Emmanuel Olunkwa started designing furniture out of necessity. Last summer, the 27-year-old multidisciplinary artist found himself living alone in a space filled with pieces that weren’t his own—most of the furniture was inherited from a friend who had moved—and didn’t feel like a reflection of himself as a whole person. He was eager to furnish his Stuyvesant Heights, Brooklyn, apartment with more pieces that would accent the architecture, activate the space, and make it more comfortable. But what was readily available didn’t appeal to his taste, and he had a tight budget to work with. “I feel like I've lived here long enough now that I understand what I wanted the room and these things to do, even knowing how to assert myself in it,” he says.
So in between working as an editor at PioneerWorks and focusing on his studies at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, Emmanuel spent the summer meditating on “what it means to make furniture.” Like many individuals during the pandemic, he used the temporary period of isolation as an opportunity to fully explore his ideas and see what materialized from them. As someone who thinks very critically, Emmanuel no longer wanted to to be surrounded with redundant objects that didn’t lure him or foster a symbiotic relationship.
“People don't actually know why they like things; they just throw themselves into purchasing these objects,” he explains. “I'm guilty of it too, but I feel like when you first move into a place, you're so overly enthusiastic and excited by the prospect of having this new space that you can connect with immediately, when you really need to spend time with it before you make any decisions.”
One day while he was brainstorming designs for a table, Emmanuel happened to come across a post on Instagram of an artist sewing flower patches, and that was the definitive moment when he knew he had found the silhouette. Even though flowers seem to be trending in art and design right now, Emmanuel wasn’t paying attention to any of that. In fact, he even told me that “references do not drive my desires; it’s more my imagination.” Emmanuel’s approach stems from an intuitive place, so he thinks through shapes and colors. For him, the shape of a flower was the perfect representation for the craft table that he was envisioning.
“I wanted something that felt like you’re really working through things,” he says. “You're actively participating when you sit down at the table. It felt really intentional; it's not supposed to be something that's really precious.”
Given that he doesn’t come from an industrial design background, Emmanuel’s resources were limited in terms of figuring out how to execute his big idea. Eventually, a friend put him in touch with a fabricator in Red Hook and after talking through the logistics, they settled on creating a flower table made out of birch plywood. Emmanuel views himself as a “second editor” because he’s not actually assembling the tables himself, but is essentially directing the design process—similarly, he previously worked with a carpenter to design shelves for his home office. In August, he received the first prototype for the flower table, but it was smaller than he had anticipated, so the fabricator made alterations that wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the design. A few months later, the final version of the table was ready.
It was only this past January that Emmanuel considered adding chairs to the rotation, and now his debut collection of functional furniture is currently available to purchase indefinitely at Picture Room in Brooklyn. (He's hosting an opening at the gallery this Sunday from 3–6 p.m.) Prices for the pieces range from $650 to $2,600, and he’s sold about 100 of the mini tables so far. Emmanuel will introduce more designs in an exhibition at Greene Naftali East Hampton alongside the works of Walter Price, Michael Krebber, Paul Chan, Wade Guyton, and Rachel Harrison from June 12 through July 15.
While becoming a furniture designer wasn’t part of his original agenda, Emmanuel has been enjoying the experience of delving deeper into it and learning about all the technicalities involved with manifesting a certain type of beauty. There’s something exhilarating about taking something flat and making it three dimensional that really speaks to him on a deeper level. “I am really excited to make things, and that’s the priority,” he concludes. “I think of it as an art practice. I’m making furniture for me, but it’s also yours.”
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest