Fourm Design Studio: Fueled by a passion for peace, a small firm tackles incarceration with design

caption for the image 2

Image: Fourm Design Studio

 returned to Oakland after six-plus years of working abroad, she struggled to find meaning not only in her own work, but within the broader architectural profession. An entrepreneurial, innovative spirit, Van Buren chose not to settle; instead, she tapped into her passions, articulated a mission, and got to work. Fourm Design Studio was founded on the principle that everyone deserves thoughtfully designed environments that nourish and sustain their lives. And Van Buren means everyone, from those experiencing a virtual space to those incarcerated in the vast U.S. prison network.

Van Buren has broken down her approach into three personas: the Advocate, the Artist, and the Avatar. While each has overlapping qualities with the others, the Advocate is largely where Van Buren’s heart lies, especially in researching, teaching about, speaking on, and designing for “restorative justice.” The Artist is largely relegated to the design of gallery and commercial spaces, while the Avatar shows up in the design of virtual reality spaces.Although Van Buren’s hybrid model is still a work in progress, engaging all the personas throughout the creative and business process will help establish a sustainable practice.



As an innovative approach within the U.S.’s current adversarial trial and sentencing system, restorative justice embraces the potential to repair the victim’s, and possibly the perpetrator’s, troubles through facilitated discussions with all parties involved in a crime and possibly leading to alternative to incarceration punishments. Drawn to this practice because of its humble, empathetic approach, Van Buren began wondering what she,as a designer, could contribute. It turned out there were those working in restorative justice who believed that the physical spaces of criminal justice mattered very deeply, from courtrooms to prison cells. Van Buren eventually found sociologist Barb Toews, an adjunct professor at Bryn Mawr College who researches and teaches about social justice, and the two began a journey to create and implement a toolkit and curriculum for designers to work with the incarcerated prison population, that would explore the intersection between restorative justice and design. This is the first attempt in an iterative process that the team has tested for reenvisioning the spaces of incarceration in the US criminal justice system.Van Buren and Toews’ mission embraces three aspects. First, it materializes in the design of spaces for restorative justice conversations.It also builds creative healing power within incarcerated prisoners by facilitating design workshops for the prisoners to rethink the spaces involved in the sentencing process such as courtrooms, holding spaces, and prisons themselves. Finally, it is transmitted through tireless outreach and advocacy for design and its potential as a tool for social change.

In support of the Advocate, Van Buren has adopted the mantra “it’s about what you say yes to.” So when a video game developer approached her about collaboration, Van Buren said yes. In collaboration with landscape architects Fletchers Studios, Van Buren is one of the first architectural designers to master plan a videogame environment and finds deep meaning in designing these virtual spaces. “When people are in the game, they’re actually going to be in a beautifully designed environment,” said Van Buren. “They might start to question what their physical world looks like. Can we start to influence visual literacy through the video game industry and raise our consciousness about design?”


With virtual spaces and altruistically delivered justice design under their belt, why shouldn’t Fourm engage more traditional clients as well? Although these don’t pay nearly as well as the video garme industry, Fourm designers – Van Buren with one assistant – also express themselves by designing captivating spaces to increase foot traffic for art venues and clients who believe in design.To establish a small business, a person must be willing to do everything.Proof of concept is necessary before scaling up a mission-based practice,which unfortunately means that support from the architectural profession will be lacking, since much professional development is tailored to larger firms. Gaining a basic proficiency in business processes and budgeting, contracting, and client management tools is a requirement for staying afloat,and something Van Buren has done well.She brings to Fourm years of diverse experience, from designing furniture and small residences to working as a associate design director on mediumand large-scale mixed-use development projects in China, Australia, and Malaysia. “Working in a corporate setting taught me professionalism, how to take care of your clients and the importance of research for innovation,”said Van Buren. The combination of these experiences allows her to take on projects at any scale in support of Fourm’s mission-based efforts.Currently, the firm’s work is a 50:50 split for public interest efforts and forprofit work, although Van Buren would prefer a 60:40 split. Profits from virtual and commercial design projects are reinvested to subsidize restorative justice workshops and research, but it’s not enough; Fourm still relies on grants and partnerships. Although the firm is building social capital, it remains difficult to unlock philanthropic funding because Fourm is a for-profit company. Fourm is researching alternative company tax structures like low-profit limited liability companies (LC3s) and funding sources such as social impact bonds from the public sector, but the firm is committed to remaining a for-profit venture. Van Buren believes that mission-based work should be compensated accordingly. “We need to figure out how can we sell the things we’re making,” she said. “I’m interested in doing well.” But before Van Buren can think about scaling up her firm, she needs to show that design can positively impact the success of restorative justice practices. Fourm is developing metrics to prove the success of its process. Once this evidenced-based design research can be demonstrated and restorative justice programs are adopted more commonly, Fourm and its partners will be able to make the case for more tax dollars to be allocated toward these efforts. The goal is to have this kind of work fully funded through tax dollars, in the end diverting money from the design and construction of prisons and other criminal justice infrastructure to facilities that support restorative justice and the reentry of prisoners into society.


Partnering for Success

Bringing the right people to the table can make or break a project. It’s important for Fourm to gather talented researchers, partners who understand the specific culture and politics of a place and a client that believes deeply in the work. The client can be a nonprofit, community group,or county or city government. Like many firms, Van Buren will also bring on a local architect of record for out of state projects. While it is important to note that although Fourm was established without a licensed architect, Van Buren believes the sustainability and growth of its efforts would benefit from having a licensed in-house architect, and is therefore currently working to complete her licensure. Van Buren understands the power of being in the room: she attends city council meetings and holds workshops with police departments, restorative justice practitioners, and city officials to plant the early seeds of change.


Taking a risk

Advocating the power of design and its application in new and unexpected places will help diversify the architectural profession and sustain its growth. Honing in on a singular mission, as Fourm has done, will lead to the development of specific metrics that measure impact, and ultimately demonstrate how design, as a process, directly relates to, and can benefit many other professions and processes within our culture. There are
numerous ways for humanitarian designers to focus their efforts, and plenty of room to avoid competition. New methods can be scrappy at the beginning. So what if it fails? As Van Buren put it “What’s the worst that can happen? I go live in my mom’s basement for a bit.” According to Van Buren, architects often “come in at the end of bad policy, and we try to keep up with them, then we realize that we’re running around after something that’s not working so well. That’s bad news.” Fiercely challenging this status quo, Van Buren believes that in the case of restorative justice, “the real challenge becomes: How do we design for peace?” In developing a sustainable mission-based practice, Fourm Design Studio is looking to answer this very question.