Creative polymath Virgil Abloh on flexing his design muscle, and furniture against climate change
PHOTOGRAPHY: MARVIN LEUVREY WRITER: ALICE RAWSTHORN
On the Pont Neuf in Paris, Virgil Abloh airs his Mies Van Der Rohe-inspired metal mesh ‘Color Gradient Chair’, 2018, part of an ongoing furniture project
Whenever an unusually high tide in the northern Adriatic Sea coincides with strong summer winds in the Venetian Lagoon, sirens blare across Venice, followed by a series of whistles. This is a warning that the city is at risk of being flooded by the perilously high water, known as acqua alta.
Virgil Abloh, an energetic polymath but best known as the founder of the fashion brand Off-White and as artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection, is fascinated by acqua alta, and the monitoring, warning and clean-up systems designed to deal with it. And it has served as the inspiration for the furniture he has devised for ‘Dysfunctional’, a show presented by Carpenters Workshop Gallery in partnership with Lombard Odier in Ca’ d’Oro during this summer’s Venice Biennale.
‘Whenever I’m presented with a design project, the first thing I relate to is the context,’ says Abloh. ‘What makes Venice alluring is, obviously, the landscape, which is almost surreal in nature, and faces the reality of periodic flooding. What we see in the exhibition are objects above the surface of the water, but it’s the layer below I find most interesting because it has been reclaimed by the sea, and we can’t get it back.’
The chairs, benches and floor lamp in the Acqua Alta collection stand at topsy-turvy angles as if they may be submerged by rising flood water at any moment. ‘That’s the message of the work,’ Abloh explains. ‘This land is not our land. We’re part of an ecosystem. With growing concerns about climate change, design is a powerful vehicle to explain that message to a broader public. Anyone can understand a chair.’
Abloh’s ‘Sinking Chair’ in production
‘Sinking Bench’ and ‘Sinking Chair’
Abloh with the ‘Color Gradient Chair’, 2018
Sending messages and exploring narratives is the defining theme of Abloh’s multiplicitous projects. His current workload includes designing fashion, trainers for Nike, and furniture for Ikea; DJing; collaborating with the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami; teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Design; tending to 3.8 million-plus Instagram followers; and preparing for an exhibition of his work that opens in June at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. ‘The ultimate project is always to make the narrative and the connection,’ Abloh states. ‘It’s not just to sell a chair in Venice or at Ikea.’
Abloh is anything but a dabbler in furniture design. It has been part of his practice since the start and seems set to become increasingly important in the future. Yet his success in fashion has tended to obscure his interest in furniture. So has the oft-told back story of his ascent to style-icon status as the son of Ghanaian immigrants in Chicago, who became a teen skater and tagger, before studying architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and teaming up with Kanye West while they interned together at Fendi.
‘Design is a powerful vehicle to explain climate change. Anyone can understand a chair’
Abloh studied furniture design as part of both his civil engineering course at the University of Wisconsin and his architecture master’s at IIT, where he also experimented with woodworking. Examples of his early furniture will be included in the MCA Chicago show. ‘I’m an engineer first,’ he says. ‘I make things and make them structurally sound. Furniture is more my training than fashion. But I don’t subscribe to any one genre of creative outlet. I think that’s limiting. One genre feeds off the other. That’s where the inspiration comes.’
His eclecticism is one reason Carpenters Workshop invited him to participate in the Venice show, which ‘invites visitors to rethink the boundaries between art and design’, says Loic Le Gaillard, the gallery’s co-founder. Typically of Abloh, Acqua Alta, developed with his design agent, Aurélie Julien, refers explicitly to his past work. The chair is strikingly similar in form to the wooden slatted piece he unveiled last year as a teaser for the Markerad furniture range he is designing for Ikea. The Acqua Alta chair is made from bronze, not wood, and is priced accordingly. Other designers have deployed similar strategies by remaking mass-produced objects in expensive materials for limited editions. Abloh seems unconcerned about treading a well-worn path or by the claim of Diet Prada, the copyist-chasing Instagram account, that his Ikea chair is similar to a 1950s piece by US designer Paul McCobb. ‘I’m interested in how everyday objects are read by the world at large,’ Abloh says. ‘I spend less time focusing on what has been done in the past and am more concerned about educating a future generation on design.’
To be shown in Venice, Abloh’s Aqua Alta collection for Carpenters Workshop Gallery includes a floor lamp, polished in bronze
Each piece features an edition tag
Detail view of Abloh's floor lamp
The launch of the full Ikea collection in November, together with other furniture projects he is planning, should provide a perfect platform for that process. Abloh is plotting a bigger exhibition of limited-edition pieces, to be announced this year. He is also developing The Framing Collection, which he introduced three years ago to produce furniture on both an industrial basis and as limited editions. He has already designed several iterations of a metal mesh chair for the collection, inspired by the strict geometry of the Mies Van Der Rohe buildings he grew up with in Chicago, including the IIT campus. A recent model, the ‘Color Gradient Chair’, is coated in ombréed paint.
‘Chicago is one of the most rationalist cities in the world, where everything is pretty much perpendicular, from the roads to Mies’ buildings,’ Abloh says. ‘That’s why I find experiencing a non-linear city like Venice so interesting. As soon as you look down, you can get lost in those meandering streets.’ §