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David Adjaye on Textiles

A conversation with Adjaye and the Cooper Hewitt's Susan Brown

David Adjaye & Dorothy CosonasDavid Adjaye & Dorothy Cosonas

David Adjaye has established himself as one of the foremost architects of his generation, folding the influence of African and Islamic architecture into the vocabulary of modernism while pursuing explorations in form, light and texture.

Adjaye debuted his first collaboration with Knoll, The Washington Collection™ , in 2013. His most recent award-winning designs–Prism and The Adjaye Collection for KnollTextiles–were introduced at NeoCon in 2015. The Adjaye Collection, which Adjaye developed in close collaboration with Dorothy Cosonas, marks the architect's first experience designing textiles and signals his intense fascination with the material.

The collection, whose origins Adjaye describes in this video, is slated for release September 2015. The array of textiles debuted at NeoCon 2015 in Chicago and is comprised of six upholstery designs—Aswan, Meroe, Kampala, Cairo, Lagos and Djenne—two drapery fabrics—Kumasi and Dakar—and one wallcovering—Harare. Rich in texture and color, all are designed for durable commercial applications.

David Adjaye Selects at Cooper Hewitt | Knoll Inspiration

Left: Alaara Concept Store, Lagos Nigeria by David Adjaye, 2015. Courtesy of Studio Hans Wilschut.
Top Right: Adinkra Wrapper by the Akan Peoples of the Asante group, Ghana. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
Bottom Right: Kumasi drapery from The Adjaye Collection for KnollTextiles.

The Adjaye Collection for KnollTextiles debut is coincident with (and inspired by) an exhibition curated by Adjaye for the Cooper Hewitt. In the twelfth installment of Cooper Hewitt’s ongoing "Selects" series, Adjaye was asked to mine the museum’s permanent collection to curate a selection of sub-Saharan textiles that contributed to his multi-faceted understanding of the region.

Having devoted eleven years to an in-depth study of the continent and its metropolises, during which he visited fifty three major cities and photographed thousands of local buildings, Adjaye is uniquely qualified to discuss what textiles bring to bear on design practice. “These techniques can be […] inspirational for modern architectural initiatives seeking to provide a more sustainable and culturally relevant built environment,” says Adjaye.

With the permission of Cooper Hewitt, Knoll Inspiration has reprinted David Adjaye’s conversation with the museum’s Associate Curator of Textiles, Susan Brown, about the process of bringing together the exhibition and the "intrinsic link" between architecture and textiles.

David Adjaye Selects at Cooper Hewitt | Knoll Inspiration

Left: Francis A. Gregory Library, Washington D.C. by David Adjaye, 2012. Photograph by Jeff Sauers. Courtesy of Adjaye Associates.
Top Right: Man's Cap (Laket) from the Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of Congo. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
Bottom Right: Djenne upholstery from The Adjaye Collection for KnollTextiles.


SUSAN BROWN: Invited to select among our more than 210,000 design objects, it’s easy to imagine feeling overwhelmed, but you were very decisive in your selection. What attracted you to our collection of West African textiles?

DAVID ADJAYE: In my work, I am very much interested in dismantling overly simplistic narratives about Africa. This was one of the main impetuses behind compiling my book Adjaye, Africa, Architecture: to provide the global community with specific references to the incredible diversity within the continent. Cooper Hewitt’s collection of African textiles, which have seen relatively little exposure, felt like an excellent chance to continue this project. These textiles, beyond being incredibly intricate and beautiful, tell an important story of regional specificity. Each of the textiles derives from a unique craft that has emerged from the particular histories and georgraphies of its makers. If there is any through-line in my body of work, it is exactly this: that art must draw on context to be emotionally resonant and culturally relevant. Otherwise, it is empty.

David Adjaye Selects at Cooper Hewitt | Knoll Inspiration

Installation view of "David Adjaye Selects." Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

You’ve designed a beautiful installation for the textiles. Can you describe your response to Andrew Carnegie’s Drawing Room (familiarly called the music room)?

The installation was about resisting a passive experience of the textiles. I did not want them to be sprawled out or framed in a staid manner that allowed the works to be objectified or technicalized too much. These textiles were designed to be worn, lived in and interacted with. I wanted to design something that I felt could encourage visitors to experience that kind of direct emotional relationship with the works rather than to view them as foreign or in any way clinically. The specifics of the form took its housing room as inspiration. I was immediately struck by the music room’s incredible woodwork, the pattern of which I drew from when designing the cylinders on which to hang the fabrics. It was a way for me to capture the spirit of the room while still offering a new way to experience it, to bring its architectural elements into three dimensions.

David Adjaye Selects at Cooper Hewitt | Knoll Inspiration

“These textiles are very much geared toward space making and atmosphere; considering geometry, material and texture for these purposes shares a certain design logic with architecture.”

—David Adjaye

Clockwise: Meroe, Dakar, Aswan and Harare designs from The Adjaye Collection for KnollTextiles.

The project has also resulted in a collaboration with Knoll on a line of fabrics inspired by the ones in the exhibition which will launch in September. Had you ever thought of designing textiles? How does it compare to design buildings?

Working with KnollTextiles’ creative director Dorothy Cosonas on these textiles has been an incredibly exciting opportunity for me. Creative collaboration with artists and designers from different disciplines is not only very stimulating for me but it opens up a discourse about the art of making things that often provides sources of inspirations for my building designs. These textiles are very much geared toward space making and atmosphere; considering geometry, material and texture for these purposes shares a certain design logic with architecture. This is why I have never drawn distinction between the world of art and the practice of architecture; they are intrinsically linked. However, architecture is an inherently public endeavor—the successes and failures of each stage are highly visible. It is an amazing luxury to be able to manipulate and sculpt at full scale as you go along, to make changes and adjustments in real time. I took real delight in the samples from the mills, the mock-ups and the sketches.

Download Cooper Hewitt "David Adjaye Selects" Brochure

All images are courtesy of Adjaye Associates and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

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