interview or FROG Magazine
This time, we did not use Virgil’s 315,000 miles a year airplane credit for our meeting. After cancelling a couple of times, between Chicago, Paris or Milan—Virgil’s top three destinations—we are at home respectively, self-isolated in this period of global confinement. An ideal time for a phone conversation, taking some distance from Virgil’s impressive work and travel rhythm, and focusing mostly on his architectures: furniture, set designs, and a multitude of objects. While being deprived of seeing each other withholds the pleasure of discovering his intimate atmosphere, our conversation about domesticity, home and objet attachment gives a strange sensation of truth and realness.
You’ve been trained as an engineer and an architect in Chicago.
How has this background shaped your creativity and opened your mind to the world?
I’ve done an undergraduate degree in engineering before I arrived to architecture. After completing engineering I was interested not so much in the practical but in the figurative, which is why I pursued a master degree at the IIT, the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago—curriculum and campus design by Mies van der Rohe. The aim was not to be an architect in the sort of traditional sense, but to learn the practice of design. Not just design, but design for a community. I saw it as an opportunity to rationally understand art and architecture. The rational part was important to approach a figurative field. What’s good architecture? What’s bad architecture? I wanted to understand the discipline and understand how one arrives at designing architecture. So that is still my foundational coursework. There is so much emphasis on how and where people went to school, and why did they go to school. It was only four years of a longer life for me. Is it enough to define who someone is? For me, it gives a foundation, a rationale behind design.
When citing your most influential references, you’re often mentioning
Mies van der Rohe Campus and the strong impact of International Style,
the Bauhaus and Modernism. For someone so embedded in contemporary
culture, these are very classical references, especially in regard to the powerful
influence of street culture in your work.
I would dream that was to be a movement, since it then would have impacted so much of our life. A movement defined outside of architecture, inspired by society. But innovation and learning haven’t happened within the practice more than they had happened within the people. So that is the entry point into the culture. The shift in culture, the shift in technology has adapted the way we live, how we understand the world, how we understand human impact on the world but also human impact on each other, but not so much in the architecture realm. For me, as a contemporary artist/designer/architect practicing now, Modernism sort of developed as a way for architecture to express itself. A hundred years later, its innovation, its impact of technology, its understanding of the social political and humanitarian aspects of our world to make a global movement is still relevant. It is the realm where all the actions are happening and I built my career reflecting that bridge between architecture and an understanding of contemporary culture: a shoe, a sneaker is almost less important than a building. Why is it not?
On the other hand, the main art movement that I am a product of is hip-hop, but it has never been seen as an intellectual form, as an art movement but more as a pop culture movement. How does that movement articulate itself in architecture or in fine art, or how does it manifest itself in furniture design? Whatever box you’re putting it in. I don’t use those terms about my work, but for the generation born from a new form of music, style, dance, or art. In my mind, it should not be relegated to just an atmosphere. I propose the notion that streetwear is an art movement. It is a niche art movement. Much like different movements that converged within architecture. It is how I understood the practice, and can dive in the minds of Millennials and how they are editing and shaping the world they live in now. How architecture and the contemporary understanding of architecture, like Rem Koolhaas OMA, and mainly through AMO, showcase the tremendous importance of the humanity aspect of architecture, and how they are going to lead the future of architecture. I apply that to my niche, this sense of humanity. It is linked to the generation I came from, and the attitude of my generation. So my practice expands from that point forward.
Street culture also echoes the art of stealing, disrupting, or vandalism.
You started by stealing things (for example, selling Ralph Lauren dead stock
at expensive prices by only printing the “Pyrex” logo on the shirts). There is
also a lot of “ready-made culture” that often quotes Marcel Duchamp. Taking
what just surrounds you and transforming it into something else, which is the
ethos of hip-hop, the culture of sampling—the old-school version of copy/paste—
that is familiar to you in connection with your activity as a DJ. You’ve
summarized this attitude with the 3% approach concept: only changing 3%
of an object, doing a 3% intervention. That helps you keep the symbolism
of the reused object, but also make lots of different projects. Bringing only
minor modifications and not being a perfectionist helps you to multiply
projects and ideas. This attitude has been repeated in your fashion approach
but also in your design process. You did it for Vitra with the Prouvé Chair,
and there is the Markerad series for the IKEA collaboration. In an area,
especially in architecture and design, where there is a perpetual quest for
reinvention and newness, this is pretty unusual and disruptive.
It is inspired by notions that I brought up from art history, and by my understanding of technology. Now with the advent of the internet and the possibility of understanding the enormous back catalogue of design, it brings into question what design is. I believe that there is a link in what represents culture and humanity, and the fact of the development of ideas in design now that they are built on things from the past. I believe the joining that design could do if it became closer to humanity, would be to be in dialogue, to educate; and to make design not a niche culture but a democratic one.
Although oftentimes, I am inspired by my generation through music, hip-hop and streetwear, or sampling as a part of the creative process. Building on the past and editing for the future is a large part of how I am able to understand and execute: by fusing. And that’s the 3% culture. It says, “Hey, this idea of a wooden chair is inspired by hinged doors.” This is an aesthetic device, in a democratic way of making. Of course along history, a number of designers have made versions of that stool, but for me I am interested in the mundane. When design becomes not even design, it becomes human expression. I’m building on that, adding a new layer, making it contemporary.
That is my rationale, like hip-hop is an art form, made just before my generation. It is a clear example within music of how contemporary developments can be made while sampling the past. You sample jazz tracks from the 1950s, and it can be a contemporary pop song of the 2020s. That notion is very intriguing to me. I cannot just create things that are only completely cool, inventive or new. I could easily dedicate my existence to that but it won’t align with my overarching ambition to turn the design niche toward something more public. I think it is important to highlight that Andy Warhol’s photographs of Marylin Monroe have become symbols of Pop Art and pop culture while almost doing nothing. The notion itself is a brand now.
Understanding humanity is also understanding your consumers, mainly Millennials.
What you’re producing is for youth, for the new generation. You really work
“for the demographics you came from and the demographics that inspire you.”
You observe and anticipate their needs, their desire and their habits. It has been
demonstrated through the success of the IKEA campaign, but also when going
out shopping: I went to a few Off-White retailers in Paris and London, and I
was looking at how Millennials were behaving. I was shocked to see that from
the very moment they see your shoes, nothing else exists anymore.
What you produce powerfully attracts them.
In one sense, it reflects the appetite for luxurious object and the kind
of instantaneous goods you can have immediately. In the other, there is a
dark side to Millennial culture right now, which is the impossibility to afford
homes, to be perpetual renters, « no one owns anything anymore. » On the
one hand, there is also less and less desire to own a house or a car. On the other
hand, the budget or the access to credit is getting more and more out of reach.
The long-term perspective is replaced by immediate desire. You are keener on
buying shoes or furniture for yourself rather than owning a home or a car
for your family.
That is the greatest indicator about how humanity has changed. It is also where technology enters the equation. When I heard Millennials, I heard a generation starting to question the provider generation: do I need to have a house, two kids and a life plan? Do I need to work the rest of my life to be successful? Do I need a college degree to practice what I want to practice? I can use my cell-phone and the Internet to rent a car, a Uber; or use Snapchat to make temporary information that disappears. That’s finding out how a generation is engaging with the world.
The next art movement and next architectural movement would come from how human beings exist in a distant world. There is a tremendous possibility in that. It is the time of a cultural shift, I see it as a moment. Coronavirus in itself is a tremendous catalyst for artists and architects to supersede politicians and governments, to react and design the future. The Millennial generation being the one who will create or guide the future, and the rising economy should lead to new ideas.
In this idea of the future, buildings do not exist anymore, only disappearing
objects: how do you think this vision will last? The big difference between
architects and designers is the ability of buildings to last, while designing
furniture and fashion is something more spontaneous.
How do you see your actions and objects last in the long term?
I am very interested in the rational. I am interested in the collective idea and the collective mood, more than the object. I think it is more important and more intriguing than the overall practice and overall innovation, and the idea. It’s an attitude that reflects the generation I’m in. That generation is questioning consumption.
The IKEA process, and in general the overarching process: the idea of a tee shirt, a pair of shoes, it is like on a certain level built from the past and adding a 3% on it. At the core of the logic is the question: does the world need another shoe? Does the world need another chair? Does the world need another building?
The great innovations from the Bauhaus happened in a world that was not developed yet. It was economy first and the Wild West. It was a time when it was still needed to build: we needed outer spaces, we needed skyscrapers, we needed cars. And now, using humanity as the crystal ball for the future: the Millennial generation does not want a car. I don’t want a car, I don’t want a high-rise building, I don’t want a multi-million dollars penthouse. I could be happy living in the countryside. I could be happy renting for the rest of my life. How design and architecture and a whole bunch of practice respond to that?
That’s why I am definitely not practicing by simply making buildings, or finding a client to build a house. For me, it’s not efficient in this time. This time is for observation, but also, for creating an aesthetic combining something in between purist and tourist, between fashion and building, retail spaces and public spaces. That to me is a more vibrant connecting point that can still respect what architecture is and be more aligned with future generations and how we live today.
The duality in your work between the tourist and purist concept is embedded
in two recent collaborations: the Markerad series for IKEA (tourist) and
the Efflorescence for Kreo Gallery (purist). For both interventions you have
the same attitude of shifting the use of the objects while keeping its symbolic
but also giving them a new sense. With the IKEA collaboration, you called
it a toolbox for Millennials and imagined it as an attempt to create furniture
for a first home, for the first move, when you move out of your parents’ place.
Could you develop about the ethos of this collaboration?
The ethos of the Ikea collaboration was to build a bridge and shift the importance of fashion to the interior, for the Millennial house. Working for a generation owning their first set of furniture. If I have to say, their first “design” outside of fashion. From IKEA, apart from the brief and the process itself, there is a tremendous opportunity to design for the masses at an affordable price, and engage with the history of furniture design. Part of a collection is based on the principle of iconic furniture design from the past, and equally winning others from the collection of IKEA itself. The collage of inspirations was the main goal, to have an interesting rug they can live with for example, like a jacket or a new pair of shoes.
This collaboration probably helped you to have the time to think
about what is the ultimate interior object?
[Laughs] Yeah… It’s the iPhone charger: that is the most important today.
Even in my design brief with IKEA, I was like: “these things are very much new, how do they engage with the built environment?” Apartments are now sort of hubs: they are workplaces. We spent a lot of time thinking about Le Corbusier and these ideas for architecture: the house as a machine for living: a kitchen is for eating, a living room is for living, a bedroom for sleeping. But today, humanity has totally shifted and re-appropriated these uses. Now, a kitchen is for living, sleeping, working, all at the same time, but how does architecture respond to that? That’s the motion that I am reacting to, that loss of time and space, and the collage it can be.
I think it is important to understand that we are a visual consumption society: Instagram, Tumblr, Tik Tok. The amount of images that we consume dictates our taste. Designers can learn from that process. That’s why I was inspired by working with students from the AA, or by the design brief from IKEA, because of the idea that apartments where Millennials are living in look like the images they have in their heads. It is extremely profound to me. It is a huge discrepancy, and as a design community we can change that.
I don’t want a car,
I don’t want a house,
I could be happy
renting for the rest
of my life.
You travel all around the world, 350,000 miles a year; you have multiple
places, multiple offices: what is it for you that makes a space, a sense of
place, how and when do you feel at home?
For me, I feel at home around art objects. I have a big sensibility towards things that inspired me. It is about the ability to live with art, to value art. The more advanced ideas come from the presence of objects that give energy. It can be anything. It can be a painting. It can be a sculpture. It could be a texture for a floor, a rug, something that provides stimulation, that gives energy to a room. It can’t be a white box. But imagine a white box with a massive Calder sculpture in it: it would inspire me in a different way. Home is a nest of stimulations: same things in a different way everyday. A massive George Condo painting. It would bring me different ideas. Or if there was a Supreme folding chair in this all-white space and the same blank space. I will think of different ideas. They all have different values and they have inspired different ways of living, different way of thinking my environment. My living spaces are very much as the fashion that I create. There is a mix of high and low. This is not the value that represents my taste. It’s the collage of individuality and spirits embedded in objects, and their perpetual setting changes.
It is also in this mindset that you are designing sets for fashion shows:
objects, colors and furniture that can translate the energy of the moment?
Exactly. When it comes to show design, it is really something like holding a mirror to contemporary culture. It’s the logic of the day, it’s the stress of the day, the voice of underrepresented people (for example the collaboration with Jenny Holzer) that I’m all for. There is no more other thing that I’m all for than contemporary culture.
A snapshot of where you are at this instant?
Exactly, I read contemporary media as much as I can: newspapers, quarterly magazines… I try to create theater in ways that are tackling the issues of the moment.
Going back to the Kreo gallery show, you brought into the gallery space
pieces from urban objects you can find on the street or on construction sites.
It looks like a Trojan horse in the white cube, bringing the wilderness of
the street into the impeccable setting of the exhibition space. For me, it
refers to the furniture series developed in the 1970s by Archizoom and
Superstudio: making objects to destroy the bourgeois interior. Is there
any kind of class struggle in your work? To provoke a clash, or fight with
a kind of violent readymade?
Yes, it exists in all my work. It is probably an extension of what I mentioned earlier, an old notion of Millennials copying the past. To see what is really real. I think I’m just doing that in the design sense. That’s where the whole idea of the tourist/purist came from. To understand the polarizing—the two ends of the spectrum—that dictates the barriers, the two fields that make the landscape of art and design.
If I look back at my career and the path I did myself for the innovation, what makes the high and low—the perceived high and low and their boundaries were usually never mixed before. That is why I identify with the Superstudio notion of the containment of high instinct, of the high and low. If you keep thinking with those boundaries, you relegate yourself to the kind of conversations that don’t reflect humanity.
The idea to crash different social barriers and to crash different notions is more human. I always said the greatest thing about humans is the contradictory, instead of pretending we are not. The ability to change our mind, to change our chance is an extremely powerful notion. How does it manifest into design? That’s where you end with the exhibition at gallery Kreo: that is a pure expression of my mind. And I’m not bringing a notion from the past, I’m just creating an object, a sculpture that is merging art and design to express itself as object. It relates to the built environment as you described it: objects you see on the street. But equally, showing in the gallery, it is as just important as the work itself. All deliberate.
What are for you the next big things to work on? Your approach is multidimensional:
music, fashion, design... is there any way to apply the 3% approach to architecture?
Is there anything you want to explore more?
Right now I’m interested in the space that humans inhabit. It’s more toward architecture, urban spaces, where people congregate. That could be a hotel, a park… I am still defining my own practice. What’s the next chapter? So I‘m not really sure what is it but I worked around notions that are important. I’m less interested in fashion in the same way. Or music or things I’ve done in the past. It will stay important to the next 20, 30, 40 years and will still remain important. I am not a person that believes in one or other, I believe in both.
I’m open to explore the same ideas that I developed within fashion or within my round of museum shows. I’m definitely keen to expand that to civic buildings, to public artworks, to parks, still keeping the same ideas that I developed but in new realms of civic ways. A line of hotels, a public sculpture or a main square, it is all interesting to me.
This also reflects the paradox in your work between pure individualism
and a very human dimension, two polarizing sides of a coin.
I’m interested in both, again like creating an IKEA spirit into the privatized hotel experience that redefines the idea of vacation. I’m interested in the idea of how a city is able to create something very trendy for a moment and evaporate. You’re in Rome and what’s the thing to see and live? These are the things, that where architecture and fashion meet. It’s like if you summarizing on all the city built environment: what is the highlight of the moment? But equally I’m interested in the town square with a sculpture. A pavilion—like a Serpentine Pavilion exercise—it is equally more important than a civic infrastructure. Because they are for the people, they exist for the special way you know. My ideas aren’t limited to individual boxes.
What is the most important object for you?
At my place, well, let me look, there are so many things… well, the most important object is a painting that I have from a painter called Jim Joe. It gives energy, it’s from an artist that I respect and admire and it helps strengthen the way I think. It inspires me by the individuality of how he thinks. Well, actually, what gives me more energy and inspiration, it’s an abstract painting from my children. That’s the essence of life.
[We can hear children in the background of the phone call]
Du prototype à l’habiter
interview or FROG Magazine