The Visionaries: Virgil Abloh’s unstoppable mind
Get a shot of inspiration with the FT Weekend bulletin - the best in life, arts and culture. Delivered every Saturday morning.
The cultural response to the events of 2020 will be fascinating. The business of fashion and design will change as both reflect on and react to the consequences of the current disruption. How designer, author and DJ Virgil Abloh processes these events will undoubtedly be radical. His work has always mixed polemic with humour: from his cult Off-White label to his menswear collections for Louis Vuitton, where he has been artistic director since 2018.
His forays into furniture design are no exception. They create strong narratives about the world around him and reveal his advocacy of democratic design. When we met, at the start of the year, Abloh was opening tandem exhibitions entitled Efflorescence, made up of one-off and edition design pieces, at Galerie Kreo in Paris and London. The grey concrete works encapsulated much of Abloh’s aesthetic – adorned with handpainted, brightly coloured graffiti, they reflected his obsession with modernist architecture, refracted through the lens of contemporary urban life.
“The pieces – a bench, a console table and vases – are abstracted forms of everyday objects,” he explained. “In concrete they’re brutalist in nature, but instead of leaving them as pure forms I painted them as they may be painted on the street. I’ve always been intrigued by how urban architecture, like an underpass or the South Bank skatepark in London, becomes a magnet for spray paint. It is an explosion of colour, a natural act, an urban texture – modern-day hieroglyphics.”
Galerie Kreo sits at the most rarefied end of the furniture design spectrum, with founder Didier Krzentowski fostering the careers of Barber and Osgerby, the Bouroullec brothers and Marc Newson. “I was immediately captivated by Virgil’s visions when I was introduced to him in 2018,” says Krzentowski of the designer’s huge appeal. “He has an uncompromising approach, which I love, experimenting with new territory by pairing architectural precision with the visceral nature of street culture.”
In fact, Krzentowski sees parallels between the rugged nature of what Abloh has produced (with notably polished price tags of between €12,000 and €220,000 a piece) and the influential modernist projects of Le Corbusier. “I am reminded of the 1950s architecture in Chandigarh,” he says, “and the paradox between Le Corbusier’s grey, rough concrete and his use of bright colours.”
It would be reductive to look at Abloh’s work and label it “street art”, but the street is where Abloh finds much of his inspiration. He has collaborated on projects in the past with Ben Kelly, the designer who steered the seminal postmodern Manchester nightclub The Haçienda in the 1980s, and last year he created an installation at the Venice Biennale that was immersed in a different kind of urban life. His Acqua Alta furniture, available in limited editions, from €42,000 to €95,000, was installed on the terrace of the Ca’ d’Oro on the Grand Canal as part of the Dysfunctional exhibition presented by Carpenters Workshop Gallery. The visual conceit was simple: chairs, benches and lamps fashioned from bronze were arranged with the aid of wedges to sit at skewed angles. “The objects seem to be sinking,” says Loïc le Gaillard, co-founder of Carpenters Workshop Gallery. “Just like La Serenissima herself.”
When Venice flooded catastrophically at the end of last year, it made Abloh’s work more prescient. “It was one of those coincidences that tells you that you’re on the right path,” says Abloh. “I wanted to tell a story about my experiences in the city – the surrealism of the streets and water, and what happens when the city floods. We are at a time in history when we are understanding the human relationship with nature, and the reality of climate change.”
It is perhaps typical of Abloh’s broad universal vision that, at the same time he was showing work in Venice, similar designs were being made, albeit from beech, for his Markerad collaboration with Ikea – priced at £99 – which featured other pieces that made for laugh-out-loud visual puns, most notably a rug that resembled an Ikea receipt. Abloh’s sense of humour – perhaps less visible than it might have been to date because of his friendship and association as a creative director for the curious, largely cheerless Kanye West – is much underrated. “Design without any humour has no humanity,” he says. “If I put out a rug that’s just in a beautiful shade of grey, why do you need to own that? You probably already have a beautiful rug. If I create something with humanity, humour and a point of view, it has a reason to exist.”
Abloh’s approach in producing the same design in two radically different materials, with violently opposing price points, makes him unusual in the world of design. Benjamin Paulin, who produces his late father Pierre’s furniture at Paulin Paulin Paulin, met Abloh when he was asked to furnish Kanye West’s showroom in 2015. The two bonded over Pierre’s futuristic chairs and sofas. “I was very impressed,” says Paulin. “Virgil is part of a new generation, questioning the idea of industrial product versus conceptual art. There is a very intellectual and artistic approach in it. My father was not questioning anything; he was doing chairs, something functional and eventually nice to look at. More than being just a designer who is asked by a maison to follow influences, Virgil himself is the influence.”
Abloh brings the same eye and hand to all his art and design, but sees a distinction between the two. “I look at furniture design as something for everyday use,” he says, “and I look at the edition pieces I create as objects that energise an environment, whether they’re used for a function or not. They exist in the same way as a painting or sculpture exists for me.”
It is the élan with which he mixes high and low, as well as his graphic sensibilities, that makes Abloh so interesting. And it is those elements that, until fairly recently, have found him misunderstood by many. The appointment of a streetwear designer to one of the most powerful creative positions at Louis Vuitton was decried as a cynical move by some in the industry. Was Abloh just a zeitgeisty designer marketing hoodies and sneakers? Was an individual with 4.9m (now 5.2m) Instagram followers being flown to Paris purely for social-media value?
Some of the critique was unsettling – he was the first African-American artistic director of a French fashion house, and the covert racist insinuation was that “streetwear” meant “the wrong kind of street”. Talk of his being a design “amateur” belied the fact that Abloh’s Off-White label and aesthetic was founded in his graduate studies in civil engineering, a subsequent Master of Architecture degree at the Illinois Institute of Technology, and a spell at Fendi. The references in his concrete designs this year were no fluke – his most cherished possession is a vintage Le Corbusier lamp from Chandigarh, and his first furniture designs, shown in 2016 under the banner Grey Area, were graphic chairs and tables inspired by Mies van der Rohe.
Abloh’s Louis Vuitton menswear shows – always presented with a detailed narrative – are a powerful platform. For autumn/winter 2020 he created Heaven On Earth, a collection show-casing his take on formal tailoring codes, offset with surrealist imagery and a bright sky-blue-coloured catwalk with white fluffy clouds. “The show is my concept car,” he says. “It is my Cybertruck. It isn’t about perpetuating a brand name, it is to keep me inspired and present the work in its purest form.”
While boundaries have dissolved, there remains a tension between streetwear codes and certain core aspects of luxury menswear. Not everything at Vuitton can be a show piece. There has to be bread and butter. How does a designer known for strong graphic intervention step back and let a basic just… be? “To me, it’s like Duchamp,” he says. “Is it a fountain or a urinal? It’s both, depending on context. If I make a plain cashmere sweater at Off-White, it doesn’t have a twist in it. The brand has no history. If I do it at Louis Vuitton, the label inside the neck is so emotionally charged that it becomes a conundrum – it has two different forces.”
When Abloh was invited to furnish an installation at the Vitra Campus last year, he included a set of blocks in his favourite orange marked with bold graphics. There were also reinterpretations – in the same orange – of Prouvé’s Antony armchair and Petite Potence wall lamps. Like the graphic designer Peter Saville, whom Abloh cites as a mentor and major influence, he thrives on taking something classic and recontextualising it.
The “disruptor” cap fits Abloh perfectly. After he gave a riotous talk at Harvard in 2017 – ending with students throwing shoes on stage for him to draw on – he published an edited transcript of his presentation entitled Insert Complicated Title Here, detailing his “cheat codes” for success. At the start of last year, he launched his Canary---yellow.com website, housing an overview of his creative output to date. A few months later, he was the subject of his first major museum show, Figures of Speech at MCA in Chicago. The exhibition defined Abloh as a 21st-century renaissance man. Like the recent forays into furniture, it helped to change the design world’s perception of him. “Just as people have missed the humour in my work because they don’t know my story,” he says, “it helped walk people through where my art comes from. It showed what I was doing at age 17, what my hand and sketches looked like, what I was thinking and learning.”
“His architectural training shows up in his interest in systems and how many elements combine to create a dynamic whole,” says Michael Darling, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. “He is also interested in revealing the structure of that whole – whether it be a clothing collection, individual garment, a shoe or design object – as a modern architect would, and showing the constituent parts.” Darling sees Abloh’s recent furniture design as a natural extension of his work to date. “He grew up a skateboarder and graffiti aficionado, so these furniture pieces refer to that, but they also resemble urban infrastructure, which is of great interest to him, even inspiring the Off-White logo of the directional arrows, among many other elements of his fashion aesthetic,” he says.
Art, furniture, fashion, books. Abloh is a dynamo. “I’m creative. I like to create,” he says. “I am obsessed with the work but maintain a level of detachment. Everything I do is like a journal that I feel compelled to write in. It is a record of my thoughts. But I am always able to close it and put it on the nightstand.” The design world is looking forward to many more volumes.
Get alerts on Fashion when a new story is published