Connecting with indigenous art

Cahokia is Arizona’s first Indigenous women-owned art gallery, the nation’s first Indigenous women-led art and SocialTech space and newest physical art gallery in Roosevelt Row. Located on the ground floor of The Link, a thirty-story multi-family mixed-use development design completed by Shepley Bulfinch in 2019, the 3,000-sf open concept, flexible space was designed for Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation, intended for artists, workshops, and co-working spaces. Serendipitously, Nicholl Hubbell reached out to Cahokia over the summer of 2021 to get involved with the group by highlighting interior design as a career option for native youth as part of Cahokia’s outreach efforts.

The connection resulted in Shepley Bulfinch partnering with Cahokia to design a pivotal space for celebrating past and present Indigenous communities.


Designing a community space

Established by co-founders and partners Eunique Yazzie of the Navajo Nation and Melody Lewis, who is Hopi, Tewa and Mojave, Cahokia was inspired by an Indigenous urban city in pre-colonized times. It is an Indigenous-led platform for creative place keeping, a space for indigenous people to gather, share, and form a community in a central location.

Cahokia’s community mission intrigued Nicholl Hubbell who had been curious about how to connect her native roots to her interior design work. Growing up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, there was not much exposure to design as a career path, despite design being so integral to her culture. As her curiosity towards the industry grew, so too did her desire to see how design can give a voice to historically underrepresented communities.

When Nicholl connected with Cahokia to get involved, an opportunity arose to design the space for Cahokia’s grand opening on Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Continuing their work at The Link, Shepley Bulfinch quickly put together a team. Alison Rainey, principal in charge, Connie Jiang, project manager, and Nicholl Hubbell, interior designer developed a phased approach to design, focusing on the space plan, retail area, and gallery. The plan included a flexible co-working space that also serves as a gallery, complemented by pop-up retail and lounge areas.

Mixed-Use Development Design

Cahokia shared a vision board they developed with the design team–a curation of images seaming together their inspiration for their space. It was a strong representation of southwest design with colors derived from the local Salt River and desert landscape surrounding the river–terracotta and cognac from the mountains at sunset, blue from the flowing river, green from the cactus and native trees along the sides of the river. The desert colors were grounded with neutrals, applied textures of indigenous baskets and beadwork and geometric patterns. It laid a wonderful foundation for the design response.

The Shepley Bulfinch team developed a retail approach including elements that are movable, transitional, and multipurpose, to create wall surface, space, and separation. The original fit-out design included exposed concrete flooring, natural birch plywood, and open cell masonry, which became the background for retail components. White out renderings were used to focus on concepts and layouts, before worrying about materiality or color. The retail kit of parts included: movable walls, mountable/demountable pegboard, pegs, shelves, and baskets. The team also provided an itemized list of furniture for purchase at various price points for their lounge area. Some of the furnishings were acquired through Goodmans, a local furniture dealer, utilizing their AIM to Make a Difference Program serving qualifying non-profit businesses. Ahead of the grand opening, Nicholl went to Cahokia to assist with the installation and implementation of the design concepts.

The grand opening was a monumental celebration of swift design work to support years of planning and effort, as well as a renewed connection to the city of Phoenix for the Indigenous people of Arizona. For years forward, Cahokia will be an experiential space for community members to gather and build community.

The seven-week-long process from concept development to grand opening serves as a reminder of what can be achieved with passion, creativity, collaboration, and pursuing what is important to us. “It’s up to all of us to engage with our communities and make an impact,” Nicholl reflects. Cahokia is an amazing example of how we can make a difference and further our communities on any scale by continuing to share and honor our ancestors’ rich cultural impact.

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