The young furniture designer Dozie Kanu would like to build a city of his own one day, but last week he was content showing off playground equipment and bird feeders he had designed for Miami’s booming shopping mecca in the Design District. Fashioned out of rebar, the objects, including geodomes and monkey bars, first catch the eye because of their bright candy colors, meant to evoke the preferred custom colors of tricked-out automobiles in Kanu’s native Houston. They’re meant to be used by children too. Indeed, when first installed, Design District officials had concerns that children might hurt themselves on the brick floors below, so Kanu insisted that a workaround be found. He was relieved when he returned to Miami to find that black padding had been installed. Not only do the kids of Miami get to play on his latest installations, but Kanu hopes they find a more permanent home as a playground, of sorts, in a museum.
Of course, Kanu is not simply a designer of cheery-looking playground equipment for the sake of it. His designs, which have fans like Virgil Abloh and his former high-school classmate Travis Scott, always have a feature that intends to make you think.
“If you look at all of these climbing frames, they have serial numbers engraved into aluminum and screwed in on the side,” Kanu told the assembled crowd. “These serial numbers come from decommissioned guns and bullets that have been brought back from crime scenes, different criminals, through an organization called Raise the Caliber. It’s just a reference to the preservation of lives through one of the problems that we have in this country: gun violence.”
“Especially me being a black male,” he went on, “I have cousins that have died because of gun violence.”
Such direct, affecting messaging through furniture and industrial design is what has put the 25-year-old in a unique position among designers. Indeed, he’s not only the youngest winner ever to receive the Hublot Design Prize, but also the first American to take home the award established by the Swiss watch manufacturer to recognize design talent in their prime. Kanu was awarded the prize, alongside Italian design duo Formafantasma, earlier this year for his “social and environmental approach.”
Before the tour of his installation, I talked to Kanu inside Hublot’s Design District boutique about transitioning from film to furniture, his city-building ambitions, and his love of A24.
Let’s go back to the beginning. I understand you went to film school, and then transitioned into…
Into set design, which transitioned into interior design, which transitioned into objects, and space, so that’s sort of where I’m at right now.
What attracted you to that?
Just the sort of immediacy with which you can make things. Like, when I was doing stuff with sets, and just in general with the actual filmmaking process, there’s just so many people to depend on. But making objects, I was able to get ideas out pretty quickly, which I was able to put out into the world and get my name out by being able to produce things. But I guess there’s always time to go back to the roots and go back to that stuff.
Would you like to go back to film at some point?
Yes, very much so—and architecture. Maybe even city planning, which would be cool.
What attracts you to city planning?
I’m just up for challenges. I’m the type of person that likes to push themselves to the very edge of their capabilities. I think with planning a city, there’s so many variables you have to be on top of, and there’s so many nuts and bolts.
Have you thought about what it might look like, or what sort of principles it might have?
No, I haven’t thought that far.
So, it’s just the challenge that was attractive to you?
When did you realize, “Oh, this could be a thing for me?”
I guess when I was working with a designer in New York—she was an interior designer, but she was making a transition into making objects for clients—and I guess watching someone who didn’t have formal training as an industrial designer make that transition was an eye-opening moment. The inception of an idea all the way to the completion of it, just watching that whole process. Sort of being aware of it, then doing it myself.
Because it’s not a career path maybe that lots of people hear about as kids.
Exactly, which is something that I want to change. I think the only way that I could change it is through being. That’s one thing that I’m focused on right now.
There are young furniture makers, but they’re very far removed from pop culture. My whole thing is about placing myself in the middle of the conversation with hip-hop stars, actors, almost like an ‘80s art movement, where you had people like Andy Warhol, who were regarded as high as like the top musicians, which is kind of rare for people who work in such an elitist sort of industry. It’s going to take some time, though. I don’t think it’s going to happen over at night at all. It’s something to be aware or and be conscious of.
With your objects, do you conceive of them as furniture in someone’s home, or do you think they could be used in different ways?
I really make my objects for two things: for people to live with them and for art museums. So either you’re living with them, or you’re viewing them in a gallery context. That’s what I envision when I make them. I don’t really think that they’re props.
Do you have any dream collaborators?
Vitra is very high on my list, just because of the scope of working with a brand like that would bring: the manufacturing capabilities, the intense research necessary, and the accessibility that the objects would have. Because right now there’s this whole process: You have to contact my gallery, there’s a waiting list, and all of this stuff. But working with a company like Vitra you can just order it online or go to a showroom, and it’s right there and you can buy it. Something I sort of want for my work. Not all of it, but I think there’s a great opportunity there.
You’d like to see it out in the world more.
Yeah, and collaborations? A24 is an amazing film production company that I’d like to work with.
Are there any filmmakers you’d like to work with, or would you rather just jump in and do the whole project yourself?
I’d love to jump in and do the whole thing myself, but I love Paul Thomas Anderson films. I love Woody Allen’s writing skills, something that I’m trying to incorporate into my writing skills. But exhibitions, that’s my top priority right now. That’s what I’m focusing on right now, doing the best sort of exhibitions I could possibly do. Next year, I’m gearing up to do my first solo exhibition in New York, and it just has to be precise.
What are your guiding principles when it comes to design?
My whole thing is infusing the objects with energy, that has the strong capacity to communicate something else besides just the function of the object. You look at this, and it’s a nice couch, it’s a great couch, but you wouldn’t think to put it in gallery, you wouldn’t think it’s saying anything else other than, “I’m a nice couch.” That’s really what I’m after; I’m after people to look at these objects and see that this is not just a chair, there’s something else, there’s something that the maker of this was reaching for outside of this just being a chair.
Your work has an aesthetic that jumps out. But you look closer and there’s something unexpected.
But I think I can do that much better than I can do right now. To be clear, I don’t think that I’m some amazing designer, I really don’t. But I think that my approach is what is attracting to people to my work, and I still have a lot to prove to myself, honestly.