Disegno #24

Ceramic Block by Virgil Abloh for Vitra

Weil am Rhein

21 February 2020

I’d already written about 900 words of this review when I had to stop and calm down. I hadn’t even mentioned what I should have been reviewing. Instead, I’d got hung up about a fur coat I’d seen for sale at the Louis Vuitton menswear pop-up at Printemps in Paris, part of Virgil Abloh’s second collection for the brand. I’d assumed it was fake fur, but it was real mink. It cost €39,000. The year was 2019, the month was July and the temperature outside was over 30°C.

I got very angry about that coat and listed about 15 reasons why it shouldn’t exist, but then I realised it wasn’t worth it. I work as a designer in the fashion industry; it’s a small world and LVMH owns a large part of it. I didn’t want to burn any bridges before they had even been built. So, Virgil and M. Arnault, if you’re reading this, I’d be happy to come and talk to you about that coat and any lucrative employment opportunities you may have for someone who can help you do better.

Deep breaths: it’s only a coat. “I now have a platform to change the industry,” Abloh said of his Vuitton appointment in a 2018 GQ interview, “so I should.” And so he should, but a mink coat isn’t the way to do it. The Earth is on fire; the bees are dying; Johnson is in Number 10; Trump is in the White House. There are other things more deserving of anger, but it just seemed so out of touch – a 1980s idea of irrelevant, obscene luxury, especially from a designer who is generally known to have his finger firmly on the pulse.

Trained as a civil engineer and architect, Abloh started designing T-shirts and sweatshirts under the label Pyrex Vision in 2012, maybe because they’re easier than designing bridges and opera houses. The market is certainly bigger. I’ve bought a few T-shirts this year, but I haven’t even considered buying a bridge, let alone an opera house.

Virgil Abloh

Pyrex Vision lasted a year before relaunching as Off-White in 2013. Defined by Abloh as “the grey area between black and white as the color Off-White”, the brand produces pretty much everything from huge winter coats and red-carpet dresses through to flip-flops, but is defined by its high-end streetwear. (For some reason “streetwear” has become a loaded word. Several designers are very uncomfortable with it, finding it belittling or pejorative.I can see where they’re coming from, but at this stage of the 21st century I think we need to pick our battles – Earth on fire, bees. And anyway, a man in a hoodie might take your wallet, but it’s the men in suits who will destroy us all.)

I was struggling to define Abloh’s design signatures, until I realised he doesn’t really have any, not in the traditional sense, at least. There are currently 29 Off-White shows archived on Vogue.com and each could be from a different designer. Take that as a negative if you want – I used to think of it that way myself – but unless you’re the most fanatical Rick Owens health goth, your wardrobe probably doesn’t have much of a theme either.

There are no consistencies, no overarching concerns, no silhouettes or fabrics or colours that Abloh has made his own, but he does love a quote. It’s his use of quotation marks on pretty much everything – along with spare graphic placements, Renaissance paintings (sounds odd, I know, but they’re in the public domain) and overlaid industrial typography on hoodies and T-shirts – that has become iconic and made Off-White instantly recognisable. A handbag is printed with “SCULPTURE”, knee-high boots have “FOR WALKING” down the side, a collaboration with Nike has “LOGO” above the Swoosh, “AIR” on his version of its Air Force 1, and “KEEP OFF” on a rug as part of an Ikea collection, always in block-capital Helvetica.

The strict typography, Old Master artwork and dryly ironic labelling suggest an intellectual rigour, but there isn’t any. There doesn’t need to be. There isn’t even any consistency in how the quotations are used, but it doesn’t matter. It looks interesting and it’s easy to wear, and that’s enough. Off-White sells. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; in fashion, if it’s worthwhile for someone to knock off your designs, then you know you’re doing something right. Judging by the amount of fake Off-White I see on the streets of Paris, let alone the real stuff, Abloh is doing something very, very right. It also doesn’t hurt having Kanye West as your best friend.

Abloh's TwentyThirtyfive exhibition at Vitra.

Abloh was appointed artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear in 2018, and despite runway collections at such a large brand never being that profitable (the heavy lifting at Vuitton is done by the classic leather goods and accessories) by all accounts he’s doing his thing there too. In April, Vuitton CFO Jean-Jacques Guiony revealeda 20 per cent growth in leather goods and ready-to-wear in the previous quarter, and confirmed that “[ready-to- wear] is not a major business altogether for us at Vuitton, but it’s worth pointing out, as this is obviously a traffic generator for many stores and we are very happy to see that this business is doing particularly well.” Abloh, with his connections, his collaborations and his side-job as a DJ, generates a lot of press coverage, social- media noise and excitement for the brand, but apparently the clothes are selling too.

I can see why. There are design flourishes in Abloh’s work for Vuitton – like below-the-knee inverted knife- pleats on tailored trousers or half-jackets held on with harnesses – that I know from experience are fun to spend time on but aren’t always successful or necessary, in as much as fashion is ever really necessary. A creative director with a stronger personal aesthetic would probably have reined these in. Nevertheless, they give the collections an endearing air of studenty experimentation and fun, executed with Vuitton precision. It’s very luxurious but without the alienating perfection and rigidity that is such a turn-off with other brands at this level. Although I still think that coat is a big mistake.

The quotation marks have stayed firmly planted at Off-White, but in Abloh’s work the clothes themselves seem to be citations – sometimes they’re the clothes themselves. Diet Prada had a field-day after the last Vuitton show and, sure, that jacket does look like Comme des Garçons, or that look is uncannily similar to a Celine look, or a Raf Simons look, or a Craig Green look. His work for Off-White has been similarly tarred and feathered, and even the “typical” chair he designed for Ikea was pointed out to be a barely altered Paul McCobb bestseller from the 1950s.

In defence of Abloh, and knowing the general design-studio dynamic, I don’t think these things are always his fault, if ever. When teams present research and inspiration imagery to a creative director, original authorship is easily lost and it’s up to the individuals to push their designs beyond their initial input and flag up any potential issues before there’s a problem. A creative director can’t know every single reference and doesn’t have time to check, and anyway, the call-out culture that thrives on Instagram can become so cattily know-it-all and self-righteous as to be exhausting. If you want to buy the Comme jacket, then buy it. If you want the Vuitton jacket, buy that instead. Honestly, if you’re the kind of person who can drop €2,500 on a jacket that will make people stare at you on the street, buy both. As I said before, there are more urgent things requiring our anger these days. Soon it’ll be too hot to wear any of these clothes, but if you tie a knot in the end of your Vuitton jacket sleeve, you’ll have a rudimentary water filter when the End Days come. This will only remove particulates such as dirt and twigs, not bacteria or viruses, so you should boil the water too, just to be sure.

Writing in The Observer, Tim Lewis recently claimed Abloh is “tremendously desirable for established companies looking for a jab of Botox”. The Swiss furniture manufacturer Vitra is ageing well (staying hydrated, exfoliating regularly, washing its face before bed), but it has apparently looked in the mirror and seen some
fine lines it doesn’t like because it’s invited Abloh to mess around with the classics, giving the parched world what we were crying out for all these years– Virgil Abloh c/o Vitra.

Along with pieces created just for the Twentythirtyfive exhibition at the Vitra HQ in Switzerland – like a great DIY seesaw made from a length of steel girder with two Eames seats bolted on, which sadly wasn’t put into production – Abloh was allowed to make his mark on two Jean Prouvé designs: the Anthony chair’s (1954) moulded-plywood seat has been replaced with a curved slab of clear plexiglass and his Petite Potence lamp (1947) has been given an industrial cage over the bulb. The metallic elements on both pieces are lacquered in neon orange.

Lewis says Abloh sees the project “as an opportunity to reach and inspire a young person – in his head, aged 14 to 17 – who has never heard of Prouvé and probably has no interest in design,” but I’m not convinced. Honestly, I’m not sure the designer-furniture market skews that young. If there are 14-year-old kids who either want or need to buy their own furniture, then there’s been some serious lapse in parenting and they won’t get much for their pocket money at Vitra prices. The plexiglass seat of Abloh’s Anthony chair is noticeably thicker than Prouvé’s plywood original, so despite being transparent it makes the whole piece seem heavier and less springily agile. The addition of the cage to the Petite Potence makes you realise what a deft touch Prouvé himself was. The wall bracket, wire strut and tubular frame of the first version are industrial enough; the Day-Glo paint job and the cage make it look like something from the Cyberdog home collection (which, excitingly, actually exists).

Personally, I prefer the originals, but you might like Abloh’s versions, and that’s OK too. As in the fashion industry, Abloh’s approach to furniture will definitely annoy the purists, but it’s just furniture. I doubt Prouvé would have approved of what Abloh has done, but he’s dead and soon we will be too, so let’s just have a nice time while we can. Also, why not have fun with the archives? It would be great to see this as the first in an ongoing series of collaborations where Vitra opens up its enviable catalogue of 20th-century icons to 21st-century designers and artists. How about Alessandro Michele upholstering Antonio Citterio in rococo brocade, or Rachel Whiteread casting concrete around the Eames back-catalogue?

And so to the final part of the Virgil Abloh c/o Vitra trinity, the vaguest part, the inexplicable Holy Ghost of expensive 21st-century nonsense: the brick. Deep breaths, Felix: it’s only a brick. Except it’s not, because Supreme already did a really nice house brick in 2016. Instead, drawing on its 70-year manufacturing expertise, Vitra has made a cinder block, almost. Slip-cast from ceramic, each one of the 999 bricks produced has a huge individual serial number in Helvetica down one side and... that’s it. No one seems to know what it is, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a reference to makeshift bookshelves made from bricks and scaffolding planks, though it’s definitely meant to be a stand-alone unit. Vitra says it’s a sculpture, or storage. Abloh calls it “a ceramic household accessory” or a paperweight, because apparently people still have papers that need weighing down.

To be honest, it’s quite difficult to review an undefined object, which is almost but not exactly like a different but very specific object. The Vitra block is not as strong or as easy to get hold of as a real cinder block, nor as cheap. But on the other hand, it’s lighter than a real cinder block and less dusty. You could probably kill someone with it as you could with a real cinder block, but per-blow it would inflict less cranial damage. However, being glazed, you could wash it off more easily afterwards. It might smash during the frenzy, but you could use a piece to plug the drainage hole of a terracotta pot when repotting a plant. So, swings and roundabouts.

However, in all seriousness, or as much as is appropriate given the circumstances, it’s not as well made as a real cinder block, nor as nice to look at. I’m not against pointless objects; my apartment is full of them. It’s just that this one could have been so much better. The block has been sitting on my table for a while now and it hasn’t melted or floated away, so, in as much as its function is to simply exist, I suppose it’s OK. But do we expect Vitra to be just OK?

I’ve been told that the block I was sent is a prototype and not part of the final production run, so I’ll lay off some of its individual flaws. It just shouldn’t have been made from slip-cast ceramic; it’s a strange choice that doesn’t work physically or conceptually. It isn’t even the same orange as the reworked Prouvés, but a deep, sickly coral. Sure, there are technical limitations with ceramic glazes and a neon orange is probably impossible, but then why make it in ceramic at all?

It could have been made from compressed recycled plastic, or an orange-dyed moulded aggregate of waste products from the Vitra factory. Alternatively, why not do as Supreme did and make an actual branded cinder block? It’s clearly meant to have been a pop Duchampian readymade, but it’s been through so many processes and transformations that it has lost any sense of humour and immediacy. I’m not sure everyone would even recognise it for what it’s meant to be. If you’re telling a joke, delivery is everything, and we could all do with a laugh.