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In the new book Iconic Home: Interiors, Advice, and Stories From 50 Amazing Black Designers, author June Reese interviews some of the most talented Black designers to uncover their inspiration and to ask how they got their start. And thankfully for us, they all drop some serious design knowledge. In this excerpt, Justina Blakeney shares her un-decorating secret.

The path to interior design was indirect for designer, artist, and entrepreneur Justina Blakeney. A love for textiles and prints originally led her to a career in fashion, where she spent several years before making the ultimate decision to follow her heart and start her internationally known design and home decor brand, Jungalow. 

Someone whose work conjures imagery of plentiful plants and bold colors and patterns, Justina eschews traditional design rules for the most part, focusing more on flow and on the vibe a space brings. Through her roots and approach, Justina reimagines interior spaces as well as the experience someone has in their home. 

“Design in the home should be about supporting well-being,” she says. “When we think about art and design, we think about what it looks like. I really try to make it about what it feels like—that kind of visceral response that people have to a space, where you walk in somewhere and are in awe and you’re looking around with that feeling of, ‘Wow, I am surrounded by beauty,’ or wonder or surprise or calm. Those are the kinds of things I try to elicit from the spaces that I design. It might not be all about how it looks.” 

Justina, above all, encourages others to notice what lights them up or gives them good feelings, and to put those things in their space. “For me, it’s about the experience in the room itself and how it makes us feel throughout the day and how it supports us.” She adds, “Your home can support your dreams.”

How did you get into design?
I’ve always been a creative person and I’ve always known I wanted to work in a creative field, but I never really knew exactly how that would manifest. If I were to drill down to what made me want to get into design in the first place, my sister Faith, who’s a few years older than me, was always really interested in interior design. After a number of years working in the fashion industry, I slowly started to get more and more interested in the home space, and I felt like a lot of the things that I loved about fashion design also translated to home. 

How does being a Black designer influence your work?
I draw so much on who I am and my personal identity and my heritage in my design work. Jungalow is an expression of who I am and all the different parts of me and my roots. Inevitably my cultural heritage comes out in my design work. Being a designer of color, being a designer with an African heritage, is something that I’m really proud of and something that I think people can sense and feel in my design work.

What about color?
I love color, and I think part of my secret to success has been embracing color. When I’m designing for myself or if I’m designing something for a client, I really like to understand not just what their favorite color is, but how different colors make them feel.

So, for example, in my current home, I really wanted to add a feeling of warmth to our living room, which has very high ceilings. I thought to myself, What’s the feeling I want to have in here? I want a feeling of warmth and something that feels inviting and cozy. So we ended up painting the walls in two tones, in a terracotta and in a very light pink to add that warmth. And now, as soon as people walk in, they’ll say, “Your home is so warm and inviting.”

Thinking about how you want to feel in the different areas of your home can very much inform what colors you end up choosing for the walls. Once I understand the overall color palette of the walls, then that’s when I get into the color pairings. 

And so, I say, “Oh, the way that plants look in front of terracotta walls really lights me up.” So my accent color for this room is going to be green. Focusing on our own feelings and how certain colors make you feel is a great jumping-off place for deciding a color palette for a room.

Why is it important to layer a room with design elements?
I’m sort of anti-rules when it comes to design. I think of design much more as an art form. Obviously, following rules when it comes to interior architecture and construction and those sorts of things [is] very important, but when it comes to the final layer, when you’re talking about the furnishings and the decor elements to add, I’m not a huge fan of following these very rigid design rules, because every space is different. Every family is different and everyone is going to thrive in a different type of environment.

Oftentimes photographing a space from different angles can help me see it differently. And then what I say to myself is, “Is this space giving me all the feels?” If it’s not giving me all the feels, chances are one of those things is off. Maybe the scale is off, maybe the texture is off, maybe the colors are off, and then I’ll keep tweaking until I take a step back and I look at it and then I get that little tingling feeling in my core, and then I know, okay, yes, this place has all the feels. This is what we want. We’re here. We’ve arrived. 

What’s your go-to design trick?
It’s super-important to have an open mind and to try different things out. One of the things that I will often do, especially before I buy anything, is tape things on the floor to really be able to understand the scale of something and move it around a bunch, even in my mind. Don’t just put a sofa where you automatically assume the sofa should go in the room. Keep an open mind and just experiment with furniture. 

For example, there might be an area of your home where it feels somewhat empty, but maybe that’s the area where you like to do your workouts, or stretch, or have dance parties. Maybe having some amount of open space with no furniture there might feel awkward in some regard, but it’s supporting the lifestyle that you want to have. Have fun, experiment, try things out that you wouldn’t necessarily think about, tape lots of shapes on the ground to see and be able to help imagine where things would go.

How do you bring in the outdoors with your designs?
I bring the outdoors in through color. I can use inspiration from nature. I use green a lot in design and decor because I love the way I feel when I’m surrounded by green in a forest or on a hike or in a jungle.

Also, I symbolically use things like jungle-licious wallpapers, art that displays wildlife, or leaves and flowers. I also have a thing for houseplants. I truly believe that living in a community with nature is healthy and good for mental health. 

What do you want people to remember about you?
That I believe that everyone is creative and that everyone has the power to create beauty in the world. I think we’re all born with an incredible amount of potential for creativity, and it’s really about tapping into it and bringing it out and giving yourself the space to explore that creativity.

Iconic Home book cover
Iconic Home by June Reese, Amazon ($48)

Reprinted from Iconic Home: Interiors, Advice, and Stories Ffrom 50 Amazing Black Designers by June Reese. Copyright © 2023 by June Reese and Black Interior Designers, Inc. (BID). Photographs copyright © by Justina Blakeney. Published by Abrams.