Community and Connectivity

Interior design students’ installation at DIFFA Designs event benefits HIV/AIDS research at SF General Hospital’s Ward 86
By Celeste Sunderland

Just after entering The NWBLK’s cavernous gallery space where a rollicking cocktail party and silent auction was in full swing, Academy of Art University School of Interior Architecture and Design (IAD) instructor Agustin Sanders stopped in his glittering gold shoes and struck a pose. Behind him, armed with a thick kelly green marker, IAD student Kevin Veitch traced his shadow onto a wide white canvas. By the end of the night, the centerpiece of an installation by five IAD students was covered in a colorful melange of overlapping silhouettes.
“Some people feel as though when they get HIV or AIDS their identity is stripped from them,” said Veitch, who along with Alex Allen, Fadi Alnumaani, Chantal Yakou and Riley Leslie Dean created the piece for the DIFFA Designs (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS) event. “We wanted to show that you still have a strong identity, and you’re still part of this community. There’s an interconnectedness still, it’s not the ostracized vibe there used to be, it’s a sense of community and a sense of everyone being a part of something.”
Guided by the theme “everything connects,” the students combined varying visual elements to get their point across. Life-sized cut-outs flanking the “silhouette mural,” depicted a diverse array of different types of people. Stories of HIV and AIDS patients, found online, covered the cut-outs, while strips of red tape formed a red brick road along the gallery floor. Each element conveys aspects of the central concept: “We are all human and through our humanity and vulnerabilities we are all connected.”
“They did a fabulous job,” said DIFFA SF Chair Randall Shield. “I love the creativity the students bring to the whole project. Getting young students, some who have never known anyone with AIDS, thinking about the issue is really important because it’s not something a lot of people feel comfortable talking about.”

IAD DIFFA team with instructor Ernest Mariotto

While both Shields and IAD instructor Ernest Mariotto, who has been a member of the DIFFA committee for 13 years, have known many people with AIDS, the students come from a generation with much less personal experience with the disease. To gain a better understanding of what it means to be suffering from AIDS, the students visited San Francisco General Hospital’s Ward 86. Established in 1983 as one of the first dedicated HIV clinics in the country, Ward 86 is home to the UCSF Positive Health Program, beneficiary of the funds raised by the DIFFA event. Allen was particularly impressed by the enthusiasm of the staff. “They were so thankful and they made us feel so important,” he said. “We hadn’t done anything yet, but they knew we were doing something important to help them raise money. Everything they do depends on funding, that’s why events like this are so critical.”
Hand-picked for the project by Mariotto, the students embarked on the intensive, six-week collaboration just before the start of the semester. After barreling through brainstorming sessions and scoping out the feasibility of different design ideas, the group finalized their concept heeding real world restrictions like budget and time frame. “This wasn’t a school project where we can dream up these amazing designs, we actually had to come down to earth and be more realistic about it,” said Yakou.
Mariotto said he was spot on with his choice of students this year. “First of all, it has to be people who want to do something charitable, and also people who will give everything—they’ve been working day and night on this—people who are devoted to the profession of interior design, as well as people who are generous. I did this in a very short amount of time, normally I have until November, so I figured it had to be the best. Only the best could do this. They were the best.”
The installation will be donated to Ward 86 along with proceeds from the event, which were raised through ticket sales as well as the auctioning off of dozens of original design pieces, not least among them an exquisite neoclassical chair from Sanders’ furniture line Apartment 415, and a trio of elegant fascinator hats by Academy of Art University School of Fashion alumnus Ryan Scott Daugherty.

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