While anyone would be grateful to receive Design Miami’s annual Designer of the Year Award and join the ranks of recipients like Konstantin Grcic, Marc Newson, and Zaha Hadid, for David Adjaye the honor also represents a particularly uncanny moment of professional synergy. Having spent the better part of his career designing in and around the art world—traversing the same borders that Design Miami purports to blur—the Tanzania-born, London-based architect is now gearing up to produce his own series of limited-edition furniture. Adjaye has never been one to limit himself to a single creative role, whether it’s masterminding a 10-year documentary photo-research project on urban Africa’s built landscape—released this month as a book, African Metropolitan Architecture (Rizzoli)—or designing the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., scheduled for completion in 2015. He calls his practice “holistic.” A more apt description may be superhuman.
Hi, David. What are you doing right now?
I’m getting ready to go see the launch of the Bouroullec Brothers’ Textile Field installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I just got back yesterday from a business trip to New York, where the Designer of the Year Award was announced, and before that I was in Tibet. I’d been wanting to visit that region’s monasteries for a long time, so I was there looking at the buildings and the landscape. Since Tibet is more than 4,000 feet above sea level, I was interested in see- ing how a mountain country like that works.
Where will you travel to next?
This weekend I’ll be at the Istanbul Biennial. I’m really looking forward to it because it seems to be the best place to get a sense of the current emerging art scenes in Southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. There’s a real buzz about the work coming out of that region. For me, art is more than just a hobby; it’s actually integral to my intellectual inquiry. It’s one of the things I look into as much as theory, or the latest philosophical concerns, or the latest scientific concerns. Art is a constant diet that one needs in order to understand what’s happening in the visual world.
What are your plans for the coming year?
We’re just now completing two community libraries in Washington, D.C., and we’re getting ready to start construction on our first major building in New York City, the Sugar Hill project. It’s low-income housing and a children’s museum for a community in Harlem. After that we’ll begin a large body of work in Accra and Lagos involving some master-planning and significant developments in the education and commercial sectors. And I’m also thinking about a new furniture series for next year, as it’s been awhile since my 2007 Monoforms collection for Albion Gallery. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I will say that texture plays an important role. We’re also working on some project-specific pieces with normal furniture companies, so in the next couple of years you’ll see both mainstream Adjaye furniture and one-off designs.
What can you tell us about your installation for Design Miami?
I’m making what I call archi-furniture: these very large-scale objects that are a bit like pavilions but smaller. I call the installation Genesis because it’s the first time I’ve combined furniture and the notion of space into one seamless object. You look at this thing, you encounter it, you can view from it, you can relax in it. It operates on a lot of scales, and it’s made out of one material.
Do you have a five-year plan?
I just want to get through everything I’ve got on my plate. My top priority is delivering an important, high-quality building for the Smithsonian on the National Mall in Washington. It’s the very last site on the Mall that you can put a full building on. After this, the Mall will finally be complete, 200 years after its inception.
What’s your ultimate career goal?
Just being acknowledged as a significant contributor to the development of culture through architecture. It’s a big goal, but a simple one.
How do you plan to retire?
By the beach, in my own shack, overlooking the ocean, with lots of coconut trees, on the coast of West Africa somewhere. But honestly, I doubt I’ll retire at all. I’m not the retiring type, because work isn’t really work for me. It’s a way of life.
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
“David Adjaye, architect, global citizen.” But I don’t know what I’m going to think in 20 years, or what burial is even going to be about by then. My tombstone might be a piece of digital software. Who knows?