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In 2007, David Adjaye received an OBE for services to British architecture. In 2013, he topped the Powerlist as Britain’s Most Influential Black Person, while in 2017 he was the only architect to make Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list. Adjaye’s career to date has escalated beyond the realm of design, making an impact on a global magnitude. Drawing inspiration from African and contemporary art, history, music and science, David Adjaye uses a narrative, experiential approach to shape the built environment. He describes the components of a building’s DNA as love, death and memory, rather than bricks and mortar. Adjaye is the ultimate storyteller, transforming the intangible into the material through his moving architecture.
David Adjaye was born in 1966 in Dar Es Salam, Tanzania. As the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, he became accustomed to traveling from an early age. Before moving to Britain at the age of nine, he’d spent his childhood in Tanzania, Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon. His architectural career was launched in 1993, after graduating with a Master’s degree from the Royal College of Art in London. A year later, he set up a practice with partner William Russell, which he left in favor of establishing his own studio, Adjaye Associates, in 2000. From then, he has worked on a vast array of private and public commissions worldwide, forging a noteworthy career in architecture, and more recently, design.
Adjaye’s childhood formed his opinions on design in more ways than one. A key influence in Adjaye’s work is his espousal of the social responsibility of design. Having a younger brother who relies on a wheelchair to get around, David Adjaye was exposed to the necessity of universal design from an early age. In addition, his traveling childhood exposed him to many different cultural milieus, creating an awareness of diversity which he embraces in his designs.
Adjaye’s work cannot be attributed to any particular style, in that his approach is site specific. He believes that design should be responsive to the character and social forces that are unique to a space, as opposed to creating generic or “signature” solutions. It is this belief which pushes him to discover the different layers of a space and bring them to the center of his designs. For Adjaye, who considers himself a conceptual architect, the idea is paramount. His work flourishes the most in problematic contexts – it is these restraints that define the framework of each project. Through various collaborations with notable artists such as Alexander McQueen, Chris Ofili, Tim Noble and Sue Webster, David Adjaye became distinguished for his sensitive, yet bold approach to residential architecture.
Take, for instance, the Dirty House in London’s Shoreditch, a former working class neighborhood turned alternative creative hub. Adjaye created beauty out of dereliction in his conversion of an abandoned warehouse into a private residence for Tim Noble and Sue Webster. But Adjaye’s is a bold and raw beauty which emanates the building’s history, in contrast to the “boring, passive, nice stuff” he steers clear of. The old brick facade of the Dirty House is painted black, while the mirrored ground floor windows reflect the vibrant street art of neighboring buildings. Despite being a blank canvas, the Dirty House attracts attention to itself and its surroundings.
His designs are think pieces created to encourage a heightened awareness of space in people. His Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture embodies this on a grand scale. Located on the Washington Monument grounds, the building strove to live up to its surroundings while portraying an emotional historical journey. The subterranean levels mark the beginning of that contemplative journey, which culminates at the top floor gallery overlooking the city. “When you get up here, you’ll see America, and you may see America in a new way.” David Adjaye says of his intentions. It is undeniably the sensitivity with which he approaches design that makes him the leading architect of his generation.
Alongside designing the building for the Smithsonian, David Adjaye also developed his first line of furniture in collaboration with Knoll. The Washington Collection, consisting of two cantilevered chairs, a coffee table, side table and a club chair and ottoman, transported his architectural vision into functional objects. The designs of the individual pieces vary, from the monumental qualities of the Washington Corona coffee table to the faceted forms of the Prism Lounge series, but their commonality lies in a deft balancing act between sculpture and function. The Washington Collection explores a number of themes in direct correlation to Adjaye’s architectural focus with the museum – materiality, monumentality and history. With the Skin chair and its inverted counterpart, the Skeleton, he explored “the idea of suspending the body in space by the lightest possible means”. In contrast, the Prism Lounge series illustrates a more concrete, monumental and material presence of furniture.
For Moroso, Adjaye challenged himself to express the archetypal seat-form of a circle in as many ways as possible. The result: a seating collection with an Art Deco-esque vibe named Double Zero. With a wide range of fabrics and finishes, it accommodates many a space, from casual to luxurious. It exemplifies the how the ultimate simplification of form can at the same time make a statement.
Though his furniture designs are more of a complimentary note to his architectural work than independent endeavors, they express Adjaye’s passion for creating a complete story, through each aspect of design. His contribution to architecture and culture is indisputable, but his ventures into object and furniture design are still in their infancy. Perhaps collaborations with Knoll and Moroso have laid the cornerstone of Adjaye’s exploration of design on the smaller end of the scale.
His designs represent a unique reaction to the physical, as well as cultural aspects of a place. But a constant inspiration for Adjaye’s work is found in his African heritage, which he weaves into his designs as a personal gesture. Over the course of a decade, David Adjaye – in addition to his architectural practice – embarked on a studious photographic journey around Africa, documenting each capital city in his publication “Adjaye Africa Architecture”. In 2015, he once again partnered with Knoll to produce a line of fabrics celebrating the diverse patterns found in African culture. This time he worked with Knoll Textiles creative director, Dorothy Cosonas, in order to bring his ideas to life. Each named after a capital city, the nine designs are inspired by woven raffia, Egyptian pyramids, Adrinka wrappers and more.
His return to his roots coinciding with his road to success in the Western world adds another dimension to his work and his understanding of heritage – instrumental to the vast array of projects of cultural and symbolic significance he has designed. Works such as the revered Smithsonian, UK Holocaust Memorial, Ghana Pavilion at the Venice Biennale extrapolate from Adjaye’s own experience of history and culture.
“Hopefully it’s a little early to think how I’ll be remembered myself. But as someone whose ideas were important enough to be brought into form would be just fine.” Humbling words from one of the world’s most influential people.
With plenty more stories in the works, Adjaye remains on top of his game. His career has spanned more than two decades and hopefully, more career-defining moments are yet to come. Adjaye has succeeded in bringing meaning and symbolism in architecture and design to the general public. His inclusive and profound designs are more than just buildings, they are emotions and experiences crystallized into form – a grand ode to the history and culture of mankind.
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