Alumna Angel Buckens Designs Spaces for Inclusivity
Angel Buckens (‘20) graduated from WSU with a BFA-Design, with a dual concentration in Industrial Design and Interior Design. In 2022, Buckins received her Master’s Degree in Business in Art and Design from the Maryland Institute College of Art. This summer, she will join PepsiCo for a 9-week, New York City apprenticeship as a member of the Design Innovation Team. A sales design consultant at Kohler Signature, Buckens is also a member of the Michigan Chapter of American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).
Working with Pepsico and MillerKnoll
Buckens was awarded this apprenticeship after winning a design contest sponsored by Pepsico and MillerKnoll. The contest- to design a student lounge- was the culmination of a 10-week masterclass that she attended at Pensole Lewis College of Business and Design. Founded by Dr. D’Wayne Edwards, the college is the first and only Historically Black College or University (HBCU) dedicated to design. Edwards wants to give Black students a better chance in the industry, with a strong focus on driving industry placement of Black and Brown designers.
For the contest, each team developed a design concept and inspiration, research and insights, and a final design plan. “I was in charge of 3D graphics and product images for the space,” says Buckens. “We did block diagrams and traffic flow diagrams, ideations, and strategies for implementing three vending machines. We had a $50,000 budget and other design criteria, including integrating pre-speced furniture from Miller-Knoll.”
Buckens and her project partner, Rodney Banks, won the challenge and the apprenticeship, beating out two other student teams. Banks is currently enrolled at WSU with a double major in supply chain and marketing. The team combined their skills, taking a creative but pragmatic approach to their proposal. “We worked really hard to be realistic and to stay on budget and keep the numbers down,” says Buckens. “Some elements were expensive, so we had to compromise in other part of the design to make it all work. We worked carefully with the criteria and furniture we were given. I think that is ultimately what made us win both the buildout and the apprenticeship.”
Buckens and Banks’ concept, “Birds of a Feather,” is focused on creating a sense of community.” Their design includes a time capsule of current and future students, each of whom eventually leaves behind a pencil upon graduation, “leaving their mark” at the Pensole Lewis College. Judges included Edwards, Matthew Stares, MillerKnoll Sr. Vice President of Global Real Estate, Architecture and Development, and Mauro Porcini, Sr. Vice President and Chief Design Officer at PepsiCo.
Buckens brings a unique perspective when it comes to interior design for inclusivity. For a time in her life, she was homeless, and she understands the importance of well-designed and inspiring spaces for people to grow and heal, as well as the security that is necessary for personal and professional progress. “When my family and I were homeless, I remember contemplating whether I should attend school,” she says. “I knew it was going to be tough because I didn’t have an address. I started taking some classes at Henry Ford Community College. And these were baby steps to eventually going fulltime at WSU. My parents, friends, and extended family all helped me out.” Buckens and her family now own a home in Lincoln Park. They have lived there for 10 years. This experience gave her a deeper understanding for designing inclusive spaces. She says, “When I look back at my time being in the shelter it helped me to remain humble and to always be considerate of other people around me and the stories they carry– to understand everyone's perspective.”
Buckens worked her way through school, taking on midnight shifts as a Mental Health Technician in the psychiatric unit at Beaumont. She received offers to stay on at Beaumont and pursue a career in nursing because of her calm and supportive approach with patients and her acutely professional bedside manner. Today, she feels that the experience made her more resilient and compassionate as a person and as a designer. “I always knew that design was my career path, but I feel that my work at Beaumont was my God-serving job, serving other people, serving my people,” she says. “It was very hard being called names and cussed out. But it built character and a tough skin. It taught me to have passion and understanding for people. My days at the hospital were not always the brightest and came with a lot of sacrifice but, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Good design comes with compassion and that desire to really understand and connect with people.”
Leading up to the Pepsico design initiative, Buckens participated in another local project, designing an apartment for the Veterans Project at Sugar Hill in Midtown Detroit. Housed in the newly opened Sugar Hill Development, the project is directly across the street from the VA Hospital. Interior Designers Coalition for Change hosted the project, engaging volunteer design teams to finish apartments for 14 veterans. Buckens and her team were one of 14 teams using trauma-informed design to create unique solutions for the apartments. The development wants to support inclusive growth of the Sugar Hill Historic District as a cultural, commercial, and residential destination. It is one of the last projects by Phil Freelon, one of the most celebrated Black architects in U.S. history who passed away in 2019.
Trauma-informed design uses design to help inhabitants of a space build resilience and recover and heal. According to the Sugar Hill project webpage, trauma-informed design has been tested and proven to strengthen outcomes in healthcare and education. However, it has not been fully embraced in affordable rental housing. While the immediate goal of the project was to design the 14 rooms, the project was also intended to raise awareness in the Southeastern Michigan design community about trauma-informed design, which disproportionately impacts people of color. “Being part of the VA project was so great because we were changing someone’s living situation, by creating a space that is fully furnished and cared for,” says Buckens. “I want to continue to be a part of projects like this one that make a difference.”
Buckens and her team– called Team 13– created a successful handicapped-accessible design that functions on a physical and emotional level. “We used sage green, wood tones, and low-profile furniture and fixtures to create a natural soothing feel to the apartment,” says Buckens. “The design was very well received, and we got lots of great feedback.” Since the opening, Buckens has also benefitted from the network she was able to establish through the project. “I met so many people in the industry through this project, and now they are connecting with me looking to see if I want to work with them. It’s been a great boost to my network and access to new opportunities.”
Reflecting on Successes
Buckens feels that patience and persistence has been essential to her successes. She says, “I would want to tell students who are starting out or graduating, that my successes today were 10 years in the making. Things moved very slowly for a while, especially during Covid, but now I feel a domino effect and things are happening quickly.” She also feels that it is necessary to focus on where you want to be and to not give up. “I could have given up when I was homeless but that is not who I am,” she says. “I could have given up my dreams. There were so many other directions that I could have been pulled but I help pushing and striving toward this one and I am so happy to be where I am at today.” Along with persistence has been sacrifice, and Buckens stresses that it’s important to stop and take care of yourself. “I made so many sacrifices in my personal life to get here. Sometimes I am pushing so hard, and I can feel it weighing me down. Now I know to take breaks and take care of my mental health, which is just as important.”
In joining PepsiCo, Buckens is thrilled to see positive change in the industry and to be a part of that. “With these initiatives, PepsiCo is showing that they want to find ways to include Black and Brown students in new and innovative ways,” she says. “They are pushing for inclusivity, and I am happy to be a part of this.
Edwards has since become a client of Buckens. He recently commissioned her to design a space for Pensole Lewis College luxury learning center with Jimmy Choo, footwear lab sponsored by Footlocker to commemorate the renowned Black shoe designer Jan Ernst Matzeliger. She is also designing an apparel space sponsored by Hanes in collaboration with Pingree Detroit. Buckens and Banks’ student lounge space will be built out this summer. NBA star Russel Westbrook is scheduled to be in attendance at the unveiling.