Mac Collins explores identity and empowerment through design

Part of Wallpaper’s Future Icons series, Mac Collins tells us about his design work, and inspiring the next generation

Mac Collins portrait and Iklwa chair
(Image credit: Courtesy Mac Collins)

‘I’m still flying that flag,’ says designer Mac Collins when I ask him if his studio will remain outside the bubble of London. Currently based in Newcastle where he graduated from Northumbria University, Collins grew up in Nottingham, and he’s been championing the creative energy in these cities ever since he flew onto the scene.

A day prior to our chat, Collins had been teaching 10-year-old students how to build chairs out of wood. ‘They did quite a good job,’ he tells me. The school had a majority of ethnic minority students, and he hopes projects like these will allow younger people to understand the employment opportunities in furniture design as an industry, ‘it plants a seed,’ Collins says. 

Mac Collins: community, identity and radical representation

Mac Collins Iklwa Chair by Benchmark

Iklwa’ large chair, £2,995, by Mac Collins, for Benchmark Furniture

(Image credit: Neil Godwin at Future Studios for Wallpaper*)

Community and identity are central to Collin's studio. Back when he graduated in 2018, the Iklwa chair was showcased at the graduate show, New Designers. Since then the design has developed its own legacy. ‘Iklwa is a throne to inspire empowerment in the face of oppression,’ reads Collin’s Instagram caption in 2018. ‘This was the first opportunity for me to fully explore identity in the work,’ Collins explains of how he thinks of Iklwa in hindsight. Until then, he had only written about the roles and responsibilities of Black artists, but this time, he was exploring it through making. The chair’s Afrofuturistic design alludes to socially critical issues, referencing the Windrush era and civil rights movements. ‘I wanted to create something that would elevate whoever was sitting in it,’ he says.

Mac Collins Vaarnii bowls

(Image credit: Courtesy Vaarnii)

When Benchmark started manufacturing Iklwa, they didn’t change its character – only the colours and narrative have evolved. At Harewood Biennale in 2021, it arrived in a pink hue, titled ‘Thaneray (Tenroy)’ and set on a plinth looking out the window. The intervention was a way for visitors to contemplate the complicated history of Harewood House, being built on money garnered from slavery. Collins delved deeper into this with ‘Open Code’, a wooden games table with sand cast aluminium dominoes which urged the audience to address the historical link between Harewood House and the West Indian sugar trade – an act of radical corrective representation.

Mac Collins games table and stools

‘Open Code’ wooden games table

(Image credit: Mac Collins)

‘It’s an intimate space,’ Collins describes of his studio where he holds awards like the Design Museum’s Ralph Saltzman Prize, and the 2021 London Design Emerging Medal. Aside from working with furniture brands like Vaarnii and Benchmark, his works have been shown with galleries like The New Craftsmen and Stems Gallery, fine art being an avenue Collins wants to explore further.

Mac Collins wooden chair

The Concur chair, created for Discovered, a project by Wallpaper* and AHEC shown at the Design Museum in September 2021

(Image credit: Jason Yates)

For Collins, building a strong dynamic studio is the goal. He’s already achieving this through experimenting with new materials, like cast aluminium and ‘upholstery which is new territory, and definitely an important step.’ Maintaining an output of installations, products and sculpture is key to ensuring his messages reach diverse audiences. In the background, he has been balancing between designing and making, but wants to create work that can be ‘experienced outside of the gallery environment too.’

Mac Collins Jupiter chair

(Image credit: Courtesy Mac Collins)

It’s evident that Collins is cultivating a new generation in design. ‘I think the industry will be so much more interesting with people that wouldn't ordinarily have been exposed to this kind of world.’ Is the Mac Collins institute or educational residency on the horizon in years to come? ‘That’s the ultimate dream, I think we’re a little while away from that yet.’ Watch this space.

A version of this story appears in January 2023 Wallpaper*, The Future Issue, available now in print, on the Wallpaper* app on Apple iOS, and to subscribers of Apple News +. Subscribe to Wallpaper* today

Sujata Burman is a writer and editor based in London, specialising in design and culture. She was Digital Design Editor at Wallpaper* before moving to her current role of Head of Content at London Design Festival and London Design Biennale where she is expanding the content offering of the showcases. Over the past decade, Sujata has written for global design and culture publications, and has been a speaker, moderator and judge for institutions and brands including RIBA, D&AD, Design Museum and Design Miami/. In 2019, she co-authored her first book, An Opinionated Guide to London Architecture, published by Hoxton Mini Press, which was driven by her aim to make the fields of design and architecture accessible to wider audiences.