultant. “I think when President Trump announced consideration of the plan to mandate neoclassical design guidelines [for future federal buildings], it made people think about how design is a political statement. It has that agency. There are so many designers and students that want to find ways for design to make a difference. This experience has made us feel more strongly that we can.”