The Online Magazine about New York Designers
LG: You mentioned coming to this field from politics and non-profits. What first brought you into the New York design world?
TW: Well, I'd always designed things. When I look back on it now, it's interesting, because I had forgotten the fact that, even as a kid, I'd spent a lot of time designing cars and clothes. And, houses, actually. I grew up very poor in Philadelphia's slums, and we lived in a very crowded house. I had a young uncle who lived in the house as well, who had taken model making courses at the vocational high school, so there were always architectural models around the house. He wanted to be an architect, but didn't end up being one. My mother wanted to be an artist, but was told basically, "there are no black women artists, so, be a hairdresser." So, she became a hairdresser.
LG: Did she continue drawing while you were growing up? Were you surrounded by your mother's artwork?
TW: Yes. She was good. And she was very supportive. In any case, there were architectural models around the house, and I remember being 10 or 11, and building a model of a house that had, I think, about forty rooms, and spread out over what would have been acres.
DB: Do you think it was kind of a dream house at the time?
TW: Yeah. I think so. Because I remember also at that point having – for some reason, even though we were living in this area where nobody else would have done this – lots and lots of Vogues and House Beautiful around. In fact, I remember going through this book that my mother had, over and over and over again (pulling an old book out of a drawer), on House Beautiful houses, Frank Lloyd Wright, American architects, all sorts of California houses…
DB: And you just had this lying around your house…?
TW: (Looking on the inside flap) Actually, I think that my mother stole it from the library…
TW: Clearly, she or my uncle stole it…that's interesting; I never noticed that before.
LG: But it had a profound influence on you, so I guess it's not bad to steal sometimes (laughter).
TW: Well, it's fine now. Obviously, she covered her tracks…(laughter) But, yes, so there was always design around. I ended up painting for a long time; I had wanted to be a painter.
TW: I came to New York as a student; at Sarah Lawrence; I guess I was 17. I ended up doing two things: I was both painting and writing….I was pretty precocious as a painter and also as a writer; I was actually not that bad at either one. I ended up pursuing that and moved into the city and...panicked, essentially. I realized, at 22, I had to make a living, and painting wasn't going to do it. And I wasn't the best waiter (laughter).
So, I ended up working in arts administration because I had done a good deal of work as a gallery assistant and a professor's assistant in art history at Sarah Lawrence, working on a number of pretty large exhibitions.
DB: I think that when I first met you, you were working at the Manhattan Borough President's Office…?
TW: Right. But there was a fairly circuitous path.
LG: You worked at Printed Matter also, right?
TW: Yes, I was the managing director at the Soho Center for Visual Artists, and then I went to Printed Matter to take over as the director for Ingrid Sischy, who took a leave to work at the Modern.
DB: So, at that point, you were still pretty much involved in fine arts. When did you shift into furniture design?
TW: I can tell you very clearly; I had stopped making anything from my time in college until I guess, 1983, or 1984. I would go out and I'd buy paint and materials and they'd sit. They'd be moved from one place to another....
DB: Because you were then working at the galleries?
TW: Yeah, but the galleries weren't really the issue. What happened is that, at some point, I moved into an apartment and I had very little money and it was sort of a crisis period. I was working for others and going through a lot. I moved into this apartment and bought a bunch of fairly generic, very clean lined furniture that I had collected over time, and that had seen better days and, well, two things had happened: I had decided to paint some of that stuff to change it, and it ended up becoming the most freeing experience I've ever had.
Because part of having been that sophisticated too young was that I did understand what the issues were around fine art. It was a period where conceptualism ruled, and I knew the lines of thought and it was a total burden. But, I painted well. And it was the first time, with the furniture, that I went about painting without really giving a damn about what anybody thought about my work. It's one of the things that is a point of reference for me, because I realize that, when I was in college, the work was starting to sell. And suddenly, the issues for me were about commerce, and it governed and made experimentation difficult. It put a layer over it that I question, and I question now: entering into the market, at [age] 19 through 22, and what that actually means. And whether or not that's a good thing. Was it too young? In any case, when I started the [furniture] painting, it was really kind of wonderful. I did some pieces for myself, but then there was a commission for a friend of mine. And it was really kind of fun, really loose in a way.
DB: These were existing pieces of furniture?
TW: Yes, I was resurfacing. There were certain [lines] I was interested in. If it wasn't pretty blocky, pretty neutral, pretty clean, it wasn't all that interesting.
LG: The shape had to have the aesthetic, before you would paint it?
DB: So, from there, you designed furniture?
DB: And your furniture now is not painted.
LG: It's a really nice story, about how freeing it was...
TW: But, I realize now, looking at my pieces on the walls, that for me still, on some level, doing work that is more about fine art issues is a way, often, of sort of letting out some ideas. I go back to it from time to time, as a way of freeing up ideas.
LG: What you said about having success with fine art at an early age, and how it affected you is interesting.....
TW: But also, there's a whole other set of issues for me, and a lot of it had to do with being black, and growing up at a time when there was an enormous amount of social change. And that change included everything from the civil rights movement to the war and, for me in particular, the fact that I moved through channels that were different from the people who were my peers in Philadelphia -- because I kind of hooked up or, in some cases, I was the right person in the right place at the right time to really take advantage of a lot of affirmative action. So, while in fact there were a lot of very positive things about that, it also created this kind of dissonance that was hard to manage, if, in fact you were also in the process of making work that was not particularly respected by the community that you were coming out of. And, for a lot of reasons, some of which I understand now -- having to do in part with being gay, and being very worried about what that meant, to be open, and concealing a lot -- a lot of the work actually became extraordinarily abstract, and kind of mute. Kind of, on some level, veiled [in terms of] the imagery and the content, in order not to reveal things I didn't want to reveal.
DB: So, your work did not have a social aspect...?
TW: I think that it's in the design. I understand my career as having a number of parts. The three parts that I see have to do with first, making things and production; second, with analysis, which often takes on the form of some kind of writing, even if it's the work I was doing for [Russell SImmon's] Oneworld, and talking about things in a public forum -- things that other people wouldn't talk about. And then, there's the service component. And this is the one place where I really feel that on a lot of levels, I end up dealing with the social issues, and the things that I need to address.
For instance, the work that I've been doing most recently in Guyana [a project to design and produce furniture from locally grown cane] is a perfect situation for dealing with some of the issues that I want to deal with. It's not just in the pieces themselves; it's everything that surrounds it. For instance, there's a sustainability issue that was wonderful to be able to embrace. Though the cane comes from the rainforest, it's harvested in a way that will not damage the environment. It is a business that is owned by women -- by a black woman in Guyana -- who is extremely sophisticated, and who understood that design for her company was a key issue. [She understood] that, in fact, in order to move it out of direct competition with most of what's going on in the rattan industry, design had to be a focus.
LG: How did you connect with her? Was it through Parsons?
TW: It was a project that I brought to Parsons, and in fact I was able to take a group of students to Guyana to see the material in its natural habitat and work with it. [The initial connection though was] someone who used to build for me, and still does from time to time, who is from Guyana. He had grown up with this woman, and knew that she had opened a factory in Guyana to build furniture, and that design was an issue. They had been talking about this, and she was trying to get him to come there and work with them, and he had been telling me for about two years, "I want you to meet her. I think that you are the person she needs to meet." And it finally happened last fall.
DB: What's come of your designs?
TW: You're sitting on one of them. We've been able to deal with a lot of the issues. Of course it's a [type of] situation which I tend to gravitate to....there's not enough money behind it. In fact, it's a precarious situation where, for the time being, it's not a lucrative venture, but I'm totally into it. I did a line [of the products] which I took to Milan, which got a very interested reception. Very instructive. Then I came back and had to rework a lot of things, and am still in the process of reworking things. Since that time, one key piece was selected by to be in a show in Verona, which was really an indication that I had managed to do what I had been asked to do: design pieces that were very different from the traditional designs that used rattan and cane-like materials. Another piece that has become very successful and has a bright future is a stool that is now the make-up stool for Aveda. They are using it for all of their stores around the world.
So, we're moving along. We've done the first large order, and we're making the second, and that's great.
DB: And it's being produced there.
TW: Right. It's being manufactured in Guyana. The things that have happened around these designs so far, are a good indication that I'm on the right track.