Whenever an unusually high tide in the northern Adriatic Sea coincides with strong summer winds in the Venetian Lagoon, sirens blare across Venice, followed by a series of whistles. This is a warning that the city is at risk of being flooded by the perilously high water, known as acqua alta. Virgil Abloh, an energetic polymath but best known as the founder of the fashion brand Off-White and as artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection, is fascinated by acqua alta, and the monitoring, warning and clean-up systems designed to deal with it. And it has served as the inspiration for the furniture he has devised for ‘Dysfunctional’, a show presented by Carpenters Workshop Gallery in partnership with Lombard Odier in Ca’ d’Oro during this summer’s Venice Biennale.
‘Whenever I’m presented with a design project, the first thing I relate to is the context,’ says Abloh. ‘What makes Venice alluring is, obviously, the landscape, which is almost surreal in nature, and faces the reality of periodic flooding. What we see in the exhibition are objects above the surface of the water, but it’s the layer below I find most interesting because it has been reclaimed by the sea, and we can’t get it back.’ The chairs, benches and floor lamp in the Acqua Alta collection stand at topsy-turvy angles as if they may be submerged by rising flood water at any moment. ‘That’s the message of the work,’ Abloh explains. ‘This land is not our land. We’re part of an ecosystem. With growing concerns about climate change, design is a powerful vehicle to explain that message to a broader public. Anyone can understand a chair.’ Sending messages and exploring narratives is the defining theme of Abloh’s multiplicitous projects. His current workload includes designing fashion, trainers for Nike, and furniture for Ikea; DJing; collaborating with the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami; teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Design; tending to 3.8 million-plus Instagram followers; and preparing for an exhibition of his work that opens in June at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. ‘The ultimate project is always to make the narrative and the connection,’ Abloh states. ‘It’s not just to sell a chair in Venice or at Ikea.’ Abloh is anything but a dabbler in furniture design. It has been part of his practice since the start and seems set to become increasingly important in the future. Yet his success in fashion has tended to obscure his interest in furniture. So has the oft-told back story of his ascent to style-icon status as the son of Ghanaian immigrants in Chicago, who became a teen skater and tagger, before studying architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and teaming up with Kanye West while they interned together at Fendi.
PHOTOGRAPHY: MARVIN LEUVREY