Bernard McCoy wore a red and black checkered pullover, brown leather boots, jeans and a tan cap. The sleeves of the pullover were pulled up to his elbows as if he were preparing to delve into a design project or peel the vegetables for that night’s dinner. Elayne DeLeo, with white dress shirt, khaki pants and sneakers, looked more like she was ready for the weekend, but could host a presentation if the need arose. The pair make for an interesting dichotomy of business and fashion.
The co-founders of the Atlanta Design Festival, a nine-day festival hosted by Modern Atlanta (Ma!), McCoy and DeLeo started working together 16 years ago. McCoy’s love for modern architecture, design and “celebrating creativity” mixed with DeLeo’s skill with making event ideas becoming a reality, has made for the only design festival of its kind in what many consider the southeast’s most important city for business, residential and commercial development and entertainment.
The Atlanta Design Festival is taking place all around the city and along with hosting public speakers, designers and creatives, there are also tours of commercial and residential real estate in both Atlanta and Serenbe, a neighborhood in the Chattahoochee Hills section, taking place throughout the weekend.
The tours, which began in the early 2000’s through an entirely different venture, are where McCoy began a company with a former partner. The tours remain an important way for Atlanta’s design to be showcased, particularly in a city that’s constantly changing like Atlanta. From the historically Black Chastain Park neighborhood to Old Fourth Ward and beyond, the tours allowed McCoy and his former partner to talk about modern design and the possibilities of what Atlanta could become.
“I knew I wanted to do something collaborative, not being a designer myself, but I wanted to be in that culture,” McCoy, a partner at Modern Atlanta’s and the company’s creative director, said. He started a sort of design appreciation group out of the original and now closed Octane Coffee on Marietta Street. He remembers 13 people showing up for the meeting. “They were all architects that weren’t happy because they were doing traditional architecture. Our niche has always been contemporary architecture, that’s our niche and no one was looking at that” McCoy said.
The first tour “had like 50 people show up,” said McCoy with a laugh. The tours that he and DeLeo scheduled for this year’s design festival dwarf those in comparison. The possibility of making design more than just a niche subject for small groups of architecture nerds and developers was birthed from those early tours.
McCoy began his interest in design culture while in the United States Air Force and stationed in Italy. He eagerly shared a story of how he watched an elderly couple analyze a chair through a shop window in Venice. “I just started getting more and more into the beauty of nature and objects,” McCoy explained. “It’s something that I just related to.”
What happened next was putting together something that could be even bigger and that’s where DeLeo, a native of Connecticut and Atlanta resident, came in. The tours got bigger and the idea of a design festival like what takes place in New York and San Francisco, for example, started feeling more like the next step.
“What we saw with the interest in contemporary architecture is why shouldn’t Atlanta have that same kind of event,” DeLeo, a partner at Modern Atlanta’s and the company’s business development lead, asked rhetorically. “We expanded it into a week-long event by adding talks, films, and exhibitions,” she said.
‘The City has got to get behind this festival’
With the exception of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been Atlanta Design Festivals taking place every year. With this year being the 15th overall, there is a call to have the City of Atlanta recognize the need for the festival the way other city governments around the country and the world have done.
“Designs solves problems,” said DeLeo when asked why the city should be more involved in the festival.
McCoy added that design festivals allow for ideas to be shared in a more creative space and creative way. “Design festivals can address social ills like food deserts,” he said. It’s about going deep into things where design can make a major influence.”
DeLeo and McCoy believe the City of Atlanta could be doing a better job of supporting the festival like many design festivals that take place in international cities around the world, such as the London Design Fair, which gets a million-dollar contribution from the city, Dutch Design Week, Milan Design Festival and IMM Cologne, arguably the most important annual furnishing show in the world, that takes place in Cologne, Germany and more locally, Design Chicago. To be more precise, the festival does not receive any support from the city at all, says McCoy, an Atlanta home owner who also resides in Cambridge, UK.
“The city has got to get behind this festival,” McCoy said.
Inside the numbers
Within the festival Modern Atlanta works with nonprofit organizations like Atlanta-based Care on myologies, a project where fashion gets paired with furniture, the High Museum, which hosts events under the Atlanta Design Festival banner, manufacturers that want to showcase their products and companies like Ortus, a Newcastle, UK-based data research company that prepared an Atlanta design economy report for 2023.
The numbers don’t lie: According to the report, Atlanta has more than 111,000 people working in occupations with a major design element and Atlanta’s designers generated $39.5 billion in gross domestic product in 2021. Hard copies of the report were made available for festival-goers and DeLeo has presented the data to the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
McCoy believes there’s so much more design-related conversations to be had in Atlanta. “The city deserves more, it deserves better,” he said. “We have a brand that communicates the language.”
DeLeo says the conversations that still need to be had with the city leaders vary from how to redesign public spaces, to thinking about ways communities can be transformed through design. “We have challenges as a city when it comes to development, I think good design will solve a lot of those problems. One of the mayor’s biggest initiatives is affordable housing, so who do you work with to do that?”
She quickly answered her own question. “Architects, developers, landscape designers. You need to have someone who thinks about the human aspect.”
The future of the Atlanta Design Festival
Within the festival was the Creative Futures Conference, which took place Oct. 14-15 and began two years earlier. It now includes a number of speakers, including architects, designers, city planners, writers, urbanists and developers. The guest speaker list for this year’s conference included both local, Jim Irwin of Atlanta-based development firm New City Properties and international, Marion Waller, Director of The Arsenal Pavilion in Paris, France, experts. The conference also included the first Design Is Human, the company’s tag line, awards ceremony.
“Design informs so much around us,” said McCoy. “This festival is on par with anything you see in Milan or London.”