At the Ali Forney Center, a New Project With MoMA Celebrates Team Effort

How do you build a sense of belonging?” That, in the words of architectural designer Tei Carpenter, was the prompt for her and Chris Woebken’s collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art. Launched on behalf of the Ali Forney Center—the largest provider of shelter for unhoused LGBTQ+ youth—the project was more of an inquiry than an assignment. “We began with value-storming exercises,” says Woebken, an interactive designer and researcher focusing on participatory futures, recalling workshops with AFC clients and staff. Conversations on identity affirmation and safety led to design sessions as ideas took hold. Notes Carpenter, principal of the firm Agency—Agency, “it could have become so many things.”

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The Ali Forney Center’s new salon was designed according to participatory workshops with clients and staff.

Photo: Beatriz Meseguer

The results blend glamour, gusto, and social glue. At AFC’s Manhattan drop-in center, clients can now receive beauty and hair treatments in an immersive salon, tucked beyond a beaded curtain in what was once a windowless room. Thanks to collective input, its walls are lined in shelving like that at local wig shops, and its ceiling is covered in a grid of reflective 360-degree half domes (the kind used in security). And an LED ticker relays uplifting messages (e.g., gurl i look lavish) generated by clients themselves.

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AFC’s new sensory room.

Photo: On White Wall, Inc./© 2024 The Museum of Modern Art

Whereas the salon gives AFC clients the opportunity to glow up, the new sensory space is a chance to calm down. Weighted blankets quiet autonomic nervous responses; a library of objects and layers of curtains afford varied tactile experiences; and inflatable cushions ease the body. All the while, light and sound levels can be adjusted according to preferences. “How one person relaxes can be so different than how another person does,” Carpenter explains, noting the considerations paid to the needs of neurodivergent individuals.

As Alexander Roque, AFC’s president and executive director, explains, the collaboration with longtime partner MoMA both “allowed for a creative outlet and provided much needed self-care, be it in body or spirit.” These days, in a testament to that success, AFC clients feel right at home in the two spaces. “Right after they opened, both were in heavy use,” recalls Woebken. “They’re already messy—just as they’re supposed to be.”

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