Going to the right schools, finding the right work placements and mixing in established circles is often key to success in the design industry. None of that applied to Tariq Dixon, the founder of the New York City-based Trnk, which launched as an online store for vintage furniture in 2013 before expanding to become a curatorial platform for international contemporary design. An extension of Dixon’s personal love of collecting objects, Trnk has become a stealth resource for the discerning, particularly since it launched its namesake furniture line in 2017.

Dixon, a former menswear buyer, considers himself as an industry outsider in more ways than one. ‘Design wasn’t my original career or education,’ he says. ‘We always apply a level of approachability. We like celebrating the ways in which objects inform memories and experiences, and the role environments play in our everyday lives.’

Developing the Trnk Collection

portrait of Tariq Dixon sitting on a white chair
Tariq Dixon, seated on ‘Toma’ lounge chair in boucle, $2,995,  from ‘Fawohodie’ collection by Studio Anansi for Trnk

It’s through this practical lens that he formed the inaugural Trnk Collection, predominantly consisting of seating. ‘The original impetus was problem-solving; trying to find a sofa that suited the needs of the urban customer. But it was also about American-made quality and craftsmanship within a certain price point. We just couldn’t find it anywhere,’ recalls Dixon. 

The collection quickly grew to encompass a well-rounded assortment of tables, rugs and sectionals, made with producers from around the globe. Its latest iteration champions the work of emerging designers, and notably creatives of colour – Studio Anansi, Michael K Chen and Farrah Sit, who all entered Dixon’s orbit in different ways. Fuelled by shared perspectives and identities, Trnk’s new collaborative collection proves there is much to gain from expanding the visual narrative.

furniture in neutral colours
From left: ‘Prism’ bookshelf, $3,995; ‘Abla’ dining chair, $1,495, both from ‘Fawohodie’ collection by Studio Anansi for Trnk. ‘Lozi’ vessel, $1,450, by Studio Anansi

The motivation to amplify unconventional voices sprang out of Dixon’s need to reconcile his work with his personal passions. Since the start of the Covid pandemic, he has put solitude and introspection to good use, fulfilling his ambitions of staging an exhibition series (albeit now virtually) to echo the cultural zeitgeist. Memorable moments include 2020’s ‘Provenanced’, celebrating African and Indigenous contributions to Western visual language and design culture, and 2021’s ‘Chosen’ portraiture series, featuring queer photographers of colour.

‘I’m constantly interrogating how to represent our personal lived experiences, while being mindful of the ways in which our identities are inherently politicised as queer people of colour,’ shares Dixon, who is of Black and Korean descent. ‘These are questions we aren’t able to avoid or escape. At one point, it felt essential to integrate this into the business.’

Creative collaborations: Studio Anansi, Michael K Chen and Farrah Sit

Designer Evan Jerry sitting on brown sofa by Studio Anansi
Evan Jerry of Studio Anansi, seated on ‘Bambara’ sofa, 94in, in cotton velvet, $4,495, from ‘Fawohodie’ collection by Studio Anansi for Trnk

Trnk’s collaboration with artist and designer Evan Jerry of Studio Anansi is a direct result of these efforts. The two creatives connected when Jerry got in touch after seeing ‘Provenanced’. ‘The show reflected the direction that I was going with my studio and practice, so it was just so refreshing to see someone exploring those avenues as well in such a high, conceptual way,’ says Jerry, who’s based in Nova Scotia, Canada. 

The Studio Anansi collection, which launches at Trnk’s new Tribeca showroom this week and online later this month, articulates a Black aesthetic in its oblique, sculptural forms. Inspired by African architecture during the late 1950s and early 1960s, when many countries were gaining independence from colonial rule, Jerry incorporates modernist forms in his furniture as symbols of liberation. ‘What I found really interesting is all the beauty and chaos, and contradiction, turmoil and even trauma that was actually in these architectural forms as these countries looked for freedom. These contrasts mirrored the political turmoil we [were experiencing] with the murder of George Floyd, and I thought it was a beautiful representation of what it looks like after some sort of oppression. I love that this collection shows that tension.’

Designer Michael K Chen sitting on a chair
Michael K Chen seated on ‘Angle II’ armless dining chair, $2,295 by Trnk Collection. The rug, by Trnk x MKCA, is launching in September 2022

In contrast, Michael K Chen’s collection is intentionally reference-free. The architect’s designs, which include a rug, a modular sofa and chairs that build on an earlier custom daybed design, experiment with the notion of melting away the traditional boundaries that delineate living, working and resting spaces. ‘The rug is absent of any particular orientation and we designed it to make endless, varied landscapes of the furniture,’ says Chen, who met Dixon through purchasing Trnk pieces for an interiors project. ‘As designers, our studio doesn’t subscribe to a particular aesthetic style or idiom, but we are both fascinated by and suspicious of historical aesthetics. Many of them are white and exclusionary in nature, and so we are consciously trying to coax out new visual traditions.’ 

portrait of designer Farrah Sit
Farrah Sit with a coffee table and side table she designed for Trnk, launching in September 2022

Among the three designers who have contributed to the new collection, Farrah Sit has the deepest connection to Dixon. Having befriended Sit more than ten years ago, Dixon says her ability to challenge and merge aspects of femininity and masculinity in her form-driven work reflects ‘her vantage point as being a female designer in still a pretty male-dominated industry’.

Her first designs for Trnk – a coffee table and a side table – build on a lighting collection she developed at the beginning of the pandemic. ‘I was interested in creating monolithic forms that can be stately without being stylised. There is no femininity or masculinity, there’s just this swirling oneness,’ Sit explains. ‘I was interested in representing that in a visual, three-dimensional form and really creating movement within a very weighty, traditionally masculine volume. To merge these two opposing visual languages and show how they might be in harmony.’ Sit’s collection and Chen’s are set to launch later this year.

furniture in neutral colours
From left: ‘Toma’ lounge chair in boucle, $2,995; ‘Kyaman’ side table, $3,895; ‘Bambara’ sofa, 94in, in cotton velvet, $4,495; ‘Kyaman’ coffee table, $4,995, all from ‘Fawohodie’ collection by Studio Anansi for Trnk. ‘Lozi’ vessel, $1,750, by Studio Anansi

Standing together, Trnk’s new pieces mark a new peak in American design, where different points of view are not only validated, but celebrated. ‘I don’t necessarily think it’s because [the designers] are people of colour that I fell in love with the work. Maybe it’s that I see them and recognise them more readily. It’s also based on the community that we’ve built for the company and I’ve personally built for myself,’ Dixon says, adding that future partnerships will not be limited to designers of colour. 

‘What will be consistent is that we want to grow up with this community and evolve together. We will continue to support young, emerging talent, find more undiscovered and under-celebrated voices, and inspire each other in the process.’ §