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Members, Interview

Interview with Designer, Educator, and TFS Board Member Norman Teague

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The Furni­ture Society talked with Norman Teague about his passion for design and why educat­ing and empow­er­ing the commu­nity is so important.

Inter­view by TFS member Mya Rae Nelson

Norman Teague is a Chicago based designer, educa­tor, and co-founder of blkHaUS studios, a socially-focused design studio dedi­cated to using design as an agent of change to uplift and trans­form marginal commu­ni­ties. Here, he talks about working within commu­nity projects and how we all have an oppor­tu­nity to inspire the next generation.

How did you first become connected with The Furni­ture Society? What made you want to be part of the Furni­ture Society board?

In the summer of 2019 a member of The Furni­ture Society, Fo Wilson, asked that I join them for a confer­ence in Milwau­kee. It was a fabulous.

Can you talk a little about your back­ground. When/​how were you exposed to design/​making?

I was raised on the south side of Chicago, in Engle­wood… and draft­ing class was the one thing I knew I was good at it and enjoyed it. It wasn’t until later at Colum­bia College Chicago that I discov­ered the wood­shop and working with hand tools and machin­ery. I had signed up for inte­rior archi­tec­ture classes and was asked to make models for one of our assigned projects. Once I was autho­rized to use all the tools I just never wanted to leave the shop. 

You describe your focus on making/​design to empower black/​brown commu­ni­ties. At what point did you move towards making this a focus of your work?

When I was a student at Colum­bia College Chicago, I missed the narra­tive of the black faces and it felt like a real absence from a commu­nity stand­point. I felt as though there was already a black history lacking in the classes I had been taking and a big part of me felt as if this was an oppor­tu­nity to add a posi­tive page. So, later in my career, I started teach­ing archi­tec­ture classes at Roberto Clemente High School and it was there where I witnessed youth that really and truly had no exam­ples of archi­tects, design­ers or design role models to serve as a profes­sional peer to advise or tutor them along the way. I knew then and there, I wanted to be a part of that example. I once took students on a field trip to visit Jeanne Gang studio and we took the bus 8 blocks east and got off the Divi­sion street bus and the kids were shocked that the office was so close. Unfor­tu­nately, it’s just not on the youth radar, yet.

From pop-up sites to high­light­ing commu­nity design­ers, how can these projects empower communities/​people?

We all have a role to play when it comes to inspir­ing a next gener­a­tion of people. It doesn’t matter if you are the best at what form of work you do but that you are afforded the oppor­tu­ni­ties to perform them in your own community. 

Can you give an example? 

One summer, 14 years ago, I worked with a small group of students ages 9 – 14 in a church on the west side of Chicago. They had never met a designer and had no idea what a designer does for a living. So I worked with them for two weeks for 4 hours a day after­school and by the time we finished they each had designed or been a part of the design process. I am not sure if any of them are now design­ers or teach­ers or makers but it felt good to expe­ri­ence and share the moment of my voice mixed with their voices. It was a super satis­fy­ing expe­ri­ence. More info at: 22b design​.blogspot​.com

For anyone who feels they are not part of the accepted design world, what would you say to that person? 

I’d say, do what makes you happy and the rest will follow. 

Your studio — with Fo Wilson — works on collab­o­ra­tive and commu­nity projects. Can you talk about that process? For a project, such as sound­ing bronzeville’ for example – your commis­sion for the Chicago Park District and the Field Museum to create a commu­nity gath­er­ing – do you go into it with the design and the commu­nity design­ers in mind? 

blkHaUS Studios started with commu­nity in mind and yes, there were thoughts of collab­o­rat­ing with commu­nity members at the birth of this project. With a public commu­nity gath­er­ing space in mind at the fore­front we dili­gently set out to create a space that consid­ered the move­ment of people as they trav­elled through the Great Migra­tion from the South to the North and how there was quite often a need for rest, gath­er­ing and refu­el­ing. The space, geograph­i­cally was in the Wild Life Corri­dor on the western skirts of Lake Shore Drive and is mainly exactly that: wildlife. Design­ing with respect to that we thought to use a mate­r­ial that was born and could exist within the space and not hurt or harm the exist­ing wildlife. Willow was our choice, so we met Dave Chapman, the Willow expert, and consulted him on tech­niques of build­ing a structure(s) that would hold a body or bodies but could also carry a very morphed like shape. That work was labor inten­sive, so we requested volun­teers and so many amazing people came out to assist with the weaving of it. Chris Buchak­jan was a large part of making this happen.

How much of your making/​design work is collab­o­ra­tive, versus on your own? 


Is there a type of design or maker who partic­u­larly influenced you?

Chuck Harri­son was a moti­vat­ing influ­ence towards Indus­trial design and Martin Puryear has always had mad influ­ence on me from an artistic direction.

How has the pandemic affected your day-to-day activities?

Sitting in front of the computer has become a norm (no pun intended) for teach­ing class and meet­ings with clients. I try my best to stay in spaces like the garage and base­ment areas to limit the computer access and commit­ting more time to reading books and working with my hands. 

What are some ways you are finding now to work with your commu­nity, stay creative?

Working from a comfort­able place I am simply plan­ning for the day when we all expect a green light to care­fully mix and mingle again. 

Norman Teague

Norman Teague is a Chicago based artist, designer and educa­tor who focuses on the complex­ity of urban­ism and the culture of commu­ni­ties. Special­iz­ing in custom furni­ture design and designed objects that deliver a personal touch or func­tion to a specific user and unique aesthetic detail. Teague’s past projects have included consumer prod­ucts, public sculp­ture, perfor­mances and designed spaces. Teague prides himself for working within commu­ni­ties that offer ethical returns and human centered exchanges. Teague is a lover of craft and indus­try and works with part­ners to high­light careers in design, craft and peda­gogy within the south side to increase the popu­la­tions of color to have access to the design indus­try, while creat­ing viable outlets for making in all capacities.

Teague holds an MFA in Designed Objects from the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chicago (SAIC) and a BA in Product Design from Colum­bia College Chicago. Aside from his normal making prac­tice he and Fo Wilson partner in blkHaUS studios to work on collab­o­ra­tive projects like Sound­ing Bronzevile, Connect Hyde Park and South Shore and Back Alley Jazz In South Shore. He was awarded the Claire Rosen and Samuel Edes Foun­da­tion Prize for Emerg­ing Artists in 2015, a 2019, 3Arts Prize winner and is presently a creative collab­o­ra­tor in asso­ci­a­tion with the exhi­bi­tion design team of Ralph Apple­baum & Asso­ciates (NY) and Civic Projects for the Obama Presidential Center.