How Dozie Kanu Puts a Taste of Houston in His Emotion-Based Designs

by Brad Wete

Dozie Kanu. “Marble Cube TABLE” (2016). marble STONE, READYMADE casters. 16 x 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joshua Aronson.

Dozie Kanu. “Marble Cube TABLE” (2016). marble STONE, READYMADE casters. 16 x 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Joshua Aronson.


At only 24, Dozie Kanu's approach to design is refreshingly informed and cleverly subversive. Combining the conceptual zeal of a contemporary artist with the concise control of a designer steeped in modern minimalism, Kanu infuses form and function with an unexpected dose of urban edge. Packed with references to everything from streetwear and hip-hop to mid-century modern design and autobiographical symbolism, his visually poignant objects are impressively loaded and uncommonly resonant.

Originally from Houston, Kanu moved to New York City to attend the School of Visual Arts, where he studied film with an emphasis on production design. Working with fellow students on their film sets quickly led to commercial work for hire in production, art direction, and set design for runway shows and fashion shoots in Manhattan. He then interned with MatterMade, a New York-based manufacturing studio, where he would hone some logistical skills and industry connections.

In terms of how that background influenced his design practice, Kanu astutely offers, “It taught me about the importance of taking every variable seriously. Focusing on all the minor details and giving them all the same level of respect; this is ultimately how great things are made.” Only a year out of school – Kanu received his BFA from SVA in 2016 – and still, without yet having had the chance to create an entire collection of work, he has been inducted into the industry, somewhat reluctantly, as design’s new wunderkind.

His first furniture object, Chair [ i ], released in 2016 while he was still an undergrad, is a simple dining chair revealing the future promise of the creative dexterity that is now quintessentially Kanu. Made from black and white curved tubular steel with contrasting brushed ends, and accented with an electric-hued “Klein Blue” cushion, the chair combines diner kitsch, mid-century modernist simplicity, the art historical canon, and urban hipster chic in a single amalgamation that is something entirely other than the sum of its parts. Kanu has a knack for this sort of iconoclastic re-appropriation, a formal and conceptual device that seems entirely natural in his work – effortless even – and exempt from the potential heavy-handedness it might otherwise have.

Dozie Kanu. “TeePee Home” (2016). ready made antennas, readymade boxing gloves, sports tape. 12 x 4 x 4 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Kyle Rudd.   

Dozie Kanu. “TeePee Home” (2016). ready made antennas, readymade boxing gloves, sports tape. 12 x 4 x 4 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Kyle Rudd.   


When we meet, he shares some thoughts on his eclectic penchant for recombination and the intersecting disciplines of art and design in his work: “I get satisfaction from configuring an object’s form and its materials in a way that aligns with my sensibilities. When I’m inspired to make something, it’s really just me trying to figure out a way to filter all the things that I’ve seen and experienced, alongside the things that interest me at that given point in time, into an object or collection of objects. I believe the object should have layers of meaning and purpose, which I find are more difficult to assess in artworks. With design objects, on the other hand, the function is the object’s primary purpose for existing, and all of the representative details come after, which makes design less rigorous than making art.”

Following the self-produced Chair [ i ], Kanu has gone on to create Marble Cube Table, a hollowed cube of perfectly cut Portuguese marble, atop swiveling castor wheels, and Chair [ ii ], an armchair made of chrome brick tile flanked by industrial-looking foam and strapped with cargo belts. Relatable, eccentric, and oddly luxurious, these pieces are simultaneously hard and soft, concise and haphazard, inviting and prohibitive.

Most recently, Kanu’s work was included in the group exhibition MIDTOWN in New York, organized by Maccarone gallery and Salon 94. There, in the company of great artists and designers from Vito Acconci and Urs Fischer to Rick Owens and Gaetano Pesce, sits Kanu’s bench, a unique object consisting of a single slab of concrete atop two steel-spoked tire rims, or “84s,” conjoined by steel piping.

A deliberate mélange of influences, Kanu’s furniture designs share something of hip-hop’s aesthetic freedom. Often looking to the genre and its subculture for inspiration, Kanu’s work deftly combines references to high and low culture with an exciting and promiscuous ease. He says of hip-hop and its influence on his work, “Compared to other genres of music, hip-hop has this way of allowing artists to tell their story in a way that other genres don’t really encourage. It’s more direct, I would say. My favorite hip-hop artists are the ones that take their stories and use their platform to challenge or, like, fuck up mainstream culture — basically changing mainstream culture. I create with the same intention — to tell my story and to fuck up public perception.”

Dozie Kanu. “Chair [i]” (2016).  POWDER COATED TUBULAR STEEL, WOOD, POLYURETHANE FOAM, NUBUCK LEATHER. 20 x 20 x 28 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo:  Kyle Rudd.

Dozie Kanu. “Chair [i]” (2016).  POWDER COATED TUBULAR STEEL, WOOD, POLYURETHANE FOAM, NUBUCK LEATHER. 20 x 20 x 28 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo:  Kyle Rudd.


Mainstream culture is just a canvas to be scrambled, and Kanu’s furniture, which feels as much like sculpture as usable design, tangibly manifests this impulse in three-dimensions. When asked how his work has continued to change and evolve, Kanu answers, “I think I’m getting more daring and more open to implementing autobiographical details. Although I love minimalism, I plan on playing off of both sides of the spectrum.”

As an example of this newfound autobiographical license, Kanu’s Bench on 84s references his hometown of Houston through the choice of rims, a nod to its car culture, and in the subtle dyed tinge of the bench, a purple to allude to a cough syrup-based drink “purple drank,” of rapper notoriety. According to Kanu, “Houston and my general upbringing have been influencing a lot of my recent output. I don’t think New York is where I should be at the moment in terms of making work, but it has served as an antenna to get the message out. There are a lot of distractions here, and it’s expensive for the amount of space you’re paying for. I really want to be in Europe.”

Dozie Kanu. “Marble Cube Table” (2016). marble, readymade casters. 16 x 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: ZHI WEI

Dozie Kanu. “Marble Cube Table” (2016). marble, readymade casters. 16 x 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy the artist. Photo: ZHI WEI


As for the political and social issues that inform Kanu’s output, he offers, “Lack of education and lack of economic equality are the two most vexing political issues that come to mind. I try to implement ideas of overcoming and persevering in the face of adversity in my work. I think when you come from the sort of background that I came from, there’s a certain mentality that’s necessary to manifest the lifestyle you’ve envisioned for yourself. I always place function last when I’m designing. It’s more about the feeling.”

So what’s next for this rising star in the coming year? He’ll finally have the chance to work on his first full collection of objects and is in discussions for some as of yet top-secret collaborations with two great fashion brands, one involving the use of volcanic rock and recycled compressed aluminum. To top it off, there will be a photobook of drawings and images related to Kanu’s work and process forthcoming in the next year. An inspiring nonconformist, Kanu has our attention. 


Written by Marieke Treilhard  

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