7 Questions for Norman Teague on Using Design to Effect Change and Finding Inspiration in Community

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With an eponymous design studio and an array of high-profile projects, Norman Teague is a creator to watch in 2023. An assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Design, the educator and designer’s practice centers on effecting positive social change and fostering empowerment within black and brown communities through his work. In 2017, he was named a creative collaborator on the exhibitions team for the Barack Obama Presidential Library and has partnered with major institutions ranging from the Chicago Architecture Foundation to the Art Institute of Chicago. Later this year, Teague is slated to represent the United States at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice.

We caught up with Teague to learn more about his creative process and what advice he has for those just starting out.

Norman Teague. Courtesy of Norman Teague Design Studios.

Norman Teague. Courtesy of Norman Teague Design Studios.

You opened Norman Teague Design Studios in 2019. Can you tell us about your background and what led to founding your own firm?

I grew up in Chicago’s South Side, and when I became a teenager, I began to think creatively about a career in design and craft. I became close to architecture while studying at Harold Washington College, where I studied pre-architecture and worked in various offices as a CAD consultant like Eva Maddox & Associates and The Environments Group. It was my continuing education at Columbia College Chicago where I fell in love with interior architecture, wood shop, and furniture design. It was so enlightening to learn about different career possibilities and work under Kevin Henry and be introduced to Charles Harrison, the inventor of the View Master.

I rented my first studio before I graduated from Columbia College and began working on projects and making custom work for businesses and private clients. Some years later, I decided to apply for graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I was accepted with a scholarship, and my work and time thinking there allowed me to consider storytelling through my work.

While studying, I met another amazing artist, designer, writer, and advocate for the Black arts movement by the name of Folayemi Wilson. Fo and I started a much-needed design studio call blkHaUS studios as a Chicago-based, socially focused, collaborative design studio dedicated to using design as an agent of change, to uplift and transform marginal communities. The name blkHaUS is inspired by the Bauhaus, a German school of architecture and applied arts founded in 1919 on experimental principles of functionalism and truth in materials—during a time when African aesthetics contributed to the development of Modernism. I continued to work on my personal studio projects as well as expand my practice, and in 2019 we established Norman Teague Design Studios.

Can you tell us a bit about your creative process—where do you start? What is the most important tool in your studio?

I have started my creative process in several different ways, but as one would imagine, we sometimes start with researching either through ethnographic community work or by looking at what the client’s space might need. I draw inspiration from my city, people, architecture, and materials. Some of the materials are discarded, but my intentions are to create work through the narrative of where those materials are from, or how I might reappropriate those narratives into something new.

My favorite and most important tool is the hand planer. Planning reveals thin layers of wood, one sliver at a time. Simultaneously, it straightens the plank of wood so it’s a better fit for joining to another plank of wood.

Installation view, "Norman Teague: Objects for Change" (2022). Courtesy of Norman Teague Design Studio.

Installation view, “Norman Teague: Objects for Change” (2022). Courtesy of Norman Teague Design Studio.

Your work was recently featured in “Objects for Change” at the Art Center Highland Park. Can you talk about the exhibition, and the inspirations or themes behind it?

Firstly, I am so thankful to have advocates like Yumi Ross and the team at the Art Center Highland Park, and that they invited me to show my work, but more so understand my intentions and aesthetics. The alignment and wise counsel of a curatorial team is crucial to the progression of my work.

This exhibition was my exploration of the various narratives that an object, born from a source of material, plays in artistry, and the ways design can probe joy through its color, function, and form. Objects play on history and future while bringing a level of pleasure from its purest visual positioning within a space and context.

The context of Highland Park was my main concern. I knew of the heartwrenching recent events, and I knew that I wanted to address the hurt, so I went above and beyond to accentuate colorful work while at the same time developing pieces—furniture, wall art, and the slip cast ceramics—that explore a narrative. Lastly, I wanted to expand in scale and proportions. This allowed for a community aspect: inviting other artists to participate in the Cabinet of Curiosities. The piece exudes the scale and harmony one might envision in Martin Puryear’s (1997–2002). And the Diasporic Wall mural drew inspiration from Alexander Girard’s custom wall mural for Irwin Union Bank, but instead used assorted African printed textiles.

The array of objects made for and presented were filled with vibrant, bright colors that I hoped would infuse this Highland Park audience with some sense of joy.

Installation view, "Norman Teague: Objects for Change" (2022), featuring Cabinet of Curiosities. Courtesy of Norman Teague Design Studio.

Installation view, “Norman Teague: Objects for Change” (2022), featuring the Cabinet of Curiosities. Courtesy of Norman Teague Design Studio.

Your practice traverses many realms—from art to design and furniture to teaching. Do you approach these fields as distinctive, or more holistically?

My life experiences growing up in Chicago and living the life of a design enthusiast has been a double-edged sword in some ways. Provided the opportunities and struggles on the one hand and knowing where a systematic disaster has been thrust upon an entire culture on the other has always led me to believe there were other systems that needed to replenish that same culture. I’ve always assumed design needed to be a part of filling those voids. Through my work as an assistant professor, a designer, and furniture maker, I have always viewed them as one solid practice, and the industry component would soon follow to improve upon the inequities to make some compelling difference.

Where do you most commonly find inspiration?

I find most of my inspiration through the many facets of living in the city. Brushed with vacancy, fashion, music, arts and culture, architecture, and public spaces, each give me a sense of inspiration to make, tell stories, and mingle with other fascinating people. I surround myself with good people from the next-door neighbor to artist, fabricators, architects, and retailers—each of whom inspire me to do more.

I am also highly inspired by my travels to small places like in Guatemala and Nigeria, and international cities like in Italy and Spain.

Do you have any advice for artists or designers who are just starting out in their careers?

Travel, work hard, and meet new people. Pay strong attention to how humans respond to your work.

Then, make the necessary improvements but keep it original.

What are you working on now? Are there any projects or exhibitions on the horizon that you can share with us?

I am currently preparing designs for a retailer in Chicago’s South Side called Leaders 1354 and working diligently to complete work for the Venice Biennale 2023 with Spaces organization out of Cleveland, Ohio.  I also have a solo show at the Elmhurst Museum in Illinois in 2024.

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