Designer, maker and educator Norman Teague set up his design and build studio in Chicago in 2018. ‘Design should always satisfy a level of learning, human connection and interaction,’ he says when describing his practice, which focuses on connecting with local communities and specialises in spatial design, furniture fabrication, objects and custom millwork.

Norman Teague’s furniture designs

Sinmi rocking stools by Norman Teague
‘Sinmi’ stool. Photography: Joe Kramm, courtesy of R & Company

‘Design history needs to reinvent itself in a whole lot of ways,’ said Teague in a short film released in early 2021, coinciding with an exhibition of his furniture titled ‘From Lawn Road to South Chicago’, at New York gallery R & Company. ‘Your world is the history that you read about, and if you’re wrapping your head around the things that really say that you don’t belong here, then we have to create other books, or we have to create another world.’ 

The show presented Teague’s ‘Africana’ chairs and ‘Sinmi’ stool alongside historical plywood designs from Gerald Summers and Marcel Breuer. His furniture pieces, Teague explains, represent design ideals and the voices of craft from the African diaspora, often left out of the design conversation. While the chunky legs of ‘Africana’  are inspired by carved stools of the Lobi people of Burkina Faso, ‘Sinmi’ is based on Chicago city life, its rocking movement nodding to the act of chilling while leaning on a car or the backrest of a sofa. The ‘presence’ of these pieces’ forms, he explains, ‘speaks to the African diaspora, its steadfastness and resilience’.

Community-led initiatives

Back Alley Jazz 2018 in Chicago’s South Shore
Back Alley Jazz (2018) in Chicago’s South Shore. Photography: Marc Monaghan

Local initiatives are often more important to Teague than physical designs: ‘It’s important to me to collaborate with the “community”: youth, my neighbours, working with other craftsmen, artisans or small businesses to rise together,’ he points out. Back Alley Jazz comes to mind, a 2018 festival he curated in Chicago’s South Shore, paying tribute to the original jazz alley jams that took place in the area in the 1960s and 1970s, while involving the local community with one-day music events in the neighbourhood’s backyards.

‘Back Alley Jazz has just had its fourth annual event and has spread from one block to moving throughout the South Shore neighbourhood,’ explains Teague. ‘It really reintroduced the community to its own power; it gave them the autonomy to recreate historical community-wide events.’

3 Pilot to Permanent Design Incubator at Tilden High
Works from the design incubator at Tilden High. Photography: Norman Teague

Looking at youth in his community also inspired the Tilden Career Community Academy, an incubator programme introducing basic design fundamentals to high-school students in a predominantly African American/Latinx school district. Observing how this type of creative and manual work is not taught in schools anymore, and identifying it as a potential tool for independence and empowerment, Teague created a pathway from Tilden High School, on the South Side of Chicago, to universities that offer design programmes. ‘The future impact is a pipeline of Black design students and professionals working to influence design, urban planning and architecture across their communities,’ he notes.

‘In the truest sense, Brother Teague designs collaboratively, thinks strategically, and is committed to training Black and brown makers through innovative apprenticeship and guild-like studio practices’ – Theaster Gates

‘In the truest sense, Brother Teague designs collaboratively, thinks strategically, and is committed to training Black and brown makers through innovative apprenticeship and guild-like studio practices,’ says artist Theaster Gates, who tips Teague as one of 25 creative leaders of the future in Wallpaper’s 25th Anniversary Issue ‘5x5’ project. ‘Norman’s determination and design vocabulary continue to inspire me. I’m grateful to have this Chicago-based brother in my circle.’

Gates enlisted Teague as one of his collaborators for the project 12 Ballads for Huguenot House at Documenta, Kassel, in 2012. Involving a team of builders, artists and makers, including Teague, Gates took over an empty hotel building and restored it using materials from an abandoned South Side structure. 

There’s no denying the potential impact of Teague’s work on a new generation of Black makers and creators. ‘The stories that sometimes coincide with my work are not just stories of my own, but a community of people sharing stories,’ he says. ‘My advice to this generation of designers would be to always consider your craft as a conversation with humans.’ §