Dozie Kanu is the Third Coast Corbusier

Keeping Tabs on the 24-Year-Old Rising Furniture Designer

  • Interview: Joshua Aronson
  • Photography: Joshua Aronson

Counting Travis Scott and Matthew Williams among his confidants, 24-year-old Dozie Kanu can’t help but grin at his own rise as streetwear’s answer to furniture design. The Houston native effortlessly floats between design, hip-hop, and fashion's various microcosms. At home in the post-Tumblr world of design, Kanu is driven by a predilection for subverting norms, an insatiable urge to create, and a love of melding street culture with design sensibilities.

His furniture is sculptural but functional. By his hand, a black marble cube turns into a table on industrial wheels. Foam and metal are melded into a grunge-glam chaise. For his Chair [ i ], 2016, Kanu remixes the classic diner chair into Klein blue and polished steel. Making mostly prototypes for now, Kanu is working within his means with one eye cast to his undeniably hype future.

Just before heading to London, Kanu stepped before photographer Joshua Aronson's lens in Tokyo. Then, again, in Manhattan. Their trans-Pacific conversation spans cinema, rejecting black American stereotypes, and the life-altering potential of contemporary design.

Joshua Aronson

Dozie Kanu

As an artist and designer, how would you describe your background?

Growing up, my parents encouraged me to take interest in the law or medical fields. Naturally, I chose to do the complete opposite. After highschool I moved to New York to study film at the School of Visual Arts. My focus was in production design, which was kind of uncommon.

What was that like?

Well, I was always being asked by students to work on their film sets, and then I just started doing freelance commercial work around New York. I worked for a production company called Bureau Betak that produced runway shows, then for a designer named Carol Egan, then I ended up interning at MatterMade, a manufacturing studio.

Who are some of the filmmakers that have been formative for your vision and design thinking?

I really love auteurs. Paul Thomas Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Steve McQueen, and, of course, Wes Anderson, the production design genius. I just respect them—they create almost their entire vision. It’s sort of the same as being a designer. You draw it up, you render it, and then you go out and make it.

So when did you first start designing furniture? What would you consider your first piece?

After working in the design industry for a couple years, I used those resources and contacts to start making my own work—around early 2015. The first pieces were a set of chairs I had fabricated in Brooklyn.

What else inspires you and your work?

I’ve always been a huge hip-hop fanatic. I recently realized that good conversation is a great place to find inspiration. I try to surround myself with experienced and accomplished people that have knowledge to dish out.

So who do you like to talk to?

Well, I draw inspiration from talking to Alyx’s designer, my friend, Matthew Williams. He’s got a lot of experience as a creative and with working with some of the biggest names in music. Now he’s doing an amazing job with his collection. I also talk to my friend Travis [Scott] that I grew up with. He’s not really as deep into the art conversation as I am, but we talk about how he deals with different pressures, and how he stays focused. I also speak with my mom a lot.

And how did you meet Travis Scott? Are you involved in any elements of his work? Stage design, merchandise, or collaborations?

We came up in the same little suburb in Houston. A place called Missouri City. I knew about him but we didn’t become homies until I had a class with him my freshman year of highschool. Not going to take any credit for what he does. He’s definitely the mastermind behind his whole career. We bounce ideas about literally everything though.

Is there a distinction between furniture and works of art? Where do you fall on the spectrum?

Sometimes I make sculptures, but for the most part right now I’m making functional works. It’s a little bit less rigorous. Sometimes I feel pressured to load work with meaning—or, when the work doesn’t have a real function, you’re sort of trying to create a perceived function. As if it serves a purpose. Worth having an existence. That can be nerve-racking sometimes. I think it should happen very naturally, very organically. With furniture, the function is its purpose, so it’s still art in that way. You can still give it that same respect, but you can justify its existence immediately because you can use it, you know?

You say that through art and design you can break the black American male stereotype. Can you elaborate?

American culture subconsciously teaches young black men that athletics, music, and moving weight are the best ways to get ahead. And if you’re not doing that, then you’ll just become another victim of intergenerational poverty. There’s so many lanes and avenues. I just want to expose them. Open up minds the same way mine was opened. I think bringing contemporary art and design to the awareness of more young black Americans—not just male—could create change for the way we’re perceived by the rest of Americans. Like, somehow melting this awareness into black culture’s DNA. Right now, art and design is still this elitist thing. I want to encourage black people to just think differently and challenge them to really take control over their circumstances. I feel like art and design has the power to do that.

Who are some contemporary black artists who have done that?

Nathaniel Mary Quinn is amazing. I really love Torey Thornton’s paintings. There are so many young, black artists that I’m really inspired by. I think they are a good representation of people who are breaking the mold of how black artists can be seen in the world. I’m not interested in being a black artist. I’m not interested in being a southern artist. I’m not interested in being a Nigerian artist. I want to erase that stigma in a way. I’m interested in the things that come from being black, but I’m not really interested in stamping myself as a black artist, if that makes sense.

Do you find the label of ‘black artist’ too restrictive then?

Yeah. I just get thrown in a pool with other black artists when, it’s like, can I just be an artist and get the same respect as an artist, you know? I don’t think race should be such a point in the art world, but it definitely is. If you look at the way America was structured, art is meant for the elite. It’s meant for people that are educated and have leisure time. Whereas black people don’t have that ancestry—there’s no lineage that’s given them that boost.

So what are some of the design principles that guide your own work?

Right now, since I’m just starting out, I don’t have that many resources. So the cost to make something sort of plays a role in what I can actually do. I source materials and I incorporate that into the work. Getting something fabricated from scratch is a little bit pricey...

Do you think those constraints are productive for you right now or are they just frustrating?

Well, it’s kind of fun. It’s like problem solving. It’s like, I know what I like when I see it, so how can I do that with what I have? How can I develop my language without having the freedom that some of the biggest names in design have right now? I was really working with chitlins, you know? Like working with nothing. So that’s really what’s informing a lot of my pieces right now. I use a lot of symbolism also, but I’d rather not speak on that.

  • Interview: Joshua Aronson
  • Photography: Joshua Aronson