Concerned that racial representation in the design industry doesn’t go far enough, the co-founder of furniture brand TRNK is bringing to light the erased Black histories that influenced Western creative movements–and his work is just beginning.
The TRNK of today hardly resembles the furniture business that Tariq Dixon and Nick Nemechek founded in 2013. Early iterations of the brand, Dixon recalls, included a “content experience focusing on creative men in their homes”—an idea that seemed subversive at the time, but is “totally antiquated now.” Since then, TRNK’s look and feel has evolved drastically, having carved a niche within the design sphere as a beloved purveyor of furniture, lighting, and accessories with minimalist yet materially rich sensibilities. After Nemechek departed for a role at the like-minded Danish furniture mainstay Menu a few years ago, TRNK was left fully in Dixon’s hands.
Dixon has taken every opportunity to push the limits of how a furniture brand can engage its audience. In December, TRNK debuted what was then a novel concept—a live-in shoppable loft located a stone’s throw from the Judd Foundation in SoHo, Manhattan. Inside, neatly arranged vignettes of TRNK furnishings and Dixon’s own vintage finds mingled with designs by close friends of the brand, Menu lounge chairs and Coil + Drift pendants among them. “My door is always open and I want different people circling through,” he told me during the opening night party, which attracted a lively crowd of design luminaries and familiar faces. “The idea is to make design feel approachable.”
He also joked that his business plan changes “just about every year.” To no surprise, the coronavirus pandemic prompted Dixon to rethink TRNK’s business model entirely. Only a few months after christening the loft, he decided not to renew his lease—instead, he packed up his belongings, moved to Brooklyn, and digitized TRNK for the foreseeable future.
Then came the murder of George Floyd, which provoked widespread outrage. Protests against police brutality and systemic racism swept the nation while long-overdue discussions about rectifying racial disparities and dismantling white supremacy became omnipresent. The protests caused a full-blown racial reckoning that permeated the design sphere and brought issues of representation and inequality to the fore. According to the 2019 AIGA Design Census, only three percent of interior designers are Black or African American; research by the Black furniture designer Jomo Tariku revealed that only 14 of 4,417 branded furniture collections with major brands from the past two years involved Black collaborators; Mark Grattan, the founder of Mexico City furniture studio VIDIVIXI, called out performative coverage of Black talent by a major design publication on Instagram; galleries were spurned for not having even a single Black designer on their roster.
When the Black Lives Matter movement first gained momentum, Dixon had already been meditating on the design industry’s stark racial inequities. During Pride week, in mid-June, TRNK mounted a digital exhibition and charity sale of self-portraits by queer artists of color in benefit of the Ali Forney Center, which provides aid for LGBTQ+ homeless youth. Called “Mien,” the show illustrated tensions between each subject’s inner identities and outward perceptions. It also forecasted the future of TRNK by creating space for individuals who haven’t traditionally fit into what Dixon describes as the prevailing midcentury ideals of American life (a mom, dad, and two kids inside a suburban tract home). Instead, “Mien” portrayed the rich diversity of people who occupy domestic space yet otherwise go unseen. Not only was the show a major success, it was a bold move that proved Dixon is ready to wade into unconventional territory for a furniture brand.
Dixon, who is African American and Korean, had also started feeling dissatisfied that the design sphere’s conversations about race rarely ventured beyond topics of representation. While he acknowledges that giving platforms to BIPOC artists and designers is one gateway to progress, those efforts alone won’t realize lasting, sustainable change. Dixon has his sights set on a force that we’ve largely overlooked until now: how the Western world has erased, revised, and tokenized historical contributions of BIPOC designers to the creative canon.
Such is the premise for “Provenanced,” a new digital exhibition that seeks to restore African and Indigenous contributions to contemporary design and visual language. Dixon posits that African and Indigenous works have forever evolved the Western design canon, from 20th-century modernists to turn-of-the-century Art Deco designers. “Despite this enormous influence, rarely can we collectively speak to the historical significance of these references,” Dixon writes in the exhibition catalogue. “Influences have either gone unacknowledged, or have become abstracted to the point of anonymity.”
Instead, “Provenanced” imagines a canon of African and Indigenous–inspired design that exists independently from colonial legacies of extraction and appropriation. The show, which features works by contemporary makers Ben + Aja Blanc, Marta Bonilla, and Ewe Studio, aims to answer some big questions: “How can the industry work to better recognize and respect diasporic traditions? In the absence of historically popular, yet problematic terms like ‘tribal’ and ‘primitivism,’ how do we develop new terminology to describe these aesthetics? How can designers engage more critically with their inspirations and sources?”
Surface spoke with Dixon about the premise of “Provenanced,” the historical forces that perpetuate the erasure of Black creative talent, and his ideal version of TRNK.
You’ve mentioned that TRNK’s business model changes just about every year. What changes have you made in response to the pandemic and racial reckoning?
I’m seizing the opportunity to return to our core as a digitally native business. Many things on the pipeline kept getting thrown to the wayside. The pandemic hit right as NYCxDesign was approaching, so I immediately pivoted to a digital concept so we could launch during what would’ve been NYCxDesign. We’re also onboarding new modeling software to visualize products in 3D on our website and with an AR app. It’s been a great opportunity to reevaluate.
The racial conversations were already incubating. Right when Black Lives Matter happened, we launched “Mien,” our Pride activation, a digital show for queer artists of color to explore tensions between individual lived experience versus community. It felt very timely, but I was already processing these ideas and figuring out how to incorporate them into the business.
Given the past few months of upheaval, how has TRNK’s community grown?
It’s evolving—some people exited and others joined, which has been interesting to see. What has maintained, hopefully, is our approachability. I always wanted TRNK to not feel distant or aloof, and to invite feedback and critique. “Mien” was an experiment, and I wasn’t sure how it’d resonate, but I’m not concerned. Keeping these doors open has always been a tenet.
Lately, TRNK has been extending its platform to creators outside the realm of design, with “Mien” being a prime example.
I wanted to bring these experiences to light. I wasn’t concerned about how disjointed it might feel, or whether the audience would respond positively. It’s important to have avenues for research and expression, especially after having worked tirelessly on this business for seven years and finally reaching a place where I can make decisions that aren’t motivated by sales. We’re also working toward a bigger brand vision that hasn’t been fully realized. Many of these steps are iterative. “Mien” fits so perfectly within the brand that I imagine. The world has yet to see the fully realized TRNK that’s in my head, but we’re getting there.
What is that ideal vision?
Space carries the power and impact to facilitate important conversations. Dialogues about identity, race, and uncomfortable tensions often occur within your own home. That’s the connection we’re trying to forge, but it’s not readily visible yet.
I want to build a brand that reflects how the American family is changing. People who occupy these spaces are changing. The first version of our site was a content experience focused on creative men in their homes, which seemed subversive at the time but is totally antiquated now. We wanted to subvert the notion of the home as the domain for the nuclear family that was constructed in mid-century as a project of American urban planning. We rarely see the American family’s evolution and dynamism represented by home retailers. “Mien” fit within the brand vision in the sense of “this is what the world looks like now.” Seeing queer people of color in our feed shouldn’t make people uncomfortable, but it did for a lot of people.
Do you think the industry has caught up to this vision?
Certainly not! “Mien” accomplished what I wanted, which was to start conversations, get feedback, and understand where our audience sat. We got both positive responses and discomfort. Over the two weeks we promoted it, we lost around 4,000 Instagram followers. It felt like we were hemorrhaging! I committed to posting exclusively content related to Black Lives Matter and political issues for a full month, which saw retaliation. Even within the TRNK microcosm, I realized the world hasn’t caught up to the vision yet. That doesn’t scare me though. It resonates with many, and ultimately that’s who we want our community to be. If you have a problem with it, you can certainly shop or seek inspiration elsewhere.
So many great designers are queer, yet strangely those who harbor bias against queer people often still actively consume their work.
People don’t realize what they’re consuming half the time. “Provenanced” explores this—we don’t realize the origins or histories of these products and ideas we consume. People see the end product—a physical, functional good—but don’t understand its complexities.
You mentioned the core idea behind “Provenanced” had been incubating for a while.
The racial circumstances made “Provenanced” more actionable, and reverting to a digital format let us bring it to life much quicker. I also committed to checking it off my list, however imperfect it may be. It kept getting deprioritized because it doesn’t directly relate to sales, so this moment empowered me to plant a stake in the ground and finally do it.
The design industry has so much potential to respond to these topics, and drive social and cultural evolution like other creative mediums. I want to make sure TRNK taps into that. We’re in a crucial moment, and we need to respond in this moment. Many conversations focus on representation, diversity, and inclusion, but feel incomplete. There’s not enough discussion about formal qualities and how these systems infiltrate end products. There’s much to interrogate, and hopefully we can add something interesting to the conversation.
The show challenges designers to engage more critically with their inspirations. Why do you think this hadn’t happened until recently?
No one was held accountable to it, nor have consumers imposed that demand. Designers tend to operate in a silo. Even when approached from a critical lens, it becomes more of an interrogation of materiality and form as opposed to society and the intangible.
Do you think that has something to do with design’s barrier to entry?
In the art world, works are even more rarefied, but there’s more effort toward broader appeal and consumption—not purchasing, per se, but viewership. It’s more accessible. There are numerous public forums for viewing art, whereas the design world has largely closed itself off.
There was a transition period in mid-century when Donald Judd and Isamu Noguchi were operating across so many different spectrums, producing fine art and industrial design at varied price points. They worked with manufacturers to make products accessible. Their concepts became widely consumable. I don’t know design history well enough to pinpoint exactly when designers transitioned out of that mode of operating, but design has definitely become more insular and inaccessible. That’s reflected in the products and the themes they explore. I can’t necessarily explain it, but I hope to have some small input and be able to change it.
Jomo Tariku, one of the designers in “Provenanced,” published research about the underrepresentation of Black designers within the furniture industry. Of the 4,417 collections from major brands in 2019 and 2020, only 14 were with Black designers. Do these numbers reflect your experience as a BIPOC designer and business owner?
Yes, it’s just reality. In terms of hiring and consumption, Black designers are still proportionally underrepresented. That talent pool is very small, which is a problem that won’t be solved overnight. We need to change the pipelines. To create sustainable, lasting change, expose young people to these opportunities earlier and make them accessible. Art or design school is a luxury, and it’s not a risk that upwardly mobile people of color are typically willing to assume.
That’s why it’s insufficient to approach these problems from a representational lens. We need to challenge Eurocentric ideas and systems, and processes of extraction, appropriation, erasure, and revision that diminish the historical contributions of people of color. That doesn’t help the circular pipeline of inspiring new talent to recognize design as a feasible opportunity.
What forces do you think are perpetuating this appropriation, erasure, and revision?
The Western world’s treatment of African and Indigenous art is one example. African art entered the Western fascination in the 1800s, which coincided with colonialism, imperialism, and the conquest of sub-Saharan Africa. Works were pillaged and extracted, and then treated as ethnographic curios instead of art objects. They’d get discarded and end up in Parisian flea markets, where 20th-century artists rediscovered them. It wasn’t until these objects entered the hands of Picasso and Matisse that they were granted new validation in the Western world. Those systems remain largely unchanged—art and design still pass through institutional filters, and whiteness is the mechanism by which something is validated and then rarefied.
We tend to impose our own world views onto cultures we don’t understand, which happened with African art. We used imagined histories to decontextualize it. Scholars, art historians, and dealers ascribed attributes of Western art to African art. It assumed this anti-individualism and religiosity that wasn’t consistently true. Again, the lack of understanding resulted in these diverse cultures spanning multiple continents across centuries being grouped together in this monolith of “primitive art,” which has problematic connotations. What we don’t understand—or what we deem as less civilized—often gets abstracted to the point of anonymity.
We interviewed the photographer Yannis Davy Guibinga, who noted that Westerners group Africa together as if it were one sprawling country, overlooking the diversity of cultures that exist within. He attributes this to how Western media represents Africa.
“Provenanced” is guilty of the same thing! The umbrella title of “African and Indigenous art” is so broad. Our understanding of these cultures is so superficial that these labels seem sufficient. I was aware of this shortcoming but intentionally left it open for critique. We hope to reinstate that history, and encourage others to actively do the same.
What types of conversations are you hoping to start about design provenance? How can the design industry work to better recognize diasporic traditions?
We need to dismantle colonialist tendencies and processes, and the only way to confront them is to be aware of them. Researching for “Provenanced” has made me more aware of my biases in understanding these cultures, and how I’ve viewed them through a Western lens.
We also have to actively avoid the tendency to tokenize and fetishize. That’s why I hesitate with conversations around representation and the actions that follow—they can’t be empty or performative. You first have to understand the qualitative contributions that these diverse voices bring. If that doesn’t happen, the change isn’t sustainable. And the public isn’t buying it! They’re reading performative gestures as empty and insincere. Fear of that shouldn’t hold people back from making these choices, but you have to demonstrate that you value diverse talent. These changes must be reflected in the content they produce and the voice they instill.
When researching for the show, was there a specific finding that challenged your understanding of design?
The biggest was realizing that the categories of “African” or “Indigenous,” are so broad. At first, we were using terminology like “primitive” or “tribal,” which are non-descriptors. They aren’t at all representative of these cultures, but that’s the language we’ve been given.
I also chose to present the works within a dimly lit room, but recently learned that at the turn of the century, French gallerists often showcased African works that way—a departure from standard catalogs, which featured white backgrounds and strong, directional, high-contrast lighting. That style defends the idea of a mysticism around these “exotic” works. I don’t even know how implicit my creative choice was, but it was too late to turn back. We’re all subject to choices that seem implicit, but were designed—almost like Miranda Priestley’s diatribe in The Devil Wears Prada, where she talks about the entomology and the origins of cerulean.
Do you think these implicit biases stem from the failings of design school curricula?
They certainly need revisions, and some authors are confronting it head-on. In the ‘80s, MoMA received backlash for an exhibition called “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” which placed contemporary art alongside African sculptures. That’s when controversy around the word “primitive” first arose. Critics have responded since then, but history books are still guilty of these biases.
The standard MO seems to be conjuring up imagined histories for things we don’t understand in an attempt to protect our own world view and privilege. Those imagined histories start masquerading as truth, and soon we start accepting them as truth. Much unpacking and rewriting needs to be done. I’m sure design curricula are due for some massive revisions. That’s definitely the case for understanding works that are derivative from these cultures, whether it be modernist movements like Cubism and Fauvism, or movements that followed, like Memphis Milano. They’re not often in conversation with their sources of inspiration, which were these African Indigenous cultures. There are plenty of gaps that need to be filled.
Which designers do you think are doing the work to unpack these histories?
I caught “Dozie Kanu: Function” at the Studio Museum right before the pandemic. His exploration of deeply rooted African histories and the Black diaspora from a contemporary lens is intriguing. The South African fashion designer Rich Mnisi leverages African traditions in a contemporary way. I don’t know if Woody De Othello directly responds to traditional African works, but his work is fascinating nonetheless.
I’ve been having conversations lately about the stark underrepresentation of Black designers within collectible design galleries.
I recently went back and forth with a gallery owner who was called out for this. He got angry and said it was counterproductive and shouldn’t be happening on a public forum. How can people participate if these conversations are happening privately? It won’t have the same impact. He invited that conversation by posting a black square on Instagram. There’s so much fear and fragility that impedes progress, and the industry needs to confront it directly.
The industry protects a rarification and aloofness of designers who can’t reach people at accessible price points. Those within the collectible design sphere are so protective of their exclusivity, which is limiting and unnecessary. Midcentury masters like Noguchi, Judd, and the Eameses all had the ability to operate across different mediums at different price points.
An immediate resolution would be allowing Black creatives to stretch their voices more expansively and not silo them. The industry needs to value diverse voices and the conversations they bring to the table. There’s no sustainability in doing this merely for the sake of representation. Our different lived experiences are so creatively rich—understanding the value in that diversity is the only way to realize lasting change. Change takes time and requires patience. We have an incredible opportunity to motivate change, and if we don’t exercise it, the public will never have the appetite. It needs to start with us taking these risks.
I recently interviewed Kennedy Yanko, who said the public will naturally follow the avant-garde. The onus is on the creative vanguard to move the needle in that direction.
Exactly, and to encourage feedback and not be afraid of critique. There are respectful ways of engaging in these dialogues. Embrace criticism as an opportunity to evolve.
What can we expect next from TRNK?
I’ve been designing everything for the TRNK Collection myself, but my goal next year is to act as a publisher of young talent. That’s one way we can contribute to increasing and broadening representation. I’ve been developing these product development resources and capabilities, and hope to lend those to young designers to bring their creative visions to life quicker than they’d otherwise be able to. The pandemic has thrown our timelines for a loop, but I’m prioritizing that.
We’ll also continue staging exhibitions and group concepts more regularly. “Provenanced” isn’t finished and was never going to be comprehensive. There’s still more to unpack. The next step is giving Black and Indigenous designers the opportunity to respond with newly commissioned works—they weren’t represented very broadly in the show—and letting them recontextualize these sources of inspiration if they feel a personal attachment. I’d also like to apply “Provenanced” to other cultures and geographies, like “orientalism,” which is tricky.
What else do you want people to know about TRNK?
First and foremost, TRNK celebrates design’s beauty, impact, and potential to facilitate conversations and interactions. It’s about creating atmospheres and environments of safety, comfort, enjoyment, and pleasure. That’s why we do what we do. There’s so much work in expanding that, but we’re pushing. We’re by no means fully realized—we’ll continue to be dynamic and constantly changing, hopefully at an accelerated pace.
These circumstances have heightened our understanding of home. If there’s any upside to the pandemic, it strengthened our reliance on one another and let us reflect on our privileges.
“Provenanced” will be on view digitally starting Oct. 28.