Designing for a Cause

By Layla Dhere

Originally published on Advocate.com July 14 2009 12:00 AM ET

Acclaimed interior designer David Phoenix attributes his success to the man who mentored him as a teen.

"He took me under his wing after I ran away from home, and I attribute a lot of my success to him," Phoenix says. "I think everyone needs a role model, and that's how I've tried to live my life."

Accustomed to designing interiors for the rich and famous, Phoenix now has a very different project on his hands -- designing an after-school space for the LGBT youth mentoring program LifeWorks.

Phoenix was introduced to the Los Angeles nonprofit in 2006 through a close friend, LifeWorks board president Chip Sullivan. While previously unfamiliar with the program, Phoenix immediately got intensely involved after cochairing an event for the center.

"Once I got into it and saw some of the mentees, it was a no-brainer for me."

LifeWorks was started in 2002 by Garrison Smith and Michael Ferrera, who met while working for the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. They believe in helping LGBT teens in five areas of their development: home, health, education, career, and personal development. It's one of a a few gay and lesbian centers specifically for LGBT youths, which Phoenix says is what makes the program significant.

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The influence of mentors has proved to be paramount in the realm of personal development. Phoenix stresses the importance of mentors for LGBT youths, especially the estimated 3,000 homeless LGBT teens in Los Angeles. "I think it's great to have a place to hang out after school -- from 6 o'clock to 9 o'clock. You can get off the streets, and I think by reducing people on the streets, we'll be able to keep them out of trouble."

Studies have shown that one in three teens seriously contemplates suicide, and gay and lesbian teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide -- nine times more likely if they come from nonaccepting homes. LifeWorks offers a place for gay and lesbian teens to feel accepted and get positive reinforcement from mentors. "When I was growing up, there were very few people who were out who were role models, and I think that whether you're gay or straight, you need a positive role model," Phoenix says.

Phoenix has been lauded for his simple, modern aesthetic of "California elegance." He intends to utilize his signature style while designing the LifeWorks space, but he also stresses the importance of functionality.

"It's going to get a lot of use, so I want it to be rather forgiving," he says.

As for the budget differences between his usual work -- high end residential spaces -- and a nonprofit with a scant budget, Phoenix remains optimistic.

"I'm having to be creative and call in a lot of favors," he says. "I've had a lot of people reaching out and wanting to be involved when I approach them. We've been rather successful so far. I think that even if you don't have a large budget, there's no reason why it shouldn't look good."

The space will include a large seating area, a computer area, a TV nook, a kitchenette, an office area, and a game room.