Mark Grattan Won’t Be Put Into a Box

The creative force behind Mexico City furniture studio VIDIVIXI meditates on the ups and downs of being a queer black man in the design industry.

Mark Grattan. Photography by Jorge Abuxapqui.

Mark Grattan was never certain where life would take him. After studying industrial design at Pratt Institute, the fledgling furniture designer settled down at a shop in Brooklyn’s Industry City to carve out the inaugural collection for VIDIVIXI, his newly launched studio. A few years later, however, he started feeling smothered by the trappings of New York—exorbitant costs of doing business stifled his creativity (“I only really had access to wood”), and the design community’s nonstop social demands offered debaucherous distractions (“I was partying my ass off!”). After meeting his then-boyfriend, who lived in Mexico City, Grattan decided to uproot his life in Brooklyn. He outsourced VIDIVIXI’s production, gave up the shop, and followed his heart to Mexico.  

He hasn’t looked back since. Relocating to Mexico City and meeting his business partner, Adam Caplowe, has afforded Grattan the precious space—mentally, physically, and financially—to crystallize VIDIVIXI’s footing in the design industry as an ascendant purveyor of seductive and highly sophisticated furniture infused with sumptuous materiality and global craftsmanship. Perhaps the brand’s most recognizable piece is the Docked en Rio platform bed, which features curved cotton modules that support a walnut frame—a reference to traditional Japanese furniture and an unmistakable statement piece. 

Grattan, who is black and queer, serves as VIDIVIXI’s leading creative force. He prefers to distance his own narrative from the brand, rarely divulging personal details and instead remaining steadfast in his philosophy that VIDIVIXI’s work speaks for itself. In other words, Grattan exists on his own terms—much like the furniture he masterfully creates.

Switch Mid-Size Sideboard, Cafe Con Leche Occasional Table, On Second Thought Club Chair. Photography by Pia Riverola
(FROM LEFT) Hermanx Auxiliary Table. Docked en Rio Bedframe. Photography by Pia Riverola

On May 25, George Floyd’s senseless murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officers provoked widespread outrage. Protests against systemic racism and police brutality immediately swept across the United States while discussions about rectifying racial disparities and dismantling white supremacy suddenly became omnipresent. Design media, which often stays blissfully out-of-tune with political discourse, scrambled to join the conversation. Most ended up bundling a hodgepodge of black designers (whom they rarely cover under normal circumstances) into hasty roundups that glazed over their work and achievements. A prominent shelter magazine included VIDIVIXI in a muddled Instagram post of must-follow black designers without seeking Grattan’s permission or discussing his work, which struck a nerve. Being covered in this way, Grattan declared in a separate post, feels antithetical to VIDIVIXI’s long-standing mission of designing furniture with strength, sex appeal, and ingenuity—his blackness, he says, is beside the point. 

Coincidentally, a few months prior, Grattan was ruminating on how his queer black identity fits into the design industry, which skews overwhelmingly white. According to the 2019 AIGA Design Census, only three percent of designers are Black or African American, a revelation that prompted Grattan to reflect on how he managed to slip through the cracks while so many others are left behind. It’s an intimate—and often harrowing—inner monologue that he experiences in an evocative new photo series, in which he faces himself in VIDIVIXI’s Split Mirror, a standout from the brand’s Spring 2020 collection. Not only do the photographs, masterfully shot by Jorge Abuxapqui, reflect the strength and resolve of somebody still finding his footing in an industry that doesn’t look like him, but it marks one of the first times that Grattan has directly ascribed his identity into the studio’s work. 

Below, Grattan sounds off on experiences with racism, how the industry can achieve equity, and why design media should stop putting black talent in a box. 

Photography by Jorge Abuxapqui

In Latin, “vidi vixi” means “I saw and I lived.” With regard to the protests against police brutality and systemic racism, what have you seen and how are you responding?

I’ve been reflecting on how I was raised with racism and taught to deal with it. My family acknowledged it, but we were always able to infiltrate places we don’t necessarily belong—in other words, the white world. We never used it as an excuse to not have something, but we always knew we had to work ten times harder. I’ve had a habit of ignoring it and trying not to see it, even though it was always around me.

These protests have put racism back on my radar. Racism exists, and I need to be proactive and speak up. Many people, including myself, aren’t used to doing that. That said, our intention is to integrate but I almost feel like it’s doing the opposite. I’m now questioning my white friends and their integrity—I’m thinking back to things they’ve done to me and forming new connections and creating hang-ups all at the same time. I have also noticed my “network of color” is expanding, making virtual friends with a lot of the young, gifted, and black. You know who you are and I love you.

On a professional level, the past week has been wild. Opportunities are presenting themselves left and right—opportunities that VIDIVIXI has been chasing since we relaunched in 2018. We received a phone call from a gallery in particular we’d been dancing with for ages. During our conversation, the owner understood that there was an elephant present and I respect him for mentioning that he always liked our work but admitted to never really seeing an urgency to fit it within their program… until now. Due to the protests, he said they were responding to their lack of diversity in the program and reflecting upon it. (So be it.) My response was to not include VIDIVIXI because I’m black. It needs to be about the work.

It feels like I’m taking two steps back to take one step forward. I realize I need to suck up my pride to get my foot in the door. Once you do that, you have the opportunity to progress. I’ve had to tell myself to not be an asshole, not be resentful, and not put on a show. But in this bracket of design, it feels like I’m the only black person creating furniture on VIDIVIXI’s level. And where are the black women and non-binary folks? I don’t even see them at the trade shows. At ICFF, I never saw black people exhibiting—only a few walking around. That’s a huge gathering of designers with no black people. I don’t get it.

The protests have forced the design industry into a reckoning about low representation. What forces do you think are perpetuating this? 

Those numbers are only for interior design. I don’t know of any numbers for furniture designers. Ultimately, though, this low representation stems from a lack of disclosure. Black children aren’t getting art classes—that’s the first thing cut in these underfunded schools. Those opportunities are eliminated at an early age. As a result, art school isn’t seen as a real option to working-class students. It’s seen as a hobby, or something that you don’t pay for. They’re not getting exposed to it. But I do know how I slipped through the cracks: I grew up in a white neighborhood, I went to a predominantly white art college, and was raised professionally in a white surrounding. You know, the “white place, white time.”

I keep coming back to this quote by the fashion designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, who is so beautifully articulate with words. He said something along the lines of “Equality is when black people can be mediocre.” I get that. We can’t be mediocre. We have to be the best. When I was at Pratt, there was one other black guy in the industrial design program. His work was so bad. I took it personally. I couldn’t be affiliated with him. Everything about his poor design work stressed me out. At the same time, I could be friends with the white guy who was doing shit work. It’s an affiliation—if one black guy is bad, we’re all perceived as bad. What forces are making me think like this? It’s a tragedy.

Photography by Jorge Abuxapqui

What do you think it will take to level the playing field? 

We need to expose black kids to art studios and get them in the shop when they’re young. Otherwise, they won’t know those opportunities exist. Art schools need to give more scholarships to black kids. Defund the police and put those art programs back in schools.

Black people like to affiliate with other black people. If black kids see more black talent in magazines, maybe they’ll think “I can do this too.” Seeing more black around will open their eyes. Most under-exposed black kids probably think these industries aren’t for them.

A major driving force behind this is how magazines portray black people. You recently spoke out against a publication that included VIDIVIXI in an Instagram post that rounded up black designers without discussing their work—only that they’re black.

I was thinking “Why the fuck do I have 200 new followers in 15 minutes at 10 PM? I found the post later that night and thought it was super sloppy. They only did it because they felt like they needed to. The overall association was painful. I originally wasn’t going to say anything, but I woke up the next morning to talk to a friend about it—she pushed me over the edge feeling just as angry and humiliated. She said “It’s not even my work and I’m dry heaving over my phone screen.” That’s when I knew I had to say something. I brushed my beard, Aesop’d my face, put on a real shirt for the first time in 12 weeks, and pushed record. I wasn’t expecting such a positive response. That was just me on Instagram doing my thing. Two days prior, I was crying like a baby all over my stories—feeling apprehensive about another emotional breakdown.

What advice would you give to design media when it comes to covering black talent?

Curate it like you would your other projects. Why does it have to look different from the content you’ve previously covered? Why can’t it look as beautiful as the shit you talked about last month? It’s a damn scam and doesn’t articulate authentically, and you know it. Dragging us through the dirt—having everybody looking dumb—you included.

I’ll admit that digital editors face intense pressure to drive traffic, but those roundups seem to lack critical thought and ultimately feel counterproductive to the cause. 

They totally are. It shows a lack of effort. It was so sad to see that post slapped together. They wouldn’t slap anything else together like that. It seems so shallow. It’s not the way.

Photography by Jorge Abuxapqui

You’ve always been adamant that VIDIVIXI’s work—its design, craftsmanship, and aesthetic—should speak for itself. That still holds true, but has your underlying perspective toward the work shifted at all?

The work feels more adult now. It’s more thoughtful. In New York, I had to pay out of my ass for materials besides the ones I had immediate access to, which was mostly wood. Experimenting with different materials and processes was out of the question. Right now, VIDIVIXI doesn’t really have anything in wood besides a dining table. There’s a wider range of possibilities and a bigger production network here. 

It sounds like moving to Mexico City has afforded you the space, both physically and mentally, to experiment more.

The cost of living is less, too. It’s all interconnected—my physical and mental health are both peaking. Let’s just say I can retire my party hat. I prioritized the wrong things in New York. I mean, I was in my 20s, but still. The social scene there can be so smothering. Mexico City is the best in that I preferably don’t have a ton of friends or social obligations. I can stick to myself. Maybe it’s not healthy! [laughs] I’m focusing on myself, my work, my business partner (I see you)… It’s amazing. Everything combined has opened up so many more doors for us.

That leads us to the Split Mirror. It’s a perfect vessel for VIDIVIXI’s latest campaign, in which you reflect on being a queer black man in the design industry. 

I felt like I needed to talk about this even before white America’s recent ass kicking. The idea came from a conversation with an interior designer in New York. A publicist had asked her if she knew any black designers that she could write about. She only knew one, referring to me. I had been oblivious and living in a bubble, but this opened my eyes to what was happening. This conversation had been sitting with me since last fall.

I needed to shoot a campaign for the Split Mirror, but didn’t want to stick a plant in the frame or levitate a mysterious object adjacent. At the same time, I wanted VIDIVIXI to be more connected to Mexico. We’ve been anxious to foster a better relationship with the culture here in Mexico City—maybe the industry doesn’t know about us or doesn’t want to know about us. I can’t be sure. My idea was to shoot culturally progressive artists living in Mexico City —a trans woman, a woman who started a modeling agency for dark-skinned folks, a performance artist, a dancer, cultural activist—in front of the mirror and tell a political story. Ultimately, I nixed that idea to shoot myself and think about my own experience, which felt much more appropriate. We shot the campaign in April, ahead of this big cultural uprising, which is the craziest thing. A beautiful coincidence and a much easier platform to catapult this expression.

Photography by Jorge Abuxapqui

How does the campaign share your struggles as a queer black man in the industry? 

I don’t really have struggles as a queer man. Being gay gives me more power—it’s the cherry on top. If you’re not a woman or someone who uses their hands, you’re most likely gay in the design industry in my experience.

I can imagine I am filed under “he looks like a friendly black guy” for some of you. If I stand out, I’ll draw attention and if my work is strong, I’ll attract the right kind of attention and then maybe they’ll forget about the color, see me for who I am, my skill set, my talent and eventually focus on those attributes. I think about this a lot. Like, Mark, just get your foot in the door and the rest will follow accordingly. I can’t say why, but I feel black mothers have a more prominent role guiding their black children through the waters of racism. I hear my mother’s voice more than my father’s when I think about the topic. “Where is your faith?” she would say.

Mexico can’t be excluded from any of this either. I experience racism more frequently than one would expect here. Some days, people are yelling “negro” to me from across the other side of the street. The locals tell me it’s NOT racist. I am still trying to digest that part. Somebody once tried to argue with me that racism doesn’t exist in Mexico, only classism. That’s bullshit. It’s reached every corner of this planet. Blacks can’t escape racism. White people probably brought it to Mars already, I bet.

Other times, we’d be meeting with our producers and they would look towards Adam for the final say. It’s hard for people to believe I am driving this bus. But it’s true. I am the creative director and people don’t know how to process this information. Selective hearing.

How do you respond to that?

I repeat myself! It doesn’t happen anymore and Adam noticed it before I did. (This is me blocking it out per usual.)

This photoshoot feels like a intersectional meditation on your identity.

Definitely. I’ve always been in places as the outcast—maybe I like to seek these situations and experiences. It’s like I’m having a conversation with myself that’s being photographed. I’m here enjoying my moment privately. The audience could potentially perceive and understand a conversation is progressing but it’s not really anyone’s business to know the tea on that.

It is true, a huge component of the campaign is my blackness. VIDIVIXI has never made a political statement like this. It’s less about the work at this moment and more about what’s happening in the image and the person behind it. This strong, damn near naked male figure is almost fighting with this big, dominant mirror. My intention was to pull myself out of focus and more in shadow. You can’t read me because you can’t see my reflection—you only see my back. And of course my muscles contrast with the bra and wig. That’s my homosexuality coming out. We really had to strip this back and make sure we were being true to myself, not some performance of myself. We didn’t realize this until after the photos came in. I looked like a lost circus clown in 690 out of 700 images that were shot.

Vivien’s Dinner Table. Photography by Pia Riverola
Switch Mid Size Sideboard. Photography by Pia Riverola

What does this new chapter signify for VIDIVIXI?

It’s time for the industry to familiarize themselves with us. We’re here to stay (and we’re not just that one bed). We’re loud and opinionated. We’re translating our ambition through the mood we set and the products we design. We’ll continue to push boundaries and expectations. And we expect to move organically throughout this industry, whether through products, interiors, or spatial design.

We’re currently developing a line of products, slated to launch this fall, that will pursue the greater masses in an effort to widen our range of objects. Expect artist sculpture, mass production, and anything in between.

Revealing your identity like this was a bold move. I’m into it.

I was feeling very confident. We’re in a position to start making provocative statements. We’re still fairly new, but we’ve earned a following that understands we’re not a one-hit wonder. Because we created such a strong foundation, now felt like the time to step out. Of course, we still want people to know the work first.

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