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Designer Mac Collins Mines His Family History To Imagine Brighter Black Futures

I catch Mac Collins in the wake of that once-common occurrence, now a rarity: the collection launch. (And a live one, at that!) With timed and socially-distanced entrances, his Iklwa series debuted at London Craft Week this month, produced by legacy manufacturer Benchmark. Comprising two lounge chairs — one large and one small — and a side table, the collection is named for a style of short spear used by the Zulu, the chair featuring armrests that echo its shape. It’s a compelling introduction to the 25-year-old’s distinct yet disruptive approach, informed by his Jamaican heritage as well as his background in art and sculpture. A recent graduate of Northumbria University in Newcastle, his studio practice at the moment is just him, some basic hand tools, and the school studio facilities, once they’re open again. Though he’s not currently represented by a gallery or showroom — Collins says many clients are good with the “informal formal” medium of Instagram DMs, anyway — the collection launch is a nice greasing of the gears as he prepares to take part in next year’s Harewood Biennial. We spoke at length about beauty, change, and responsibility.

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A lot has changed in the world since you graduated just two years ago — maybe everything? How has it been, to be located overseas and to see what’s happening in the US, while also quarantined? For yourself on an emotional level, but also as someone entering the working world?

It’s been nuts. It’s almost like two extremes: intense relaxation, because it’s been the best excuse for procrastinating ever, but then recent events have made it hard to concentrate on design matters, which at times feel futile. So much can feel futile when the issues we are living through are so overwhelming. Everything that kicked off following the killing of George Floyd sort of made me, sitting there drawing forms for chairs, feel like I wasn’t doing enough. As a person of the African diaspora, these issues of racial equality are personal. It’s hard to watch what is happening currently, but I keep my eyes wide open — at least this has been a driving force in maintaining my efforts to push for, and stand for, diversity in the design and art sector. For my own progression, COVID-19 has, of course, made things difficult and affected my capabilities as a designer and maker. My way of working has changed and I am still trying to find a way to adjust to limited facilities and separation from the creative minds that previously surrounded me. But I feel like I’m pushing my craft in a direction that might actually bring about some aspects for social change.

Were there also protests where you are?

Definitely. We went to a couple of the protests in Nottingham. A good few thousand turned out and that felt really really powerful, that was great. And I say great, I don’t know if it’s ever really “great” to be protesting something that shouldn’t exist in the first place — but it felt good to be around so many people that had that same mindset.

Is that when you got involved with Design Can?

That was last year actually. Sabine Zetteler, who set it up, approached me. We met when I first graduated. She really championed me. She had this idea to set up almost an examining body for institutions, so she could test them and say — nobody has collected the figures on how you’re representing women and people from BAME backgrounds. But she also wanted to approach it from the ground up, through education as well. A kind of one-stop shop organization for tackling issues within the design and arts industries. She asked if I wanted to speak on a panel discussion and I said yes, and then I was asked to be on the steering committee. It’s taken off a bit more now, which has been good.

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How did you get into design?

To be honest I haven’t got a clue. I was just quite good at art in school. There’s nobody in my family who’s done anything like this, but if people tell you you’re good at something you end up liking it and wanting to do it more. Art became my little niche. When I was younger, I was really good at drawing and got into graffiti. I was going to events and graffitiing at events. I sort of wanted to do art and sculpture and illustration, but I didn’t know what the industries were or where the jobs were. Then a tutor at college said I could do art or design and still be expressive, but the work could also have a function. And then I went to university and it all aligned, kind of by accident, I think.

That’s a happy accident then. Was working on your chair something of a tipping point?

Definitely loads has come from that project, which has given me a lot of confidence because that was the first project that I hadn’t looked to solely Scandinavian or solely Japanese influences. I looked at influences from my own history and my own family stories and that was the project that worked out the best. So I’m happy that that happened.

Are you tired of it yet?

A little bit. I need to get away from it. It’s become memorable, but I don’t want to only be known for that. I’m a little bit disgruntled that I have to talk about my identity and the politics of it to get exposure. I think that galleries are quite quick to talk about these things because it seems like the right thing to talk about, whereas if I were just a designer that had created this and it had no narrative or context, then perhaps it might not have gotten the same press. I’m working on some projects where I want to create beautiful things that I think are really nice and don’t need to be political, but at the same time I’m working on projects that are derived directly from personal experiences, histories, or stories from family. Those projects sort of depend on context.

What is your creative process like for that kind of work?

A lot of it stems from family stories. Loads inspired that chair, stories that my grandma told me about when they first moved to England. This whole idea of this, like, promised land that would make them rich and then they would be able to move back to Jamaica as rich people, because white and England symbolized wealth. She talked to me about these buildings where she grew up, how there was only one building built with bricks and that was where the white people lived. Bricks were meant to last forever, and the idea that all the houses in the UK were built of bricks so surely they’ve all got money. But they got to England and that wasn’t the case at all. They got to England and it was horrible. They were paid poorly and racially abused most of the time, and people came and expected them to be like tribespeople and actually they were very intelligent people. And a lot of it comes from these stories, that I’ll really want to work with certain forms and colors that I start to pull out of it.

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How do you mine that history and your experiences for inspiration without it feeling reductive, or like pandering?

I think that, through doing this, people — and me in the future — won’t have to do these things. It will just be understood that there are Black people that design chairs, and it doesn’t have to be a political thing. It’s frustrating sometimes; these are stories I want to talk about, I just don’t want to talk about them all the time. But these are still things I want informing my work. And then, like you said, for the audience to come and consume something that matters a lot to me, I hope they take away a new perspective. Had they just seen a table and thought, “That’s nice,” as opposed to seeing the table and also reading the narrative, is surely a small victory. The more and more of these things that come up, hopefully it will change some people’s perspective. Another thing I think is important is the perception we have of Black people in society as the result of constant negative media, so sometimes it’s important just to see a nice, positive Black narrative. I think it’s important that Black people see positive images of themselves.

What do you see as the responsibility of the audience, when it comes to appreciating and understanding divergent perspectives in design? Do you find yourself having to do a lot of education when it comes to conversations around race?

The responsibility of the audience is to engage and to step out of their comfort zones and indulge different perspectives. Also, to not only engage with underrepresented designers when they’re talking about their experiences or are challenging the social status quo – to engage even when the work is apolitical, when it is just personal expression and talent. It’s so easy to stay with what’s comfortable. If audiences can interrogate that natural affinity to what they know and understand and be brave with that, even if it makes them feel uncomfortable — then feel uncomfortable. It’s all right to feel uncomfortable about these things.

I think I have been fortunate to be surrounded by people, and work with people, who can directly identify with, or mostly understand systematic racism and discrimination, to at least some degree. Conversations have come up, where I’ve had to explain aspects of the struggle that some have misunderstood, misinterpreted or just missed all together. That can be frustrating, but if those people are willing to engage, then I can make time. There is a lot that I am learning, things that I did not understand or had not initially considered. To think that I am exempt of bias and have anything near a full grasp of the issue would be very naïve, and so if I require help to learn, I understand that so will others.

Do you think social media is a sustainable way to push for change, or do you see a different approach that works?

I think the Instagram approach is useful to a certain level, but there’s only so far that general outrage on social media can go. I think that’s been important with Design Can, that they’ve been vocal on social media, but have also been directly engaging with the government and institutions. So I think it has to be attacked from all angles at the same time. A lot of people just get information from social media, but how much can you trust these echo chambers that have been created for us? You end up just shouting at each other about issues we all agree on. It doesn’t reach CEOs and directors who don’t even care about a few comments on instagram.

We have historically consumed products, objects, and art created from the perspective of white experience. If narratives of non-white creatives become more prevalent, visible, and accurately told, then perhaps these blinkers of white experience may become less prevalent.

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One of the tenets of Design Can talks about “users with a blinkered perspective.” I’m curious how we get the blinkers off? And whose job is it to take them off? I think there’s this problem of how we make people aware of their biases and how white and non-Black people can hold themselves accountable, but I don’t think it’s always clear how those conversations can be escalated into solutions for systemic racism.

I think responsibility falls on everybody involved in the whole process. I think it falls on designers and makers and employers, all the way to curators and people who consume, and those who don’t understand these issues. I think everybody has the responsibility to change those immediately around them, at whatever level they’re at. I don’t think any single person, group, or institution can carry that burden. The awareness can only come from accurate and fair representations of people’s experiences, and giving them the same visibility across the industry that white designers and makers have always had. The wider implications that diversifying the industry may have on society perhaps come from the impact that design has on our existence. We learn and live through objects. Design connects humans to every other industry. We have historically consumed and lived through products, objects, and art created from the perspective of white experience. If narratives and influences of non-white creatives become more prevalent, visible, and accurately told, then perhaps these blinkers of white experience may become less prevalent. I feel the role of organizations such as Design Can is to give engaged people the tools to remove the blinkers of those around them, socially and professionally, and to provide a platform to demonstrate just exactly what they’ve been missing.

Do you feel that genuine diversity can be achieved with white and non-Black CEOs, managers, and directors still acting as gatekeepers?

This is something that needs to be achieved collectively between Black and non-Black people. We need allies in the battle. But we need to move towards fair representation of Black figures in leadership roles. With more visibly successful figures industries appear accessible to the following generations. This, surely, results in more people, of more diverse backgrounds, pursuing these routes, knowing that they can gain genuine success through it. More Black figures at the top will disrupt and alter the kinds of old-guard nepotism that dictate opportunities. Due to the representation of Black people (or lack thereof) there are predetermined ideas of Black people and their ability to succeed in certain fields — positive Black narratives and visible Black success will play a role in altering these negative, fabricated and dated perspectives.