Known for her dramatic use of color and fabrics, interior designer Kia Steave-Dickerson has built a distinguished career in television and film, in addition to running her own design company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has worked as a set designer and assistant prop manager on several films, and since 2002 has been a member of the design cast on the hit series Trading Spaces on cable television.
Born in Philadelphia in 1970, Steave-Dickerson enjoyed an early exposure to the world of design. Her father worked as a theater prop master and costume designer for local drama companies. He was the first African-American member of Local 8 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and often brought his daughter along while he was on the job. As Steave-Dickerson recalled to Jennifer Baldino Bonett of Philadelphia Business Journal, she also used to go "dumpster diving" with her father, helping him salvage discarded furniture that he took home to repair and recover. From her mother, a credit analyst, Steave-Dickerson learned about the practical side of running a business. With her creative and entrepreneurial instincts nurtured from childhood, she knew from an early age that she wanted to go into business for herself. Initially she considered a dry cleaning establishment—the type of business operated by the only African-American entrepreneur she knew from popular culture, George Jefferson of the 1970s sitcom The Jeffersons. But, realizing that this field would not provide a creative outlet, she decided to focus on interior design.
After earning a bachelor's degree in textile management and marketing from Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science, now Philadelphia University, Steave-Dickerson worked briefly in retail establishments in the city. Later, she took a job with Maen Line Fabrics in Philadelphia. This position gave her the opportunity to broaden her experience with textiles and also introduced her to valuable future clients. With encouragement from her mentors at Maen Line and seed money she inherited from her father's estate, Steave-Dickerson decided to realize her dream of opening her own business in 1994.
Named K.I.A. Enterprises, her company specialized in fabrics, floor and wall coverings, and window treatments. She soon picked up several prestigious commercial clients, including Loews Hotel Philadelphia, the Inn at Penn, and Lincoln Financial Field. Branching out into the subspecialties of set design and props, Steave-Dickerson began obtaining film and television work. She designed sets for commercials for leading brands such as Betty Crocker, Chrysler, and Bisquick, and also worked on projects for the DuPont Theatre in Delaware.
Film work proved both lucrative and challenging. As assistant to the prop master for the film Beloved, for example, which was based on Toni Morrison's novel about a runaway slave who is desperate to protect her children from bondage, Steave-Dickerson was assigned to find and forge an iron slave collar. The designer told Philadelphia Inquirer writer Diane Goldsmith that, though the object felt like a "part of history," it also evoked strong feelings for her. After filming was com-plete, she kept the collar as a memento. It reminded her of "the black women back then and the strength they needed to persevere," she said. "I do feel it inside." The collar, Goldsmith wrote, was "an important detail in a bid for [the film's] authenticity" and was one of the props that were "key to establishing the movie's mood."
Steave-Dickerson also dressed sets for the film Men in Black and served as assistant prop master for M. Night Shyamalan's films The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, all set in Philadelphia. In addition, she has done sets and props for major stage musicals, including Grease and Cats. She also appeared as an extra in a scene with Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable. Shyamalan became a particular admirer of her work. According to Bonett, he has called Steave-Dickerson "the funk diva" and noted that her "exotic electricity" makes movie sets "more vibrant."
In 2002 Steave-Dickerson joined the cast of Trading Spaces, a cable television program that challenges designers to redecorate a room in two days with only a $1,000 budget. Participants agree to "swap" a designated room with neighbors, and the two teams then compete to create the best redesign in less than 48 hours. Steave-Dickerson quickly established herself as a bold innovator on the show. Among her memorable feats, according to the Trading Spaces Web site, were a room in which she suspended the owner's bed from the ceiling, and a room featuring ancient Egyptian motifs such as hieroglyph fabric and a specially-made pyramid fountain. Most dramatic of all, according to the Trading Spaces Web site, was Steave-Dickerson's creation of a synthetic grass bedspread accented with silk flowers.
The designer has emphasized her pleasure in being able to feature her home town's specialty shops and resources on Trading Spaces. "I love Philadelphia," she told Bonett. "I feel this is my home, my roots, so I feel that I'm taking everyone who has supported me through the years with me." She also thrives on the pressure involved in her craft. "I like the excitement that comes when you are under deadline," she told a writer for S2S Magazine. "And then to stand back [and see] a room that is aesthetically astounding; how wonderful is that when it looked like an absolute mess just a few months ago?"
Steave-Dickerson has also made significant contributions to social programs in the city. In 1997 she established WEK House, a rehab facility in West Philadelphia for men recovering from drug and alcohol abuse or spousal abuse. WEK House receives referrals from local hospitals, and teaches basic life skills to residents to prepare them to reenter mainstream society. Steave-Dickerson hopes to open a similar facility for women. The designer also worked on a Bright Spaces children's room at the Travelers Aid Family Shelter at the Blackwell Human Services Campus in the city. In a press release announcing the Bright Spaces opening, she emphasized her belief that children and adolescents deserve attractive and safe places in which to play and relax after school, adding that she was pleased to be able to serve the neighborhood where she grew up and started her business.
In 1998 and 2003, Steave-Dickerson received honors for entrepreneurship from the minority business community in Philadelphia. The design industry is a particularly demanding one, K.I.A.'s business manager and legal counsel Glenda Gracia noted to Bonett, adding that Steave-Dickerson "continues to meet the standard and raise the bar. Her requirement of herself: Be all that you can be and be the best at that!"
At a Glance …
Born in 1970 in Philadelphia, PA. Education: Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science (now Philadelphia University), BA.
Career: Set decorator and assistant prop master for films and television commercials; K.I.A. Enterprises, Inc., (interior design company), founder, 1994–; Trading Spaces, designer, 2002–.
Addresses: Office—K.I.A. Enterprises, Inc., 4601 Market St., Philadelphia, PA 19139.
Philadelphia Business Journal, January 22, 2004.
Philadelphia Inquirer, October 16, 1998, p. E1.
"Trading Spaces Star Opens Bright Spaces," Bright Horizons, www.brighthorizons.com/foundation (March 1, 2004; accessed January 20, 2006).
"Trading Spaces: Meet the Crew: Kia Steave-Dickerson," TLC Discovery Channel, http://tlc.discovery.com (January 18, 2006).
"Who Does She Think She Is? She's Kia Steave-Dickerson," S2S Magazine, www.s2smagazine.com (September 2004; accessed January 20, 2006).
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