10 Questions With… Football Star Turned Designer Michael Bennett

Michael Bennett in a chair by a window
Michael Bennett.

Furniture design is a tactile practice, but for Michael Bennett, the journey towards a design studio started at a seemingly remote yet also physical arena, the football field. The former Super Bowl champion, who played with the Seattle Seahawks, recently opened an exhibition of sculptural furniture at Rebuild Foundation, founded by artist Theaster Gates, in Chicago. Titled “We Gotta Get Back to the Crib,” the show of wooden, fiberglass, and bronze pieces was presented by Los Angeles-based Marta Gallery.

The project was another step in Bennett’s exploration of materiality through his very own definitions of home, history, and togetherness. As founder of Studio Kër and a current architecture student at the University of Hawaii, he pulls references from everyday rituals of the Black American life while he continues to expand his lens for a broader look at the African diaspora experience. From the Gumbo chair to Da Block stool, the objects blend familiarity with his personal take on how materials define memory.

Bennett’s activist approach to design includes establishing an endowment three years ago at the Rhode Island School of Design to support the education of more people of color in the design field, but his day-to-day stance happens at his studio next to his home in Hawaii. The works on view in Chicago reflected his contemplative hand through definitive forms that radiated strength and emotion at the same time.

“What I learned from football is discipline and team-building,” Bennett tells Interior Design. “Sports has allowed me to think about myself and my body with awareness—we as people can collaborate more and connect through something rooted in more than just a materialistic thing.”

Michael Bennett Talks Football, Designing for Black Bodies, and More

Interior Design: How did you cross paths with Theaster Gates? His work is rooted in architecture and design as well.

Michael Bennett: I have been following Theaster’s ability to turn Blackness into a place. We actually met in London during his Serpentine Gallery exhibition. Where I wanted to practice creatively and his vision lined up perfectly. He is open to understanding the context and the landscape that he was trying to change when it comes to exhibitions for communities like ours.

ID: Your Public Display installation during the NYCxDesign festival last year was about community and gathering through the materiality of wood. Could you talk about building this structure in the middle of New York’s Meatpacking District?

MB: That work was embedded and rooted in communion. I was thinking about sacred spaces amongst the calamity and finding clarity. Using wood, in a way, captured nature and bridged the idea of architecture, sculpture, and art coming together through placemaking. New York was the right setting to frame and reflect. The main idea was to deal with mass, not just in a sense of weight but also a gathering, creating gravity. If we talk about oneness of forms, materials, and process, we have to look back in nature and how we congregate. I wanted to show this beautiful material in its purest form.

a curved armchair and stool on a patio
Installation of the Gumbo chair with upholstery.
two stone stools on an outdoor patio
An installation of stone stools by Bennett.

ID: Let’s talk about Studio Kër. How did the idea find you?

MB: When I retired [from football], I went to Senegal to spend time over there and to connect with people. It put me into a unique place to think about how to connect to the world. I had always worked in the two dimensional realm, and and I wanted to see what physical spaces looked like over there and how objects form narrative. I formed the studio with this idea that home is important. Home resonates with family, tradition, and process. Kër in Wolof means home, and the studio is about creating things that make you feel like you are home.

ID: Your recent show was about domesticity and rituals related to home. How do you approach certain interactions within living spaces, through family and our bodies?

MB: As a designer, you think form equals function or function equals form. I think about narratives that lead to form. The Mo-Mo table is about connecting people to a historical context of culture rooted in history. These stories are about Sunday dinners or, in general, gatherings around food, and they inform a shape that is very communal. I think about the patriarchs and matriarchs of our family as well as what stories they tell. These objects are living repositories. Having the show in Southside Chicago has its own meaning. I wanted to channel the beauty of my own childhood in the South. Designers and artists sometimes channel traumatic experience, but for me, I wanted to create the joys of my childhood.

a brown bench with curved legs
The Cape Mantle bench.
a black stool in biomorphic shape
Da Block.

ID: Wood is an important material for you. It is central in the recent Chicago show and your previous New York installation. What does wood mean to you personally, texturally, and historically?

MB: As humans, we are biophilic creatures, so we need nature to be tranquil. Wood is a natural material that is a part of everything. When I look at the grains, the scars of the wood, I see purification, a journey, an elevation of who we are. I love the way we humans are connected through it. I love the way pine smells—it is just a great canvas to carry through. There is something about the humanity and godliness. I want to create forms to sit on, and I connect with wood because it is a holistic material.

ID: This exhibition has also references to Akili Ron Andersons bas-relief frieze Last Supper and D.C. Simpsons 1946 stacking polypropylene Monobloc chair. How do these broad references find you?

MB: I’m very interested in references inspired by the past and objects that have futuristic forms but live in the present. African diasporic forms and languages are really where I’m at when it comes to design references. Think of something as simple as gumbo—it references to okra but in that proximity, you come up with the new. I’m interested in taking something that people are used to as a silhouette and re-craft it in a way that positions a new perspective. Almost everything I do is informed by architecture which can also be about scaling something up to walk through it.

ID: Your forms are strong and determined and also carry subtle accents of curves. Is there a reference to the body, which ties back to your understanding of designing for a community?

MB: If you look at Japanese or Scandinavian design, their furniture pieces are not made for a Black body. When I am designing, I think about the Black body in scale, proportions, and geometries. Materiality is important because in the end, we are taking up space. I look at forms that are primordial or tribal. I don’t want to overcomplicate design for the sake of overcomplicating. In the end, my goal is to make timeless silhouettes that speak forever and become a part of history. My goal is to allow the viewer to experience the design in its purest form. The subtle moments of shaving the wood over and over and redoing it and then refinishing it has something to do with the essence of being a part of the African diaspora. When I make the Gumbo stool, I’m thinking about my mother braiding my sister’s hair.

The Gumbo Chair in black with spider-like legs
The Gumbo chair.
a seemingly oversized wood chair with a tiny back
Paw Paws chair.

ID: As someone who studied design and is now getting his architecture degree, could you talk about unlearning western-leaning formal education?

MB: It is about unlearning that whiteness is the epitome of luxury, and this can sometimes be hard. If you go to different places across the globe, you see Black items in white spaces. Louvre, for example, has some of the most beautiful examples of African art in the world, or think about Picasso’s Cubism, which is something taken from our culture. Looking at the essence of West African design and spaces, I think about reasons behind repetition, harmony, scale which all come into play. I try to expand this into creating architecture. European designers have so much [entitlement to] all the spaces that we have created. For us, going back to history ties to oral tradition because so many things aren’t written down—the ideology is rooted, and I have been drawing more inspiration from forms closer to my identity.

ID: You were born in Louisiana but have lived in many different places as an athlete. How do these life experiences inform you today?

MB: My definition of architecture is empathy for space—to create space that allows for harmony and congregation, whether this is home or a museum. Regardless of scale, there still is the connection for humanity. You realize as you travel, a lot of people want the same things. Growing up in the South, my grandpa was a builder, and getting back to the tradition and craft is very important to me.

ID: How influential is your welder grandfather in your design approach today?

MB: I used to help him build. I think as humans we occasionally do things that we know the language for or the name for what you are experiencing. Through gaining knowledge over the years, I understood what he was doing—he was building spaces to bring people together, whether they were churches or barbecue grills. As we start figuring out what we want to become, these things that were once submerged in our consciousness become a part of our frontal lobe and we think about them cognitively.

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