The Democratization of Design in Modern Interiors

August 4, 2022|In SD Blog|By Danine Alati

How are the tony modern interiors of a Park Avenue penthouse in Manhattan and a pro bono affordable housing development in the Bronx alike? One glaring disparity is project budget. However, beyond that, high-end interior designs and more budget-conscious social projects and/or pro bono initiatives have much more in common than one might think. Good design transcends socioeconomics when savvy architects and designers employ deft strategies to make design accessible for all.

The Children's Institute | Design by Frank Gehry

From SOM’s San Francisco office volunteering to create a modern interior design for local nonprofit the American Conservatory Theater, to 13-person Brooklyn design studio Mapos’ commitment to working on one pro bono project at any given time, to starchitect Frank Gehry’s pro bono designs for LA–based nonprofit The Children’s Institute (CII), high-profile architects and designers and smaller design firms alike are committed to donating their time and services to underserved clientele. “I wanted this community to walk in and feel that we poured our hearts and souls into the design for them,” Gehry has said of the sleek, stunning modern interiors he created for this new CII campus in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. “I hope that this building can help facilitate nurturing, care, and healing. That’s what we designed it to do.”

Similarly, Camilo Ramirez of A5 Arquitectura, based in Medillín, Colombia, explains, “We believe design is inherently accessible to everyone; just because something is professionally designed does not mean it is expensive. The price of design is directly linked to the materials and complexity of the design. We try in all cases to look for quality spaces and characteristics for all users. No matter if they are high- or low-budget, our goal is always to make good quality projects.”

A5 Arquitectura

La Rambla | Design: A5 Arquitectura | Photography: Mateo Soto

Founded in 2017 by Ramirez and his partner Tomás Vega, A5 is adept at flexing its design muscles on a shoestring budget. In 2016, A5 created Capilla Móvil, a mobile chapel where local priest Father Felipe Escobar could conduct religious services and provide social work to the unhoused of Medellín. Funded by donations collected by Escobar, this pro bono project, which won the Colombian Biennial of Architecture and Urbanism award in 2018, paved the way for Barbería Móvil, a mobile barbershop completed in 2020. Escobar and the A5 design team feel strongly about dignifying the often-neglected members of society through the transformation of their physical appearance, as evidenced through this project, which demonstrates a clear design execution via low-cost materials and effective strategies so that its users feel valued and cared for in a well-designed space. “We believe in social retribution in our professional disciplines and in the satisfaction of participating in real, highly impactful social initiatives,” Ramirez explains.

Known for designing the trendy, modern interiors of the Somos hotel and luxury apartment complex Obra Treinta&Cinco both in Medellín, A5 recently completed a pro bono temporary art gallery. “La Rambla artist’s reunion is an ephemeral art gallery, which was intended to serve as an exhibition platform for local artists, who suffered a lot from the global crisis,” Ramirez says about this modern interior design.

He adds, “Here at A5, we always seek to go beyond—to go for the unconventional, the alternative—in all the projects we do, whether they are modern interiors of private homes, high-end buildings, or [pro bono] social projects. In simple ways we can create great impacts on architectural projects.”

Barbería Móvil | Design: A5 Arquitectura | Photography: Luis Bernardo Cano

Alexander Gorlin

Boston Road Supportive Housing, Bronx, NY | Design by Alexander Gorlin Architects

Highly lauded New York-based architect Alexander Gorlin has a host of notable projects under his belt—including breathtaking modern interiors for Hamptons beach houses, a Central Park West duplex renovation in New York, and the award-winning restoration of the historic “Metrohub” Bell Works, originally designed by Eero Saarinen in Holmdel, New Jersey—Alexander Gorlin now devotes significant time to social justice initiatives. And he has a knack for making these pro bono and government-fund projects as impactful and aesthetically pleasing as his high-end paid commissions.

For an affordable housing project in the South Bronx called Boston Road Supportive Housing—funded by New York nonprofit Breaking Ground to house low-income working adults and the formerly unhoused, many of whom are living with HIV/AIDS—Gorlin designed a dynamic facade comprising a bold palette of metal panels juxtaposed with grey brick. Gorlin has said that people actually think this structure with its striking facade, modern interiors, and sustainable design features is luxury housing rather than affordable housing. “It’s designed to be upbeat,” he says.

 Likewise, for the award-winning The Jennings Supportive Housing for domestic violence survivors and their families, Gorlin designed a spectacular facade to make an architectural statement in its South Bronx neighborhood. The modern interiors of The Jennings were created with the well-being of its occupants in mind, as it offers a stable living environment plus on-site social services. Gorlin says, “Everyone should live in a dignified house.”


Uganda Women’s and Children’s Clinic | Design by LS3P

Multidisciplinary U.S. design firm LS3P launched a pro bono initiative called Design In-Kind earlier this year. Devoted to volunteer design services since its inception in 1963, LS3P now commits to donating up to 1 percent of its design hours to in-kind efforts.

In the past two years alone, the firm has completed 25 pro bono projects. For example, LS3P partnered with North Carolina nonprofit Tried By Fire on My Sister’s House, affordable housing for women post-incarceration. The designers converted a donated house that was in disrepair into a warm, welcoming, secure home with modern interiors, where these women can receive social services and assistance to help reintegrate into society. Another of LS3P’s Design In-Kind initiatives is the Uganda Women’s and Children’s Clinic, a medical campus in rural Uganda specifically focused on maternal and infant care. The project, which earned several AIA awards, exploits local materials and typologies to root the architecture in its setting.

“Access to great design can be transformative for nonprofits,” says LS3P chief practice officer Katherine Peele. “Even small design interventions can be instrumental in helping a community organization serve its clients more effectively, and supporting our community partners with in-kind design services can yield far-reaching impacts.”

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FEATURED IMAGE: The SOMOS Hotel | Architecture: A5 Arquitectura | Interior Design: Reeal. ( | Photo by Mateo Soto