Virgil Abloh is an artist who wears many hats, and as of November 1, he can add a collaboration with everyone’s favorite Swedish furniture giant to his résumé. The multihyphenate has spent the last two years working on a much-anticipated collection for IKEA, bringing his tongue-in-cheek observational sensibilities to the masses with what he calls “democratic design.” His Markerad collection features a number of thoughtfully designed, quirky pieces that range from a backlit replica of the Mona Lisa to a fuzzy green rug with the phrase “wet grass” emblazoned across the surface. Abloh explains that he wanted to take what’s often seen as mundane and give it a fun, unexpected twist. “I made it a point to give each item a reason for existing in accordance to my design and logic and the culture at large,” he tells Architectural Digest.
Markerad is far from Abloh’s first venture into furniture design. The Off-White founder also created a furniture arm to his company, called Grey Area, several years ago, and he debuted a new furniture collection and installation, Twentythirtyfive, with Swiss design brand Vitra, at Art Basel this past June. With Markerad, however, what Abloh specifically hopes to do is help a new generation of consumers realize their inner aesthetes through exposure and education.
“I thought, What does a 17-year-old from Indiana know about design and furniture, and what can they actually have?” he says. “What can they afford? I wanted to bridge that gap, so that became the original design inspiration.” Here, Abloh opens up about his latest project, the importance of intentional decor, and his fascination with the mundane.
Architectural Digest: The word markerad is a Swedish term that means “clear-cut, crisp, pronounced,” and it feels fitting for your collection and your aesthetic as a whole.
Virgil Abloh: I think what makes this [collaboration] unique is that it brings what I represent in the design community and in fashion or pop culture, and pairs that with a brand like IKEA, which is all about democratic design and easy accessibility. Almost everyone has or had a piece of IKEA furniture, which cannot be said for many other household goods manufacturers. The combination of the both of us makes for a unique opportunity, especially with the younger generation. This wasn’t designed for niche. A lot of times, furniture is made for one certain set of people. Like, I might have a type of chair in my place that you probably wouldn’t even consider. Taste is specific. So I challenged myself, as well as the team organizing the project, to make this collection resonate on a wide scale, and the name signifies how precise we wanted to be with the vision that I devised.
AD: I love that you mention the concept of things not just being affordable, but accessible.
VA: Obviously, as an artist and a designer, I’m obsessed with the generic. To me, there’s something ubiquitous about the fact that if I say “chair,” a four-year-old can draw it, and a 17-year-old can imagine it. It’s a chair. But who designed it and where did it come from? The other end of the spectrum for that is the designer chair, which is specific to just one name and one aesthetic. It’s very niche. So with this collection, I was interested in making everything very generic but very much with my thumbprint on it. The chair in this collection has a doorstop on one foot—in one way it is very generic, but it also has this surrealist take on it.
AD: You began talks with IKEA way back in 2017. What inspired your initial sketches then, and were there other influences that came in along the way?
VA: I’m the type that’ll oftentimes get a spark of inspiration right away. I’ll never usually have a dull time of no ideas. But the challenge here was that everyone has different tastes, especially when it comes to the inside of their houses. We’re not at a time like in the ’60s, when everyone had a lava lamp or an orange shag carpet or a brown leather La-Z-Boy. I feel like now, especially with millennials, there’s no standard for interiors. I was originally inspired by the design community of the midcentury-modern revival movement—very much from a different era, but highly valued, very expensive, and at one point, very generic. I wanted a younger generation to appreciate the pure design of these pieces at a level only IKEA could provide.
AD: Practicality always seems to be a big must in your designs. Could you speak to striking that fine balance between practical and fashionable decor?
VA: One of the pieces that I love the most is a display case with glass on all sides that has a wood frame. People’s personalities are made up by the things that they own, but oftentimes, there’s stuff that you buy, or things that you collect, that you just put in a cupboard, or in a closet. And so due to space concerns, you don’t actually remember that you have it or showcase it. But you should want to put those pieces on display!
AD: Do you have a favorite piece from the collection?
VA: My favorite is probably the chair, because that one comes with a lot of logic and thinking and decision-making, and its reason for existing is very multilayered. But I’m also enjoying the mirror. It’s like a broken mirror that plays on the idea of seven years of bad luck, but it also plays on one of the most—at least, in my college days—the most-often seen IKEA items, that large-scale mirror. I wanted to make a version that was broken, but it’s fractured on purpose, which also gives a cool use for the mirror. You can see different angles of yourself rather than a standard, flat mirror. And I’m equally excited to release the one artwork of the collection, which is the one-to-one scale [replica] of the Mona Lisa that lights up. I think that [it’s pretty incredible to have] one of the most expensive artworks in the world at an affordable price, that a 14-year-old can have it in his bedroom while at the same time, it’s on display at the Louvre.
AD: You’ve talked before about how you love to “intellectualize the mundane.” Could you expand upon that a little more? What are some of your favorite mundane household items?
VA: Within this collection, it’s the doorstop. I designed a doorstop. It’s such a useful tool that is also mundane — keeping a door open that always stays closed is almost like a breath of relief in a way. It’s also metaphoric. One of the things that unhinged the whole avalanche of ideas for the IKEA project for me was the doorstop. I found myself thinking, What’s man’s greatest invention? It’s probably the wheel. But then I thought, The person that one-ups the wheel was the one who thought of a caulk or a doorstop, a wedge that stops the wheel from moving. And that’s what then unlocked the logic of the doorstop, and that’s how the doorstop ended up on the chair. It was this idea of this very important invention that’s not obvious, that is a mundane, helpful tool, that’s probably not even really thought about. From there, I think you can sort of get how that became a mascot for what this collection meant, in my mind.