Norman Teague. (Photo: Ross Floyd. Courtesy Norman Teague Studios)
Norman Teague. (Photo: Ross Floyd. Courtesy Norman Teague Studios)

Norman Teague on How He Keeps His Finger on the Pulse

The Chicago-based artist, designer, and furniture maker’s media intake spans Chicago’s PBS station, the podcast Culture Raises Us, and “Shameless.”
By Emily Jiang
June 8, 2023
16 minute read

Norman Teague has a global outlook, but the artist, designer, furniture-maker, and educator keeps his work close to home. Based in Chicago, where he was born and raised, he sees his practice as a way to revitalize design traditions from Africa and the African diaspora and weave them into American design, as well as a way to enrich the South Side community he grew up in. His “Africana” furniture and homeware collection from 2021 incorporates hand-carved details that reference African tribal carvings, and includes a chair stamped with a phrase in the West African Yoruba language that translates as “Craft a Black circle of economy.” Other designs of his more subtly reference African aesthetics, employing crisscross and zigzag motifs or utilizing traditional techniques such as basket weaving.

Most recently, for the exhibition “Everlasting Plastics” at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale (on view through Nov. 26), Teague made a departure from his typical medium of wood to create a site-specific commission of coil vessels and baskets made of extruded recycled plastic. At present, in collaboration with the artist and muralist Dorian Sylvain, he’s at work on a public pavilion dedicated to Frederick and Anna Douglass at Douglass Park in Southwest Chicago. (The park was recently renamed to honor the late couple; it was previously called Douglas Park—with one S—after the former U.S. senator and slave owner Stephen A. Douglas.)

Outside of his independent practice, Teague serves as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, where he teaches a course called “Social Design,” which asks students to take their designs from the screen or the sketchbook into the real world and to engage with local Black retailers (past participants have included the shop and showroom The Silver Room and the streetwear brand Leaders 1354). The university, he says, “has allowed me the space to think about the ways in which academia and Chicago’s Black arts and culture can best learn from one another. A lot of my practice allows me to be in the community—in neighborhoods, at block parties—initiating moments that really bring about a level of social justice and social vibrance to a particular group of patrons.”

Teague’s community-minded output is fueled by his equally community-minded input. In large part, the media he consumes either informs him about the goings-on of his community, or brings his attention to other makers in the creative spaces he inhabits. “Media that provides platforms for voices, and sort of serves a level of justice, is crucial to us,” he says, “particularly now, because standard ways of delivering news have failed us.” In other moments, Teague averts his attention from the present day—or even the present millennium—and takes solace in historical fiction, such as the shows The Last Kingdom and Queen Charlotte (the sequel to Bridgerton).

Here, we speak with Teague about the sources he turns to for inspiration and entertainment, as well as those that help him keep his finger on the pulse.

“Re+prise” (2023), Teague’s site-specific installation for the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale. (Photo: ReportArch/Andrea Ferro Photography)
“Re+prise” (2023), Teague’s site-specific installation for the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale. (Photo: ReportArch/Andrea Ferro Photography)

How do you start your mornings?

Usually with some sort of a workout, be it a walk, run, or at the gym. Then I go straight into my coffee and think through the coming projects and week. You’ll see my first call is to my studio assistants, thinking about what needs to be done and prepared for the week.

Breakfast for me is a slice of toast and a banana. I save room for a lunch that I can appreciate.

Where do you get your news?

The New York Times, of course. I’m also a big NPR fan. It’s kind of my background noise. I flip that on in the car, or I flip that on in the headphones when I’m going for a run. I really like Car Talk. It’s the weirdest stories, but you can always apply them [to your own life] in some sort of way. Then, in the evenings, WTTW (Chicago’s PBS station) is my go-to source for the news. I feel like I’m almost cousins with the two newscasters, because they just keep it close to home, and it’s mainly Chicago-based news.

Any favorite podcasts?

I love this podcast called Material Matters. I think it’s a little biased with the interviews, because all of the people that [Grant Gibson] interviews seem to come from the Royal College of Art. Nonetheless, it’s really informative. You could listen to people like Ineke Hans, who’s a Dutch designer. She actually visited me at the School of the Art Institute [of Chicago] when I was doing my master’s. She has a lot of ideas around plastics, and this came particularly in handy when I was thinking about the reuse of plastics and preparing for the Venice Biennale show. I could go [to Material Matters] and hear really rich stories of how one or another artist or designer might work their practice around plastics, or even thinking about just the craft of turning waste wood—this brother Darren Appiagyei turns found pieces of wood into these really beautiful objects. Material Matters brings me closer to the design world. We don’t have a lot of resources or materials, laboratories or things like that in the Chicagoland area. So it’s really rich to hear about [these things] from a worldly standpoint.

Another podcast I listen to is called Culture Raises Us, hosted by a brother named Astor Chambers. It’s Black folks being very open about either their work or their thoughts around how the culture can impress upon a lot of the things that we’re doing in the way that the world is moving. It really gets to—exactly like what we’re doing now—the cusp of good, honest conversations from local artists or makers or social cultivators that are doing something special in their field. I think that it’s really nice to hear from people across the globe that are doing stuff. They really get in-depth on some of the conversations they have, like Joe Freshgoods, who’s a local designer here in Chicago, working closely with New Balance and other brands. Amanda Williams, who I just happened to run across, had an amazing interview on there.

There’s one other podcast, which is actually a story through a series of episodes, and it’s called You Didn’t See Nothin. It almost feels like it has a question mark at the back. It’s by my friend Yohance Lacour, who is an investigative journalist. He tells one story from beginning to end, and in the meanwhile goes into some other stories. He’s just a brilliant dude. He’s a leatherworker. He works with me in my studio and [collaborates on] some of the works I do. He’s a writer on top of all of that.

Any favorite magazines?

Everything from the Smithsonian magazine to Dezeen, Surface, Vibe—magazines that are visually uplifting to some extent, but also have interesting articles. Instagram might be my biggest subscription. [Laughs] But, you know, I keep it coming. Dwell would be another one. I grew up on Architectural Record. This was probably the magazine that motivated me to go into architecture, and then eventually switch to product design. Architectural Record was one of the earliest inspirations that I can remember as a young man that really allowed me to visually dream of what could be next, and pushed me into thinking further about what my role was, and how do I get into this field.

A lot of my questions were around, why are we not in this field? Why is Dwell not covering…. There weren’t a lot of cool houses in my neighborhood to choose from, but I think that if there were the opportunities to have that sort of an outlet to showcase, I think there might have been more of those homes. I think that what’s happening in the field now is that designers of color are realizing that there are other designers of color, and how do we collaborate more closely? That rich coming together of the minds allows us a sense of comfort and equitable movements. I think there’s something that allows us to move in a different fashion, due to the fact that we are a collective, or we are a group, or we are not alone in this. It feels really great. I mean, I think Lesley Lokko [the guest on Ep. 160 of our At a Distance podcast] is a great composer of that [idea] in a really beautiful way—in a very musical way—to bring that light and that attention, but also to reference a sort of open call to the future, which is needed. It’s nice to know that you’re not running this race alone.

Any favorite TV shows?

Yeah. The Last Kingdom, which I just couldn’t take my eyes off of. Most of what I’m looking at is old-world stuff. I was watching the new Bridgerton, Queen Charlotte. Shonda Rhimes is the producer and writer, just as she led Bridgerton. I just grabbed onto it. This beautiful Black queen was put into an arranged marriage, and I’m always interested in these thoughts around a different past and this sort of reappropriating what history has shown us, or given us, and then just remixing that whole thing—like throwing in my own thoughts, throwing in these new characters. I guess I reimagine pasts to help with thoughts around the future.

I did a piece with Florence Knoll, who was the head of Knoll for a number of years, and kind of got it to where it is today. I was offered one of her couches to reupholster, and I reupholstered it in my standard orange quilted material. It was just a lot of fun thinking about what it might have looked like, had I been there—had Florence and I been homies back in the day, thinking about her next pattern for upholstery. She was talking to me and I was saying, throw in some zigzag or throw in some…. So just thinking widely about the what ifs, you know, what would have been?

We just interviewed the artist Nick Cave on our Time Sensitive podcast, and he did a collaboration with Knoll Textiles. His collection brings to mind what you’re talking about—he really made the textiles come alive.

There’s a certain richness in that rethinking that satisfies my soul. There’s a part of me that can be an upset Black man, constantly. I can think back on all of the shit that we’ve been through. But a way in which I can get past that is to just, in my most humorous of ways, have fun with this new [kind of] collaboration. We know what’s out there from a design history standpoint. We’re well educated on what white men have done in the past to make the design industry what it is today—fantastic, cool, great. Can’t change that. But I can alter that shit just ever so slightly, where it just satisfies my soul. And maybe it’s not even that collaboration, but it’s just thinking widely about what we may have done as a people in that time period, or that capsule, or that canon, shall we say. [Laughs]

Absolutely. So do you have any favorite social media accounts?

A lot of it is humorous, and a lot of it is culturally driven. There’s a group called Tiny WPA out of Philadelphia. They have a number of amazing workshops where they’re working with people in the community, and they’re designing these new and interesting pieces of furniture. I just find it so inspiring.

The fact that we can turn to Instagram, and watch a small child, a toddler, take his first three steps and fall down, and that just makes our day, that’s why there’s such an addiction to it, because maybe there are some things in your life that you’re just not getting on your daily walk to work, or whatever. But you get it through this small platform that can provide you with a laugh, or with a cry—or with your next mate, you never know. It’s pretty amazing what you can get through technology, and there's this control, to some extent, that we have as designers to put out the perfect picture to display, the perfect graphic to show the step-by-step for how you made that last product. There are these optic moments that we can now share to help build and empower our communities.

Any guilty pleasures?

I watch a lot of corny stuff. Workin’ Moms is really interesting to me. You know what else is interesting to me? Shameless. It’s so raw. And it’s filmed in Chicago, so I love that.

I guess my guilty pleasure is that, when I get off of work, I’m really excited to just not work no more. I was watching my friend Krista Franklin do an interview. They asked her, “What do you do when you’re free, or to get away?” She was like, “I really love laying on my couch and watching TV.” I was just like, “Oh, my God, I’m so glad you said that.” As a designer, particularly at this moment in my career—where I’m approaching 60 years old, and I’ve been working this kind of hustle for well over twenty-five, almost thirty years—I’m looking for ways to level things out and make it real simple and have that studio that just cruises and nobody gets overworked. But when I get home from work, I want to watch TV. Just mindless TV. Sometimes I can’t wait to get back to Queen Charlotte and see what happens in that, because it’s an escape.

When I think about Africa, I think about the South and West Sides of Chicago, I think about the rougher sides of St. Louis, and all of these places, and how the idea of speculation has never been a leisure for us. So I think [about] Wakanda moments, and looking at that very surreal architecture that we see as a backdrop for Wakanda, and how that plays a role in the real world, and what a Black neighborhood would look like, if that kind of speculation were a leisure for us.

What’s one piece of media that you think everyone should consume?

You mean, besides my mama’s apple pie? [Laughs]

Well, one of the things that I’ve really been pleased and impressed with is just a walk. Not like a walk to work out things and sweat, but just a slow walk. It rejuvenates something in you—I can’t speak for the world, but it rejuvenates something in me. Whether it be a walk through your neighborhood or through a park, but literally just taking in the sounds, and the smells, and the breathing. Maybe you ask a friend to join you, but I think that is a crucial moment of reflecting and recollecting—recollecting just how great the world we live in can be, or has been. Almost a moment of thankfulness. Life in general is a little short, and we should provide ourselves the personal space of that silent walk.