Design x Virgil Abloh – design ‘quotes’ as a part of brand identity
Believe it or not, when Raf Simons stated that his designs are derivative and do not bring innovation to the world of fashion
A former Kanye West’ protégé, a trained architect, nonetheless, comes as a perfect embodiment of his own era: the times when art per se is juggling motifs, mixing references and reiterating quotes. Assumingly, living in the times of “late postmodernity”, Abloh is its design visualization. Dadaist ready-mades are his repertoire favorite. Just being ironic or reflecting the pastiche conceptualism, you name it. “His signature style”, admirers would say, while the critics might snarl at “the lack of ideas”. Like Matthew Williams, who recently took over as an creative director at Givenchy, or Kim Jones, who stands behind Dior and Fendi, The American designer’s grassroots stem from streetwear. For several years, to date, he has been the creative director of the men’s line of the Louis Vuitton fashion house, while cooperating with a whole galaxy of brands, artists, galleries and institutions. Additionally, he runs his own enterprise. Luxury brands and large corporations have long ceased to refrain from and regularly apply aesthetic codes and ideas developed by popular culture and street art.
Shall the founder of Off-White become a modern day Warhol? Time will tell. His impact is certainly visible, and Abloh makes his work like well-tuned financial instruments, as the Polish rap veteran Włodi would put it. Whatever he creates sells itself right away and with grace. Soon enough the product typologies that he literally puts in quotation marks shall be over. To commence with the Evian water bottle to the (concept version) off-road Mercedes-Benz, to move on from Nike shoes to Rimowa high-quality suitcases.
Regardless of the endless aforementioned examples, perhaps it is worth looking at some random projects which funneled his interest into furniture design. Whether a controlled pastiche, a colorful negation of modernism, an artistic approach and minutely planned nonchalance, with Abloh you have it all.
When juxtaposed with Knoll, Cassina or Fritz Hansen, Vitra is an example of a brand that boasts to be immensely successful based on a portfolio full of classic, modernist furniture designs. Although it’s been updated with brand new furniture created in collaboration with some contemporary, reputable designers, it’s honors a rather classic outline. Therefore, a decision to collaborate with Abloh seems like an attempt to smoothen the rough-edge perception and add a modern twist. Meanwhile, the German manufacturer, evidently aimed at luring younger consumers onto his terrain. Twentythirtyfive, as the project goes, is a verbal transcription of the year 2035, since both parties decided to embrace the challenge of furniture futurology.
The collection, although relatively small, with only three objects listed: “Antony” armchair, “Petite Potence” lamp and a brick block reflects aa spin-off of designs by Jean Prouvé. Yet, the final component is most likely an intentional irony marker that evokes an instant association with the brick of Supreme collection. The armchair underwent the alteration which involved introducing a fiery orange finish to the structure and getting rid of plywood seat in favour of Plexiglas to accentuate the ‘industrial DNA’ of the design. The lamp, on the other hand, stands out with a striking LED bulb in an thin, oblong cage used for technical lighting. Moreover, both products are labelled with a small, welded-on signature plates. Apparently, the American is overwhelmingly prone to mark and label whatever he does.
The installation shown, among others, at Art Basel in 2019, displayed the collection in two different settings. The first, “Past/ Present”, presented a teenager’s room today while “Tomorrow”, referred to 2035, once the young man matures. Anticipation happens mainly at an aesthetic level. It is hard to speculate whether the popular, fluorescent colors used recently return in mid-forties of the 21st century. Two facts, however, seem to be obvious. First of all, as Mark Twain once said: “Prediction is difficult, especially when it comes to the future.” Secondly, whenever masterpiece is a spin-off , the game gets a risky, if not a failure, since the “Pastiche” casino wants its share and that’s it. In this case, the applied motif of modernizing the bygone avant-garde worked only partially. It generated publicity and buzz, while the barely tackled theme would be treated mainly as a gesture of embracing contemporary trends and blending of product or aesthetic categories.
Nowadays, the world is passionately digesting breakthroughs of the 20th century. As is often the case, recently, it does so in a bipolar manner. It constantly craves for innovation yet often preserves the past concepts, reviewing how apt they might still be with petty spin-off or changed context. Given the circumstances, Jean Prouvé himself, being the author of prototypes, is certainly intriguing. A universally modern designer whose concepts remained sophisticated in their simplicity, equally beautiful as well thought-out and functional, filled with unprecedented engineering solutions. Unique in its form, though aimed for mass production. Utilitarian, by principle, yet painfully modernist, as of today are claimed in awe by art and design collectors worldwide. Yet his projects are in high demand for luxury brands, that syphon parts of their own artistic communication out (both Bally, G-star or Kvadrat/ Raf Simons).
Recently, Abloh himself took up another classic example of 20th century design to his workshop – the G-Class Mercedes-Benz. The “Geländewagen” project carried out with Gorden Wagener the head of design department of the German automotive giant. The outcome of such a collaboration is a joint effort of a visionary tuner and a genius stylist. The car, which over the years has become an icon of an off-road vehicle per se, turned into a racing car after lowering and widening its chassis. What adds to its uniqueness is the touches of blue, a vision of rustic luxury and praise of imperfection. Suffice to alter only three percent of its structure, as the American artist often reiterates, for a given product to gain a new shape. It is undeniably difficult to state for certain, however, whether a universal manual can be provided to address his words.
Design is democratic, claims the Swedish brand in one of its flagship slogans. The very plausible mission statement indeed. How does IKEA do it? It manifests it with its modernist style in terms of accessibility and postmodern performance, judging by the eclecticism of forms and concepts. All in all, it brings us to Charlotte Perriand’s ideals (despite the commercialized form) crawling from the concept of l’ art de vivre. The French artist also considered design a social tool, an emblem of both the quality of life and its affirmation. The art of living is not a pose – the real lifestyle shall not be considered superficial, and the aesthetic aspects may be as much crucial as utilitarian. So much for the soft modernist ideals. Design has not ceased to being a social tool, yet also became a mean for achieving business and publicity objectives. Ebenistic traditions and artistic dimensions today blend on a mass scale into one great melting pot.
Recently, Ikea has been intensively working on adding a new dimension to its brand, or several at a time, to be just. Known for years for its range of furniture available on demand, nowadays focuses gradually more on collaboration with some well-established designers boasting recognized or top-notch personal brands, designing experiences in the form of installations at fairs or urban venues. Their presence at Salone del Mobile is symptomatic and expresses the ambition to become a brand not solely chosen based on rational grounds, but also, on a strong, emotional bond. Space10 research center is responsible for developing and designing future solutions related to housing issues in the social, urban and environment-friendly context. The list must-have short, signature collections aimed to turn it, at least to some extent, into a company with a lifestyle potential. It also invites other brands to the table to complement or expand the offer of the furniture concern, but also to position the brand itself in a totally new context. The portfolio is wide and includes both Lego or the now defunct Parisian concept store Colette, as well as Byredo and Sonos. Similarly, the list of collaborating artists or designers includes many big names, just to mention Craig Redman, Olafur Eliasson, Chris Stampd, Per B. Sundberg, Craig Green or Filip Pągowski.
Working with Abloh is therefore a part of a bigger picture. In terms of communication strategy, Ikea is known for its excellent reflexes and their sense of humour. They proved it on numerous occasions, for example when Balenciaga presented a blue bag that was bearing confusingly strong resemblance to their signature model Frakta. The Ikea x Virgil Abloh (Markerad) collection triggered the very good quality sense of humour with some Dadaist twist. The collaboration shouts with signature labelled products with words put in quotation marks. Ranging from “Wet Grass” or “Keep off” carpets, a spectacular “Still Loading” or a white “Temporary” (not very legible, though) clock. There are also classic accessories and pieces of furniture, such as a table, chair or bedding set, and even a tool kit. The millennial generation who was supposed to be lured as the target audience could easily arrange their first apartment with these, as long as they managed to acquire some of the limited objects – mass exclusivity in laboratory form.
Abloh’s work has already received a lot of recognition both in terms of his art creativity (although he did not avoid some criticism) and business success. In 2019, the prestigious Museum of Contemporary Art in his hometown Chicago hosted a monographic exhibition of his achievements to date in the field of fashion design, entertainment, experience creation, visual art and DJ’s career. What comes as a conclusion and aftermath of the event is that cultural institutions are beginning to embrace and explore new forms and themes for exhibitions in order to lure the younger audience. More importantly, though, that Abloh may have the makings of a 21st century Warhol. A comprehensive character of the exhibition allowed to see not solely how extensive is his range of interest, but also that art and business development strategies becoming increasingly alike. In the world of design, however, he may pose as a dilettante. Despite his academic background in the field, his practice is scarce. Long before his era, both artists and architects designed furniture, so it is not unprecedented, but rather a follow-up of a mainstream trend. A trend that seeks both an artistic aspect of design and understands its marketing potential. Abloh creates interior design products under the wings of his own Off-White brand, as well as for top galleries. During the Venice Biennale Carpenters Workshop Gallery, he introduced chairs and floor lamps of “Acqua Alta” collection. While in Paris and London, the creo Galleries exhibited “Efflorescence”: a collection of furniture compound of twenty exhibits. What is visible, is the inspiration stemming from his fashion designs, but also some references to street culture and brutalism. Concrete seats or tables covered with graffiti are juxtaposed with polished steel.
Contemporaneity, when it comes to self-expression, commences to function in a number of close-circuit, restrained systems, created in line with given template patterns. Made up of a sequence of concepts that form together one common image, known as the lifestyle. Subsequent items and activities must be compatible and act in favour of creating a consistent, general image. Hence, brands acknowledge the potential in expanding the range of their services and competences. Sport smoothly blends with fashion. Fashion is merged with cuisine, design or travelling. Culture and art nuance all of this, by bringing to the table the indispensable intellectual and emotional value. The process of aestheticization is like applying layers and subsequently varnishing, smoothing and polishing each and every one of them.