Norman Teague, Designer and Educator, Says Chicago Is Unity …
Written by Vocalo Radio on February 21, 2020
Norman Teague is a Chicago based designer and educator who focuses on projects and pedagogy that address the complexity of urbanism and the culture of communities.
Specializing in custom furniture that delivers a personal touch to a specific user and unique aesthetic detail, Teague’s past projects have included consumer products, public sculpture, performances, and specially designed retail spaces.
Working with common, locally-sourced building materials and local fabricators to create objects and spaces that explore simplicity, honesty and cleverness and relates to the culture of the client and/or community.
We sat down with Norman to discuss Chicago’s inequities, sharing knowledge, and the power of design …
Where did you grow up in Chicago? Where do you live now?
I lived in Brownsville as a young child. Moved around to Roseland, South Shore. Settled in Englewood for quite some time, and then I lived in the white building on 71st. Most people from Chicago know exactly what I’m talking about. This is where I became a young man, my teenage years.
Now I live in South Shore, South East Side of Chicago. Both triumphs and challenges come with being a Chicagoan because in my early years I started to go downtown as a teenager and always saw the differences between my neighborhood and downtown. And I always felt like a lot of changes were happening throughout the North sides of Chicago and very few changes were happening on the South Side. So a lot of that has stuck with me, but it’s also influenced me in my practice as an artist and an architect to really show different ways of making the necessary changes.
Tell us how you first became interested in design.
A lot of my work started with just a passion working in a wood shop. I thought I wanted to be an architect, so I studied architecture. I worked in architecture as a draftsman. Did about 10 years working in firms throughout Chicago and really saw that there wasn’t much of a life there for me. I would constantly be someone’s CAD monkey. Then I went back to college at Columbia, and I was introduced to the wood shop or for the first time. Being able to draw, come up with ideas and designs, and then turn those into tangible things immediately in the wood shop? Man, I was thrilled. I was absolutely thrilled. It was the start of something. Before I graduated from Columbia College I had my own woodshop and I started taking on projects and clients.
I got a shop over at 500 West Cermak. This is where I first met Faheem Majeed. Theaster Gates was a neighbor there. I met LDRS there, their first design, their first store. Chicago was really in this building. That’s where it really hit me when it came to freedom within my art and design practice. Where I really wanted to instill my narrative, due to the lack of my narrative in my work.
What inspires your work now?
There really has always been a stark difference between North and South, which meant to me, from an architecture and design standpoint, designers weren’t really paying attention to what I considered a problem. I felt like I had to give back. Working with community members to come up with ideas, and really inserting them into their communities, for me, that was a teacher within itself. I get to learn from my community members, they get to take on my skill sets.
I’ve spent a lot of time educating. I taught at Roberto Clemente High School, big ups to them, always doing good stuff. Now I teach at University of Illinois at Chicago in the School of Design where I get to just work with young minds and I’m constantly learning on a regular basis. So it’s a fair exchange for me. That’s that’s where the community comes in.
Have you noticed any new developments within the Chicago community?
I’m excited about the unity in Chicago. I really think that people have taken the reins to protest and stand up. We are giving the mic to young people again, which is really dope. I think the changes that we need to happen are definitely going to come from our our younger people. So I think Chicago is doing a really great job of pulling together, organizing and starting to do a lot of work around the things that truly need equity.
Ultimately, what are you hoping to achieve through your work? What can people learn from design?
Personally I want to really help identify new ways to return on investment. I think that what we put into our communities and the muscle, the sweat and tears that we put into changing our communities, is really our return on investment. It’s truly how we give back and empower a new generation of people.
I think I want to familiarize people with what the power of design can do. Following the design process and literally sitting down with a room full of people and listening, and then taking that information and turning it around and regurgitating it in a way that fulfills a healthy and vibrant community.
What Does Your Chicago Sound Like?
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Shot by Tom Gavin