Climb under a rock, see yrself more clearly
Discovering superpowers in isolation, cool architecture, crib-enlivening jawns & more "unbeatable topics" with PIN-UP's Emmanuel Olunkwa
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Emmanuel Olunkwa — he’s a young prince of the design world who writes, curates, makes films, takes pictures (of ppl like Dev Hynes and Kilo Kish, among others), designs furniture, writes Columbia graduate theses about the spatiality of Jeremy O. Harris plays, and, at just 27, was recently named editor of the excellent architecture & design magazine PIN-UP …
He’s also a fashionable dude known to rock tremendous Eckhaus Latta joints on IG and Loewe in Interview magazine, and who interned at Saint Laurent and Comme des Garçons. Emmanuel’s based in Bed Stuy, and he first caught our eye here at the sletter because of his popping furniture practice — he makes carved birchwood tables and chairs whose shapes put us in mind of sick Scandinavian CHURCH DÉCOR?? (Ssense recently started carrying a capsule of Olunkwa joints; they’re coppable thru the links way down below.)
The other day Erin hit up Emmanuel on the SpyPhone to talk about unbeatably compelling topics such as RADICAL optimism, GREAT architecture, “actually having a relationship” with the jawns you wear — and more.
Blackbird Spyplane: “Radical optimism” is the theme of the first issue of Pin-Up that you edited. What are you feeling optimistic about these days?
Emmanuel Olunkwa: “I’m optimistic about the fact that I’m at the helm of a publication where I can cultivate a new chapter and a new network of people who haven’t been spotlighted — people who are making really cool things, and I get to be in conversation with them.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You recently interviewed Gaetano Pesce tha architecture & design god, and you wrote about his “proudly incoherent oeuvre,” made up of “signature materials like resin, fabric and polyurethane.” He makes some joyous, crib-enlivening pieces. What speaks to you about Pesce’s work?
Emmanuel Olunkwa: “He’s 82, and he’s having a moment. He’s a pioneer of object-making, and he’s so experimental with materials, so the objects he makes aren’t always intended to be functional — or functionality isn’t the main goal — even if you can use them. And he’s making work and selling it at an affordable price, so he’s really reaching people: You can see his work and you can actually buy it. It’s not just something that exists in a museum.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Pesce told you he only likes one building in Manhattan — the Guggenheim. What’s yr favorite building in L.A., where you grew up?
Emmanuel Olunkwa: “My favorite building in NYC is the Guggenheim, too. In L.A. it’s the Getty Center, by Richard Meier. It’s a whole universe — a place you go to spend time at and to spend time with. I watched this Maysles documentary about the Getty, Concert of the Wills, and the process of building it was so beautiful. Also, I like that you can see it from your car on the 10 — it puts a building in a different context when it’s something you encounter every day.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You’ve talked about how you first got into photography, in a roundabout way, after you had two brain surgeries as a 5 year old. How did that experience lead you to take pictures?
Emmanuel Olunkwa: "After my surgeries, I told my mom, ‘I don’t want you to take pictures of me, I don’t feel good.’ But later, when I was at friends’ houses, I would see their family-photo books and I was, like, ‘I don’t have photos of myself, what the f*ck!’ That was when I decided I wanted to document my life, and I started taking photos when I was 15. I was on Tumblr — I grew up as the internet was developing — but photography was still a very intentional act then, not just posting pictures real quick with your phone.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Who are some new designers you can put SPY NATION on to?
Emmanuel Olunkwa: “I’m still learning what I like! I was thinking about this today in the context of my apartment — how it looked a year ago versus how different it looks today. Back then it felt almost like a furniture consignment shop: The pieces didn’t have a consistent feeling to them. Now it has a story, and that was something I did under a rock: I wasn’t going out, barely leaving, and I came out of it with this version of myself that never existed before.”
Blackbird Spyplane: So, I know you commissioned Sam Stewart to make you a couch (above right). Who are some other ppl behind the pieces in the revamped Olunkwa 2.0 crib?
Emmanuel Olunkwa: “I really love these flower sculptures by Caroline David. They’re bulbous and have six petals and come in all different colors. Also, I love Maxim Schidlovsky's ceramics — he’s a multimedia artist who makes abstract vessels.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You’ve talked about how you want the things in yr home to have a “one-of-one feeling” — is that how you approach the clothing you wear, too?
Emmanuel Olunkwa: “When I was younger, the only architecture I had control over was the architecture of my body, and I was lucky because where I grew up in L.A. there was a consignment shop that was high-quality, and a lot of the clothes came from TV and movie sets. I would see something on, like, Gossip Girl, and then 3 weeks later I’d see it on the racks at that store. So I was able to encounter clothes I could otherwise never afford. It was a place that fed my interest in clothes and micro trends.
“Today, in terms of pieces, I like to actually have a relationship with the things I own. One thing that means is that I don’t online-shop — I have to touch the thing before I buy it. I have to see it in person.”
Blackbird Spyplane: O h*ll yeah, we call that the Cop I.R.L. Only Challenge (C.I.R.L.O.C.) Mindset…
Emmanuel Olunkwa: “There are all these clothes you see online where it’s, like, ‘It’s giving Gaultier,’ but when it shows up it’s actually giving Ross Dress for Less. Online it’s giving Balenciaga but in in person it’s giving nada.”
Blackbird Spyplane: We asked you to tell us about a cherished possession, and you chose a TALL painting you copped for your apartment. What’s the story?
Emmanuel Olunkwa: “It’s by an artist named Ellen Frank. She made the painting in Italy in 1980, packed it up and took it back to L.A. and had it framed for a show she had there, which featured nine other paintings of a similar visual language. She actually told me this painting was Frank Gehry’s favorite — they came up around the same era.
“So Ellen is my friend’s aunt, and one day we visited her studio. The frame is the first thing that caught my eye about it — honestly, I think that’s the first thing that should catch anyone’s eye: It’s all in the rounded edges, the seam on the corners as they meet. It’s sculpture, and makes it really feel like art.
“When I got past the frame, I fell in love with the texture and energy and color — orange has always felt like me. I thought about it a long time, but I knew I couldn’t afford it. And then, after meeting me, she decided to part with it for a homie fee.”
Blackbird Spyplane: The painting’s got a ‘Phoenix rising’ quality. What does it mean to you?
Emmanuel Olunkwa: “Yes! It’s called ‘Acanthus,’ which is a symbol of resurrection in Greek. This is the last piece of the series, before she started making new work, so this painting marks a major transition in Frank’s practice. And I got it in the summer of 2020, and my life changed with it: That’s when I started designing furniture, I launched a magazine, I also started living alone. I wonder if this painting gave me superpowers.”
🍃 Emmanuel’s on Instagram here and his site is here; PIN-UP is online here; E & Ko. furniture is here and on sale at Ssense here; Coming Soon in NYC is one of a few places with Gaetano Pesce joints on hand.
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