Rem Koolhaas is one of the world's leading architects. His firm, OMA, has designed buildings around the world, including the Central Library in Seattle (2004) and Chinese state television's Beijing headquarters in (2012). He also leads AMO, a 'research and design studio' that 'applies architectural thinking to domains beyond'. Known for their voluminous research documents and studies, such as the now classic, 1,300-page S,M,L,XL (1995), Koolhaas, OMA and AMO have long been inspirations for Virgil Abloh. We brought together the 73-year-old architect and theorist of society, urbanism, living spaces and consumerism with the 37-year-old polymath for a wide-ranging conversation, one that reveals two original thinkers currently shaping the landscape of the world we live in.
Virgil: I do everything with an architectural way of thinking, using my career in design to focus on a brand. I am creating a dialogue with culture that Louis Vuitton and Kering haven't been able to understand. This is the next generation of consumers, with their own ways to buy, and ideas of what's important. In the years between 2009 and now, a new consumerism has emerged.
At my Shanghai store I designed the furniture, too. I was interested in the external structure being the main structure and this hollowed-out feeling. It's the very first furniture I have produced that is on sale in collectable design spheres. Whether it is taking something with a [Marcel] Duchamp-principle and adding value to an inanimate object, or something else, it's about making new work with a reference to the past.
Rem: And that furniture is just for the store or can it also be bought?
Virgil: Yes, it's a series you can buy. It was produced in Italy and I have an agent in Paris who represents it globally. My career is fashion four times a year and a new series of furniture maybe once every year and a half. IKEA approached me to do a survey of millennials' first apartments, so I am looking at doing 30 pieces of furniture that could be a tool kit for millennials. So I am understanding the different clientele – why they purchase furniture, what they want. Part of the study was understanding the Duchamp principles of art and objects. I looked at the IKEA nomenclature, a Kelly bag, and how the price of a Tom Sachs art piece evolves. Looking at Tumblr images is how millennials assemble these images to represent themselves. No one owns anything anymore, but if you have knowledge of a certain chair, then it is part of your dinner conversation. That is the millennials' train of thought. I am interested in this new cultural world that we have been handed, that processes politics and art in a different and democratic way.
I am doing this survey because I am giving IKEA a design proposal. This is the very first book that I've done as a research project and I wanted to use it in a Duchamp spirit, to reapproach these iconic designs in a way that takes the energy of the historical side and replaces it with something that a young person can identify with. Ultimately, this drove me down the path of researching how the art-gallery world reclaims iconic design pieces.
Rem: Did IKEA agree to the prices in your design proposal?
Virgil: The prices might be lower! The proposal was to invite people to imagine a college dorm room, and imagine that it contained the equivalent of a $110,000 lamp, say, but because it is made with IKEA, the cost is much lower.
I got interested in plastic, tape and fire-proofing. The images show the disarray in being provocative and pushing IKEA. Now we're doing prototypes and it all has to be done in a certain way by hand. I find that intriguing because IKEA is a brand that forces the consumer to make the item. It comes with a little Allen wrench, and you have to realise the form through a series of steps. This final form forces people to artistically upholster, which is a process, a DIY, IKEA thing. I want to find out what it's like living with this new idea of preservation.
Rem: So, you say you work with other people, but that you are doing most of this on your own?
Virgil: I embed myself into a culture. It is not simply designing stores for a client, or saying, 'Here are some chairs for 10,000 student homes'. There is potential for a new way of thinking about introducing new ideas. Within architecture, it's always been a built form or a published book, those are the arms to seep into the common person. Now I've made this brand that speaks to millennials directly. When is our generation going to produce something that is of value to the generation coming afterwards?
Rem: How old are you?
Virgil: I'm 37, which has given me 15 years of practising.