Rachael Sternlicht, Sun Graphics Design

October 14, 2018

LING | Virgil Abloh and the Design of Everyday Things

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p class=”p1″>If you sit for long enough at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport you will see luggage carousels fill up with aluminum-ribbed suitcases, a parade of muted colors, subtly labeled Rimowa. There, the suitcase is so common it is easy to forget that it is a luxury brand, with prices starting at $495 for your basic starter luggage. Perhaps this speaks to the different definitions of luxury. In my mother’s country, using clothing for wealth signaling is less pervasive and luxury is harder to distinguish than in the Canada Goose-rife, Goyard bag-toting landscape that is Cornell. However, young or old, the obsession with the Rimowa luggage continues because of its practicality and quality. So you can imagine my surprise when a targeted Instagram ad (the gift that keeps on giving) showed a trippy video for Rimowa’s new collection featuring Off-White™ designer Virgil Abloh expounding his mantra on travel. Virgil Abloh, future arts director of Louis Vuitton, creative director for Kanye West, kingpin of Off-White™ and professional DJ is hailed as one of the most influential designers because of his ability to integrate streetwear culture into high fashion.

Abloh’s signature is playful and seemingly irreverent, a Marcel Duchamp for the age of Instagram, featuring words in Helvetica that describe the object (i.e skirt, shoe, knit, etc.) in quotation marks and visual allusions to the quotidian and the working-class. His clothing brand Off-White™ has developed a cult following of hypebeasts, with his deconstructed Nike and Converse collaborations going for thousands of dollars on the resell market. Because of this, it seems contradictory for him to partner with Rimowa, an understated, niche luggage manufacturer. However, this is part of a larger trend, a wave of rebranding by classic luxury goods brands in order to establish staying power in an era where bootleg luxury is more sought after than the goods themselves and trends fluctuate according to social media. In this economic environment, Abloh possesses the golden touch, injecting perceived “cool” and placing an emphasis on the individual into classic pieces, playing off of the cultural correlations these brands already have and tweaking them for a new type of consumer. His Rimowa collaborations feature a typical Rimowa luggage that comes either in transparent plastic or in aluminum with the words “PERSONAL BELONGINGS” emblazoned on the side. At once useless and ironic, the collaboration encapsulates a general feeling perpetuated by social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram.

In this sense, it is clear that Abloh doesn’t seem himself as simply a fashion designer but rather, a designer of experience. In a video interview with the New York Times, he places emphasis on his audience, “The millennial young person, they love to covet things, they are waiting for a designer that is faced to them.” This idea of designing for the user aligns greatly with the tenets of Don Norman’s legendary book The Design of Everyday Things, in which he says, “Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.” In this case, Abloh has excelled, reading the pulse of a specific demographic, predicting their desires, and exploiting an unreached market. This is exemplified in his collaboration with Ikea — a part of every millenial’s DNA — the Swedish furniture company famous for their frustrating home-assembly instructions and cheap teak-wood bookcases. The MARKERAD collection, as it is called, includes a completely clear glass cabinet (for displaying your favorite personal items, of course), a rug emblazoned with the words “KEEP OFF,” and a classic wood-spindle chair with a doorstop for a fourth leg. These items are cryptic and avant-garde that bring nothing new to the table, but are so in-demand that they will sell out immediately when they drop in 2019 because of Abloh’s ability to predict consumer patterns.

But to be clear, Virgil Abloh is not designing everyday things, he is designing for luxury. He has helped foster a culture of consumption that is unsustainable and empty. Perhaps Abloh is not truly designing, but rather experimenting with elitism. By co-opting DIY youth culture, usually born of low-budget resourcefulness and placing exorbitant prices on everyday things, he is appropriating a way of being to create a feedback loop of coveting. But maybe Abloh is playing with us, operating a grand social survey that will result in a fabulous op-ed about how the millennials fell for the  grand marketing ruse. Moving forward, it is important to realize our own roles as consumers and look deeply into how we form our opinions on what good design is and how it impacts our everyday lives.

Isabel Ling is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture and Planning. She can be reached at [email protected]. Linguistics will run on alternate Mondays this semester.