Introduction to Virgil Abloh, Everything in Quotes

by Michael Rock
February 2017



Thank you all for coming. Its gratifying to see so many people here for what promises to be a not-very-conventional architecture lecture. And its such a great pleasure for me personally to be heretonight as I have been trying to get Virgil to Columbia for at least a couple of years. The fact that we are both here together, given the complexity of his travel, is a kind of miracle. I am as excited as you to see what he has been up to.


My introduction to Virgil was, ironically, first through a building. As I am sure he will mention, he was a graduate architecture student at the Illinois Institute of Technology and thus exposed on a daily basis to the work our studio, 2x4, had done with OMA on the McCormick Tribune Campus Center there. That project was one of the first spatial designs we had managed to get beyond the competition phase and was an essential turning point for our practice. IIT was an early attempt at a total integration between architecture and graphic design and still, I think, one of our most irrationally interesting projects.


So about a decade after the campus center opened at IIT, I got an email out of the blue from someone with this amazing sounding name asking me if I would take a meeting about something called Donda.


While Donda had the sound of one of those Bond villain organizations that exists in an artificial island somewhere in the middle of the ocean, it was in fact, I learned, a kind of secret cabal that manages all the dreams and aspirations of Virgil’s sometimes boss, and perpetual collaborator: a music artist to remain unnamed here. Donda was started with very modest aspirations. The original plan was captured in a diagram that listed potential areas to conquer: Lifestyle, Home, Consumer finance, Medical Research, Trademarks and Patents, Transportation, Management, Protective Services, Marketing, Internet, Hospitality, Wellness, Learning, and Alternative Sources of Energy.


So clearly there was no lack of ambition, the opportunities were wide open. That initial phone call inaugurated several years of intense projects that resulted in a fashion show and indoor go-kart racing track in grand Parisian warehouse, a film shoot on top of a massive sand dune south of Doha, a multi-screen movie theater at the film festival in Cannes, another stripped down fashion show with a massive illuminated ceiling in a Manhattan studio, a temporary exhibition space, a portable pop-up concert venue, plus a dumpster full of wild speculations.


To be perfectly honest, working with Donda was not easy. In the high-octane world of global celebrity, I quickly learned, there are a lot of voices, opinions, creative collaborators, producers, entourage, agents, hangers-on, etc. Nothing quite prepares you for the experience of true collective creative chaos. But what I quickly learned was there were really only two voices that mattered: the guy at the top and Virgil. Because Virgil has an amazing ability to maintain a sense of calm and purpose at the center of the hurricane. He has a vision and he is sticking with it.


I think what gives Virgil this fortitude in the face of cacophony is architecture. Architecture gave him a way to buttress ideas to withstand constant attempts to overthrow them. A few years back I interviewed him for a publication, and I asked him when he first went to IIT if he ever really imagined making architecture. He responded: “I don’t think I ever really thought I would practice architecture. I was there to learn how to design. I liked the idea of analyzing a program, thinking of a solution, and being able to defend it. But I think I always had a sense of how to internalize that method and apply it somewhere else.”


That “somewhere else” is remarkably fluid, eclectic, shape-shifting. The really compelling part of his practice is the freedom from traditional ideas of what a practice is, what it requires to be sustained, what it needs to achieve to be successful. This is a kind of architecture freed from constraint.


Part of this freedom comes I think from his day job of designing spectacle. The set for a huge arena show is a special kind of scenography; it’s on for about 120 minutes, then packed into a caravan of semi-trucks and sent on to the next city 500 miles away. A music set is a tyoe of total artwork: space, light, sound, heat all composed to create affect. Its this affective quality and its essential insubstantiality that is liberating. Even gravity can be defied for a couple of hours.


Another influence is his work as a DJ. Because here again the designer is assembling an environment of pre-fabricated elements to create total immersion, mood, pace, impression. The designer and the audience are tightly interwoven and the plan for the night shifts from moment to moment based on constant micro-readings of the crowd.  That highly tuned responsiveness is at the heart of so many of the projects he will show tonight.


But it’s impossible to limit his body of work to the ephemerality of the event or a DJ set. Its been fascinating and inspirational for me to watch Virgil as he has developed his own body of work, his own business model, and his own brand. Because Virgil, as much as anyone working today, operates at this intersection between architecture, fashion, and branding. When he was at IIT he was supplementing his studio work by making graphic t-shirts – the ultimate branded merchandize – on the side. Architecture supplied an understanding of process and of the way something gets built. But his deep instinctive knowledge of branding, mixed with his innate feeling for his audience, also gives him insight into the way something core is communicated.


The thing that links architecture and branding is the quest for phenomenological coherence: the creation of unified experiences regardless of medium. Brand is often thought of something which is after the fact, applied to an existing set of conditions to superimpose order. But what Virgil understood early on was that brand was actually both a set of policies to direct production and a methodology to assure a consistently coherent results. So the development of his brand OFF/White reversed the conventional process wherein you make something then attempt to “brand” it. OFF/White started first as a brand, an idea that could be extended across multiple platforms.


The ascendency of OFF/White has been thrilling because Virgil simply occupies the space he wants to exploit without attempting to define it. In an era where its somehow banal to be just an architect orjust a graphic designer, Virgil is the ultimate multi-hyphenate. He is Architect-Musician-Scenographer-Fashion Designer-Video Artist-Director-Futurist. He can pull that off because he maintains an essential core set of values to which he constantly returns. 


When you touch on so many different creative activities, none of them can really be seen as central. To be OFF- then is a kind of working philosophy. It means OFF-track, OFF-tune, OFF-message, OFF-balance, OFF-kilter. At the heart of it, to be OFF-White is to be OFF-center. And Virgil proves over and over, we should forget the center, the edge is where the action is.


Ladies and gentleman, its my great pleasure to welcome Virgil Abloh.