before and afterInteriors

Before & After: A Charitable Renovation for The Ali Forney Center in NYC

by Kelli Kehler

For LGBTQ youth, homelessness is often a common place many find themselves in as they’re misunderstood or cast away by family, lacking support and empathy from society, and so many more waves of adversity. Founded in 2002 in memory of Ali Forney, a gender nonconforming teen who was murdered in Harlem, The Ali Forney Center in New York City works around the clock to provide a safe haven for LGBTQ youth. “The Ali Forney Center is the largest and most comprehensive organization dedicated to housing homeless LGBTQ youth,” says AFC Founder and Executive Director Carl Siciliano. “Nearly 40% of the homeless youth population is LGBTQ. Homeless LGBTQ youth are eight times more likely to experience violence, discrimination and suicide. AFC houses 124 youths each night, and provides services to over 1,400 homeless young people per year.”

A place that sees ample foot traffic and provides a welcoming atmosphere to struggling teens can become well-worn with time, and one of AFC’s living spaces was in desperate need of some love. The communal room was dark and poorly lit, the flooring was in bad shape, the room lacked proper storage, the furniture wasn’t conducive to gathering, and the residents didn’t even use the space. Interior designer Sean Carlson Perry, feeling a deep connection to the center, set out to gift AFC with a complete renovation of their space.

“I grew up gay in Nebraska (you can imagine), and have gone through some hard times when I was younger, but I can’t imagine going through what these kids go through — rejection from family, rejection from society, being kicked out of their home for being who they are, having nowhere else to turn,” Sean shares. “Luckily there is the Ali Forney Center. I can relate to some of the challenges our LGBTQ youth go through. These projects for AFC are extra special to me and close to my heart. This is the second shelter space we have redesigned/renovated for AFC.”

Sean’s own experiences — particularly a very trying year in his life — led him to launch Design Exchange in 2013, a not-for-profit design outreach wing of his interior design business that donates redesigned spaces, materials, and furnishings to under-served individuals, communities, and organizations in NYC.

“One’s sense of self is challenged through traumatic experiences, such as being homeless,” Sean says. “In addition, one’s surroundings directly affect our decisions, emotional responses and the way we feel about ourselves. These shelter spaces act as the foundation for rebuilding broken lives. By providing a comfortable, vibrant and welcoming environment, we improve their quality of life, their outlook and their self-esteem; increasing their chances of success. Design increases connection and community.”

To Sean, creating an empowering and safe space for AFC’s community meant painting the walls a crisp white, replacing fluorescent overheard lighting with varying tones of warm lighting through chic lamps, and switching out problematic flooring with energetic fuchsia carpet tiles donated by FLOR. Sean also played with symmetry to foster a cozy layout that’s more functional for gathering while expertly layering in brass and gold accessories, textiles in deep blues, green plants, and warm walnut and black metal tones, resulting in a calming visual harmony.

The result is a space that’s not only beautiful, but usable and welcoming to residents. Sean tells us, “When we revamp a shelter space, history tells us that the residents spend more time in the space, more time with their peers, building connections and community; a greater sense of home.” —Kelli

Photography by Aaron Thompson / @aaronthompsonphoto

How to help: For ways to support the Ali Forney Center, click here. To help Design Exchange with a future gifted renovation project, click here.

Image above: “There are certain parameters when designing for a shelter/high-traffic space,” Sean says. “Of course we want it to increase sense of community, and be gorgeous and cohesive, but if we want these spaces to remain beautiful we have to consider wear and tear — product longevity (durability) and ease of cleaning, all while building the scheme.”


Before, the shelter’s living space had dark wood paneling that made the room feel dark. The furniture’s layout was plagued by a tricky step up in the floor into the TV area.


By painting the wood paneling and trim white, they become a stunning architectural element in the room while making the entire space feel larger and taller. As for the awkward floor step, Sean tells us, “I realized the odd step located near the center of the space presented the biggest challenge; in order to maximize the space usage and get all the items we needed in the space, I quickly realized that our sofa was going to have to be placed over this step up to get the full mileage out of the space.”


“Environments with ambient light sources sprinkled about are much more calming and comfortable than environments with fewer light sources above,” Sean notes. “With this new lighting system, the staff and residents are able to adjust the color temperature and dim the lighting throughout the space.  Lighting and color temperature play a large role in our experience of space and time.”


White paint takes these heavy black windows and radiator and softens them, making them less noticeable. Sean placed the couch right in front of the TV area’s tricky step up and utilized custom sofa legs from Flint Alley Furniture to accommodate the additional step vertically (genius!).


Before, the windows were a dark and dreary feature in the space. The curtains actually work against the design here, as they highlight the ceiling’s height, making it feel low.


Sean tells us, “Our new flooring had to be lively and include a variety of secondary colors to pull from for pillows and accessories. The FLOR Remembrance in fuchsia was the perfect dose of color the space needed; we utilized a dark color border in the room and did a wall-to-wall installation (the dark border makes the fuchsia insert read more like a rug). We partner with FLOR on these projects (their carpet tiles are turbo — easy to clean and hold up great). We also try to stay away from porous woods.”


From cramped and uninspiring to light, bright and functional.


Before, heavy furniture and dark wood trim made the tight space feel weighed down and cramped.


The power of paint: unifying the wall, trim and ceiling in the same color makes the room feel more expansive and less busy. For the work table behind the couch, Sean combined a walnut countertop and custom legs from Five Star Designs LLC. Now residents of the AFC have a place to work at a laptop or study.


“The plants play a huge role in bringing life to the space,” Sean says. “Every space needs its essential greens!”


Sean admits that he is proud of every aspect in this transformed space: “Each element contributes to the whole, I love the finishes and accessories we arrived on. I think the balance/sprinkling of fuchsia, deep blues, black metals, gold, walnut, greens ended up being perfect.”


Before, this area was unused and not at all functional.


The fuchsia carpet tiles with their hints of blue provided Sean a jumping-off point to incorporate deep blue tones into his design through textiles. Crisp white and glam gold accessories provide a satisfying contrast against the lively carpet, making the whole space feel special and inspiring.


“From the beginning I knew I wanted to flank/play off of the wood paneled wall with shelves and floor lamps to create a moment,” Sean shares. “Bilateral symmetry creates order and adds an element of feature; a starting point for your eye to travel the space. Just as we need balance in space, we need difference. Spaces that are perfectly balanced often feel ‘hands off.’ By offsetting the symmetry with difference, we make the space feel cozier, more welcoming and more livable.”


Sean’s smart navigation of spatial layout troubleshooting perhaps stems from a childhood spent modifying the blueprints of his great grandfather, an architect. As a kid he was enamored by watercolor, sculpture and graphic arts, and eventually studied design and architecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. These facets of his career aptly informed the AFC space, a project with a challenging layout in need of color, interest and visual harmony.


Sean’s not-for-profit arm of his business, Design Exchange, is on the lookout for help with future gifted renovations. Of his mission to donate revitalized design to NYC’s under-served, he tells us, “2013 was the year from hell, I experienced some major health issues, the firm I was with laid off half its staff — I was laid off, and I went through some real financial challenges. I came to the realization that the industry I was in felt soulless, and somewhat out of sync with my views/approach. For me, design is about the experience of space, it’s not about what name is on the label, square footage, or address. It’s about how [a space] makes us feel. I realized I wanted to utilize my talent, passion and skills to help others who are struggling [and] in a place of immediate need. Design for well-being at a fundamental level.”


Rugs – donated by FLOR, Remembrance in Fuchsia and Made You Look in Dark Brown
Bookshelves – donated by Room & Board
Custom sofa legs – Flint Alley Furniture
Table – walnut countertop, custom legs by Five Star Designs LLC
Chairs – m.a.d. Furniture Designs
Lamps and decorative objects – donated by Allmodern
Paint – services donated at a 50% discount by Paintzen
Pillows & throws – West Elm here, here and here

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  • What a beautiful transformation! I am so happy to see charitable projects like this features here — such an excellent use of design to improve the lives of young people.

    Just reached out to Design Exchange to see if they need materials for their next project, I hope other designers and manufacturers will do the same.

  • What a great space! These young adults really deserve a beautiful space, and this one looks like it will be comfortable for them to take ownership of. It seems like this design will contribute to them feeling safe and respected at the AFC.

  • So beautiful!! And such an important and meaningful project! Thanks for sharing!

  • Lovely space. Quite literally night and day. I just cannot help feeling intense anger at parents who abandon their own children.

  • My heart is beating at a super fast rate – What a beautiful, calm, warm, inviting and thoughtfully, carefully and lovingly created space this has become. My heart also goes out to first of all to Sean and all those young people who suffer the neglect of family and society. Sean and ‘donators’; thank you for providing your knowledge, material, advice and help – you are all wonderful.

  • This is such important work! The transformation leaves me speechless. Sean is a natural in the design world and Design Exchange has done some wonderful projects for those in need in his community. Keep up the great work!

  • I love that all this amazing charitable renovation is for the Ali Forney Center! I’m so happy on the outcome. Yes, I’m talking about that cool after-renovation photos. Those are waaaay too fab, right? From the new wall paints to the new fixtures, everything is just perfect! They’ve done a very good job!