The Design Observer Twenty





12.13.22
Dana Arnett + Kevin Bethune | Audio

S10E8: Norman Teague


Norman Teague is a designer and community builder who specializes in custom furniture design.

He also holds the position of Associate Professor in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Industrial Design program. Norman explained what he felt was the most important thing to communicate to his students:
That their story is important, that as you design objects, you're not just considering the last toaster that you saw, but you're also considering  your grandma's toaster. You're not downplaying your own lifestyles as as no goes, when you’re thinking about a community of people. And so I think just keeping that at the forefront, because a lot of people don't and the rest is like, you'll get it. You'll get the technical piece that comes with creating the 3D model and you'll make it pretty with all the colors.

This episode of The Design of Business | The Business of Design is brought to you by Morningstar: investment research, data, and strategies to empower long-term investor success.

Follow The Design of Business | The Business of Design on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app.
 
Sign up for our newsletter to keep up with everything going on at Design Observer.

TRANSCRIPT

Kevin Bethune
Welcome to The Design of Business,

Dana Arnett
The Business of Design.

Kevin Bethune
Where we talk with leaders in their fields.

Dana Arnett
About how innovation, access and curiosity are redesigning their worlds. I'm Dana Arnett.

Kevin Bethune
And I'm Kevin Bethune.

Dana Arnett
This episode of The Design of Business | The Business of Design is brought to you by Morningstar.

Kevin Bethune
People don't just want financial information. They need to be able to understand it and use it. At Morningstar, great design transforms the way investors interact with financial data. Deeper insights, more personalized strategies, broader definitions of success. Start your journey at Morningstar.com.

Dana Arnett
On today's episode designing your own seat at the table.

Norman Teague
I feel like the recording from this point on will show blackness if I have anything to do with. And so the best way I can do that is just to look at ways in which I can collaborate.

Kevin Bethune
Norman Teague is a designer and community builder who specializes in custom furniture design, acute architectural installations, exhibitions, and designed objects.

Dana Arnett
In addition to his studio practices, Norman currently resides as an assistant professor in the School of Industrial Design at University of Illinois, Chicago.

Kevin Bethune
Norman, welcome to the podcast.

Norman Teague
Thank you, guys. Happy to be here.

Dana Arnett
Well, good to see you again.

Norman Teague
I appreciate you making time. And it's quite an establishment you got here.

Dana Arnett
Well, we're blessed to be in the Morningstar Studios today, which really is.

Norman Teague
Pretty hot.

Dana Arnett
Far better than interacting on Zoom.

Kevin Bethune
That's right. Actually, a few weeks ago, I was in Seattle for a conference, another conference. But you were with Dana here in Chicago, I think, in your space. And you guys had Facetimed me. So it was so nice to meet you then. And it's even better to be in your presence today.

Norman Teague
Absolutely. Thank you so much, Kevin.

Kevin Bethune
So let's start at the beginning. I've heard you say before in other interviews that you were a kid who like to draw. I too loved to draw. And it's how I understood the world. But I didn't know how to channel that toward a path in design. Can you take us a bit through your journey from those early creative sparks till now?

Norman Teague
Yeah, I found it some early point in life where you had to make big decisions. Like, what do you want to study in school? Like what interests you? And so going back to drawing, drafting was the one thing that kind of got me started. And I think you mentioned you were a mechanical engineer. That's where I sort of started at was mechanical drafting. But I did find that, you know, every time I thought about this thing I enjoyed doing, which, you know, every other- every next step was really important and crucial. I kept coming back to anything that allowed me to be creative with this. And mechanical engineering, let's face it, it's really not the most creative area. So I went from there to Harold Washington College, where they were offering architecture. And so seeing these lines felt really familiar to me, not far off from mechanical engineering, but a little more creativity involved. And so I jumped on that. Architecture was my thing for years at Harold Washington, and eventually I went to interior architecture at Columbia College, all of which added up to the one day where I ran into the woodshop. So mind you, I came into architecture at a time when AutoCAD was the new thing. So every-every elder architect had to go back to school and learn how to use AutoCAD to make a living. And AutoCAD is architectural drawing software. And so we used it back then to do a lot of two dimensional drawings. Now it's more of a three dimensional software used by all most architecture firms. I wound up teaching AutoCAD at Harold Washington, and I was training Helmut Yon employees. He would bring almost his entire staff over in the evening after work.

Kevin Bethune
Oh wow.

Norman Teague
To learn AutoCAD under my and other tutors' tutalage. And so that was really kind of warming and almost know quite powerful. You're just like, Wow, these guys are like doing this for a living every day and they're really dependent on us to teach them how to do this. Their job depended on it. Off to interior architecture was interesting to work in, but I was also introduced to the woodshop and this is where I was given the capabilities to put together these two these two wonderful disciplines of drawing and actually making the thing no one else in between. It's just me and this, this one skill and this other new skill that I'm learning and that that excited me. Again I think it was empowerment where I felt like I could possibly make a living at this, you know, so. So all of it was starting to feel like it was paying off. And then I started working for myself. And that's when it started to feel like shit. It's like, What are you doing? So it was a learning experience, but that's kind of where I got my start.

Kevin Bethune
Yeah, interesting. So if we go back to that act of creation, like, so from drawing to drafting to architecture to the woodshop, is there something sensorial about that or even spiritual at play in the act of you working?

Norman Teague
I always you know, I always felt like it was it was all gifts. And I followed it. I had my own studio before I graduated from Columbia College. And, you know, that work, working alone, working with my hands. Jesus was a carpenter. I was feeling very close to these sort of sensorial moments where I'm in the shop working late and, you know, not worried about it, but feeling like never feeling alone. You know, I always feel like there's added pleasure in this and someone's pushing me to keep doing it. And there was nobody physical there. So-so yeah, that was that was all eye opening. And that's always kind of stuck with me as a, as a woodworker. Like that was a, a gift to be using my hands to do something. And that's why I've always felt like I need to share it. You know, really like be out in the public about it really understanding because I feel like it's slightly therapeutic in a lot of ways. Like ceramics, anything like working with your mind and your hands has always felt therapeutic.

Kevin Bethune
Love that.

Dana Arnett
So before we get into your creations, which I actually love, our listeners heard a little bit about your bio and your background at the top of the podcast. But I want to get into-a tap a little bit deeper into your influences, and you once defined design as an act of cooperation within a community that requires empathetic listening, compassion, and activation. And I know you are deeply involved in the community, and it's both a space of inspiration and almost a reflection of the place you live and work. And can you talk a little bit about how your design practice embraces that philosophy?

Norman Teague
Yeah. Growing up in Chicago, is it I can only relate it to like the soul of a community. I grew up where, you know, in a neighborhood where people shared things, parents shared responsibility of everyone's kids. So when the street lights were on, there was you know, there was finger pointing and, you know, it's time to get in. But also, you know, I was I was in Bronzeville at the earliest. And this is a community that, you know, came together around things like back alley jazz and, you know, just really organic moments that happened within the neighborhood. And, you know, growing up in that, I've never wanted to lose that. And I've never wanted to go into design to be like, you know, any other designer. But I always felt like there was a lack of diversity. I was always the token black guy. And so it's really important to me that, like, that doesn't continue, you know, like how else do it- does a designer put forth as many opportunities as possible to welcome everybody, my cousins, my, you know, my aunts, my uncles. Like: Yes, bring that plate of food. Bring yes, bring the mac and cheese. You know, I want I want that flavor to be a part of my growth. I can't lose where I came from because I've seen it happen to many of us. It doesn't look good. But yeah, I think working with the community to a understand that, you know, there's this simple recipe of like academia calls it research, we call it just listening to what others have to say and sort of acting on that thread to really bring about a thing or a space that feels good to all these people in that conversation. And so I've always felt like that was just an easy way to practice. It's like a no brainer. It's like, I don't know, call your mama, call- call your cousin. And that's, you know, let's think together about how to do this one thing.

Dana Arnett
Yeah, even the energy of the neighborhood where your studios and you just feel it when you walk upstairs, your studio space. There's this eclectic feeling and this it's almost a mosaic of patters.

Norman Teague
But it's also a part of the thinking process for us there. You know, it's you know, I work with some amazing guys and I try to be super open about where this design might go. I don't I don't want you here if you're not going to participate in helping us get to better conclusions, because Lord knows I want the time off. So, yes, how do we design together? Think about certain situations that come about. So it's it's really fruitful to to have those outcomes that don't just look like me.

Kevin Bethune
And maybe if we could continue down this thread of your furniture making the one aspect of your many practices, is the sinmi stool, am I saying it correctly? Sinmi stool?

Norman Teague
That's right.

Kevin Bethune
I guess before I ask any questions about that, can you describe this stool for our listeners who may not be familiar with it?

Norman Teague
Yeah, it's a it's a hard to approach object. It's a rocking stool, which is not quite a full sit down. But the consideration to it was a perch. So it sits about 32 inches off the ground with a bentwood sort of arc. And most people approach it as though it were a saddle and they straddle it. While, that straddling is happening you're also asked to sort of rock with that.

Kevin Bethune
Oh, nice.

Norman Teague
I'm very inspired by Africa and the hand delivery of goods, handmade objects, rather they're sculpted. And I have a few pieces like the sinmii stool that goes to a lot of museums have purchased with collectors and they and they look at, you know, some of the blemishes that they might they might see a blemish in the wood. And like it doesn't look like, you know, the one that you saw and I'm just like every one is handmade! And it's an interesting piece and it influenced me because I was looking for an object to take to Milan and show as part of a show in Milan from the School of the Art Institute. And I was looking for the perfect thing to allow the user to to sort of chill. To take a load off while walk-walking around Salone, but also really not dig full into like a full sit down, but really take a load off, take a perch, take a moment to chill and then get back into your daily pursuit of seeing Milan. So it was it was quite a hit. It took best in show through Metropolis magazine.

Kevin Bethune
Congratulations.

Norman Teague
Yeah. And then from there, you know, I think Zoe Ryan and I started to have more frequent run ins, and then she saw the stool, and I guess the board at the Art Institute acquired it.

Kevin Bethune
Now, you mentioned Africa previously, it was there- did I read correctly that there is Yoruba influences.

Norman Teague
Yes. Sinmi stool it means to relax in Yoruba. But a lot of my influences are like, you know, not only am I not seeing me in these spaces of design, I'm not seeing Africa and I'm not seeing the homeland. And so that was that's always been an important piece to me to really think about easier ways to incorporate. So Africana, this new line that I worked on is it's, it's got the hand carvings that, you know, one really enjoys and that texture that you get it's different from-for each one. But I also got to work with a brother who learned how to work with leather while he was in the joint. And when he got out, he started to make these really dope custom shoes and working with leather has been his thing. And so I had I got a chance to work directly with him to create the perfect cushion to go inside of this chair. And then the chair itself structurally has this really robust like large proportions all over larger than what we would see in our our homes. But definitely the features were driven by some of the characters that I saw and-and older furniture from the continent.

Kevin Bethune
So in general, it seems you're interested in provoking different interaction patterns. You mentioned the rocking with the stool or the self-portrait piece, which I understand was modeled after a fancy car rim and exuding some of the identities that you may have known in your neighborhood at the time. Are you trying to teach people something through these interactions, through these designs?

Norman Teague
I think I'm I'm more so I'm trying to tap a level of relevance with somebody else who might be from my neighborhood, who hasn't seen someone in their neighborhood in a design light. I think that's part of the tap.

Kevin Bethune
I see.

Norman Teague
The other tap is like, how do I how do I interest the rest of America that there are people of color that are interested in and diving into these fields and if there were more exposure to it, then there would be more beautiful stories coming out.

Kevin Bethune
Love that.

Dana Arnett
00:14:12] The Design of Business | The Business of Design is brought to you by Morningstar. Investment research, data, and strategies to empower long term investor success.

Noor Abdelrahim
Hi, my name is Noor Abdelrahim.. I'm based in Chicago and I'm a senior product designer working on the Morningstar design system team.

Kevin Bethune
Noor applies designed to make Morningstar's offerings more accessible.

Noor Abdelrahim
I'm responsible for designing and iterating and evolving our design system at Morningstar. One initiative that a lot of designers have on their mind now is accessibility. So one thing we're looking at is how do we improve our charts, our UI products, our colors, things like that. How can we make sure that everyone is able to see what we're creating and building? For example, right now I'm revisiting a component that we've had called the range slider. One of the things I'm looking at is, are the colors, do they have enough contrast? Will users be able to see the track of the range slider? So thinking about details like that definitely come a long way for, you know, making something more accessible to more people. I think if we continue as designers to think about staying inclusive, I think that automatically will broaden the access of Morningstar products and therefore continue on its mission of empowering not only just some investors, but all investors.

Dana Arnett
Morningstar Design. Expanding Definitions of success at the intersection of design and investing. Find out more at Morningstar.com slash careers.

Dana Arnett
You know, so many designers are protective about their process and their intellectual property or their creations, and you seem to swim in a different direction. I mean, you embrace collaboration and how do you go about finding and building intentional collaborations?

Norman Teague
I was just talking to Juan de la Mora about like something like that. And we both said like, dude don't sweat it, man. We've been blessed with like so many ideas. So just like, what's, you know, what's-what's the big deal? Like, what? Why? Why hide this? Why hide that? Like where? We're full, like we're never going to run out of ideas we're gifted with the gift of like thinking outside of the box, knowing what our there's a cultural line of esthetic that that we try and heed to. I don't think I always hit it, but it's not a cocky thing. I'm not being egotistical, but I don't think that I ever run out of ideas. Hopefully, at least in the next six years, I'm getting older.

Dana Arnett
Well, Kevin calls it servant leadership, but I see that in your studio. I see that in your community collaborations, whether it's bringing a student into your workshop to learn and to grow, or whether it's including people in the community to take part in an interactive way with stuff you're displaying or.

Norman Teague
Yeah, I partially think it's our role as, as designers to to keep that sort of apprentice level thing going and that part becomes an exposure. But I think like all of those really good recipes, or at least not all of my ingredients are good, but I think that they can look at the good ingredients that it takes to be-because you're you're as a designer and you're dealing with humans constantly, at least the things that you're dealing with are eventually will be dealing with humans. It's it's really important that you be a good human I guess, or at least, you know, you're trying to be the best human you can be, and so how how do you project that on to the projects that you work on? How do you practice that on a regular basis?

Kevin Bethune
Indeed. Indeed. So you've been pretty vocal that design canon, design history needs to change and it can be tough as as you mentioned before, as a black designer feeling alone sometimes in the in the field and we don't necessarily see ourselves represented across it. And also there's that Eurocentric nature of the history as well. So I guess how do we expand the evolving story that is design and include more people to understand what design can mean for them and us as a part of a more inclusive culture and community?

Norman Teague
I mean, I see it happening more and more at college levels after the George Floyd incident. For me personally, the design history piece and the canon thing, I'm learning to imagine myself being the creator of that history even 50, 60 years ago. So right now, I see myself doing a collaboration with Alexander Girard, who did a mural for or with Herman Miller and using these textiles. And so I'm really trying to put myself in these places where I can have fun with it and not be this, you know, pissed off black man who's walking in a room, which, you know, everybody's used to we've said it all. It's done. So how do I now have sort of fun with that? I mean, we all understand what's happened with design history, and maybe it would be different if some of us were in charge of those recording moments. But I feel like the recording from this point on will show blackness if I have anything to do with. And so the best way I can do that is just to look at ways in which I can collaborate. How how does that work influence me? How does how does how does it look today, you know, from a black standpoint? And so that is where I'm trying to make fun with it, because I think any other way in which I approach it, it seems to not be healthy for me. And so I'm trying to do what's what feels good for me. It's part of my healing.

Kevin Bethune
Interesting. And I guess, you know, in recognition of the fact that the world is the way it is by design, in many cases, you're taking a tack that works for you or feels good for you. At the same time, while you're addressing maybe certain inequities or realities, but you're putting a positive spin on, am I hearing that correctly?

Norman Teague
That's the way I that's the way I think it's going to be best I approach it just because yeah, I think I can I can sit and I can bitch about like how it how bad it was it's been and or I can just continue to move forward with creating this new canon.

Kevin Bethune
Maybe the last part of the question a thread of this topic is, is it always conscious when it's going into a piece of work, these influences, or can it be subconscious?

Norman Teague
Yeah, I think both. Some of it is very intentional and then some of it is like, I really enjoy working intuitively. Like some things have a direct, like here's a drawing. Some of it has like influence from the things that didn't make it, the things that didn't make it to the piece, the drop offs, the things that we tend to throw away the scraps sometimes, you know, find themselves to be more relevant or interesting from an intuitive level so I-I straddle this. That's what I love about straddling the art and design. So sometimes it doesn't make it to the design level and it feels really good as an artistic piece and I can accept that as that. And I think it's okay. How other people interpret it, I'm not I can't be too concerned with that. In fact, I'd prefer that they interpret it their own way.

Dana Arnett
So you're also an educator and you've had an interesting journey along that path. You co-founded the Design Apprenticeship Program at the University of Chicago's Art Incubator. You're now an assistant professor at UIC. Can you talk a little bit about that journey, the mentorship fun you're having with the future generation of designers?

Norman Teague
Yeah.

Dana Arnett
Your other day job.

Norman Teague
Yeah, that's quite amazing to be in front of that exposure. For me, I think that's exactly what it is, is the exposure, particularly at the arts incubator where there's a series of young people from that community to really think about ways in which they can improve things in their community. And then ten years later, they come to you and say, I just finished urban planning degree from blah, blah, blah. And you're just like, Wow. And so at UIC, it's it's you know, I've always thought of USC as like this is the inner city school right here this is out of all the design schools. This is the school that that is A. most affordable. And then, B, that really caters to inner city design, you know, folks. And then I get there and I'm just like, I find out that there's so many people across the board that are hot designers in Chicago now that graduated from UIC. And so that's in architecture and industrial design, graphic design. And so it's really nice to be amongst a group of kids that are that are from inner city. But yeah, I think being a black educator in that circle is also important because I feel like there's still a a sprinkling of people of color, black people that attend design school. And so I think my face, I, I intentionally become the billboard for like, hey, you can do this. And there's black teachers there that understand, like, where you coming from. So that is sort of an important feature for me to be or a light for me to be seen in. And so I'm kind of using myself my blackness in a way as like poster boy or like the the Wheaties box, like you can like if I can do if y'all knew my back story, you can do this. Like, if I did it, anybody can do it.

Dana Arnett
Yeah. We had your colleague Vernon Lockhart on earlier in the season. And it's incredible to see how not only on a practitioner level and educator level successful you are, but just how much volunteer time you spend trying to get to the students and help them along. It's not like the bell rang and you're you're out the door.

Norman Teague
Yeah, I think it's just a care. Like, I think the part of the problem that you don't see black folks more in design schools is that we, we have to advertise that this is a great career choice, like this is a phenomenal way to make a living. And then, you know, just spurting out those I should be really boisterous about it. Like I didn't know professors made six figures. I guess- I literally I just found that out like two years ago. Never been important enough to me, I guess. But still to know that like, wow, six figures can come from not just being over here. I can also do this and make a really good living. All those things are like those are crucial to a young person because literally you go into some of these schools, and young black kids, and you tell them what you do for a living. And they're like- they're like: Cool, that's fun. But how much you make a year, what kind of car you driving? So those are real topics for young kids of color. They're just like: What- what do you mean, a good living? Like, you know, a janitor makes a good living, too. But how do I- how do I know which way to go? So I think it's like grabbing- getting their attention and then honing in, like, all these specialties. Like as a designer, you could you could do research, if you're good at sketching, you could just be sketching for life. Like, that's all you do is, like, sketch for somebody. And now like, wow, I could make a living doing that. So I feel like all of these things are, you know, this is what needs to be on the side of our school busses and, you know, like the packets that are going out to kids because like now every one of them is going to think like I can design gym shoes were cool. I can get you with the gym shoes. But let me also show you that you can do the display racks for all the shoes, or you could design the retail store that carries the shoes, you know. And so all of these different agents are really important and that that could be at a neighborhood level that they're learning these things, like really trying to get the design schools to think about these micro design schools that are that are in our neighborhood. So that that uncomfortableness of like going to campus and learning this like new life becomes a little bit simpler or introducing it at sixth grade, you know, fifth grade. So they're not coming into this new thing called college at, you know, like after high school. But it's more of a like I've rehearsed it, I've I've seen that I'm familiar with it. So now I'm I'm just moving into a place that I kind of plan on going in.

Dana Arnett
Creating the understanding.

Norman Teague
Yeah.

Kevin Bethune
When you reflect on your engagement with industrial design students at UIC, what is the main thing you're trying to communicate to them?

Norman Teague
That their story is important, that as you design objects, you're not just considering the last toaster that you saw, but you're also considering like your grandma's toaster.. You're considering the- you're not downplaying your own lifestyles as as no goes, you know, when you think about a community of people. And so I think just keeping that at the forefront because a lot of people don't and the rest is like, you'll get it. You'll get the the technical piece that comes with, you know, creating the 3D model and you'll-you'll make it pretty with all the colors. But I think it's okay that like if you have a mexican background that this has like a series of, you know, possibly influenced Aztec things that you remember from when you were a kid, that it's all okay. And I think that's like everything else is like we have a, you know, if you're given a design brief, you're going to you're going to do that anyway. But some people might just come to me because I'm- my furniture looks like it's made by a black dude, you know. And so that was emphasis and those those esthetics in there mean something to someone. And then the rest is like you fluff it as needed. But I think the most important thing is it's like, well, yeah, that that looks like yeah a Black dude did thay.

Kevin Bethune
And as you watch your students grow, what do you find most excites them?

Norman Teague
Wow. I mean, I think most of them want to be a they they want to they want a level of independence. They want to design something that has their own their name on it. They want to make decent money and they want to be cool. Like, I just I mean, you got to put it out there. Like, there's a, there's a cool level that I think designers like Virgil Abloh and Joe Freshgoods, like all these cats that have brought such a cool level to what design can do. I mean, I mean, you got to also think about the collaborations that are happening, like from a corporate level down to like street talent, I'm sorry, up to like street talent, not down to like it ain't no hierarchy. I think it's important to see these collaborations work for not just the corporation, but also for the designers on on the other end. And then watching those designers come up to a point where they're now the corporates who's reaching back and doing and doing collaborations with other emerging designers and artists like that, I think is, is what our city is, is seeing a lot more. So yeah, I think they're pretty amazing. Students are excellent and they, they influence me on a on a constant. So I think I have to think that most professors are they either they love what they do or they take a lot away from just the amazing abundance of differences that you got on a regular basis.

Dana Arnett
Well, Norman it is always a pleasure just to kick back and have great conversations with friends. So on behalf of The Design of Business | The Business of Design, thank you.

Kevin Bethune
Thank you so much.

Norman Teague
Thank you.

Kevin Bethune
The Design of Business | The Business of Design as a podcast from Design Observer. Our website is DBBD dot design observer dot com. There you can find more about our guest today, Norman Teague plus the complete archive from past guests and hosts. To listen go to DBBD dot design observer dot com.

Dana Arnett
If you like what you heard today, please subscribe to this podcast. You can find The Design of Business | The Business of Design in Apple Podcasts or however you listen to podcasts.

Kevin Bethune
And if you're already a subscriber to the podcast, tell your friends about the show or go to Apple Podcasts and rate us, which is a great way to let other people know about the show.

Dana Arnett
Thank you again to our partner Morningstar for making this conversation possible. Experience the intersection of design and investing at Morningstar.com. And between episodes you can keep up with Design Observer on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Kevin Bethune
This episode was recorded at the Morningstar studio. Thanks to the whole team there and especially to George Cassidy in the booth. Our producer is Adina Karp. Judybelle Camangyan edits the show. Betsy Vardell is Design Observer's executive producer. Our theme music is by Mike Errico. Thanks as always, to Design Observer founder Jessica Helfand and other previous hosts, Ellen McGirt and Michael Bierut..

Dana Arnett
See you next time.

Kevin Bethune
To you then.

Posted in: Design of Business | Business of Design



Comments [0]



Jobs | February 06