Chicago-based designer and DJ Virgil Abloh is one of the most famous men in graphic design, yet, his agency doesn’t have a website. You may know him as Kanye West’s long-time consultant, as he has helped design the album covers for West’s albums My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne—for which he earned a Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package. But he is also the creative director of Yeezy’s creative agency DONDA, which has created some of the most iconic merchandise and branding in pop music.
Trained as an architect, his favorite designer is German designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who saw his rise during the Bauhaus in the 1920s. “He has singularly has been the most impactful designer in regards to my personal aesthetic and way of thinking about modernism and rationalism,” he said.
Watch the Throne cover
Some of his favourite buildings include the Barcelona Pavilion in Spain, the Crown Hall in Chicago and the Berghain nightclub in Berlin. “These building possess an incredible quality that’s rarely felt in built spaces,” he says. “They exemplify that the innate power of architecture can transfer to human beings that are aware of the practice.”
[Editor’s Note: Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint cover was originally included in this article as work by DONDA. This was an error. The cover is originally by the studio of Joe Perez.]
The creative agency, which is named after West’s mother’s first name, have worked on famous hip hop album covers for artists like Tyga, Nicki Minaj and Pusha T. They’ve also worked alongside West for his fashion line Yeezy and designed Kim Kardashian’s Selfish book by Rizzoli.
Kim Kardashian’s Selfish book by Rizzoli
The team of social media experts, videographers, graphic designers, directors and publicists have been in operation since 2011. It first kicked off with the branding and marketing for West’s tour for Watch The Throne. They have since designed music videos, stages, as well as the trailer for Bret Easton Ellis’ The Canyons, an erotic thriller from 2013 starring Lindsay Lohan.
Trained as an architect, Abloh still thinks like one. “It’s the first thing I learned,” he said. “My happening upon architecture was after being an engineer, before that, I didn’t really understand the arts.”
Abloh first studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, which is a curriculum rooted in the principles of the Bauhaus and modernism, but that’s not where it ends for him. “I’m influenced by architects like Rem Koolhaas and Michael Rock, who are theorists as well as architects,” he said. “That level of thinking is not just an aesthetic one, it’s questioning how can one make things so refined and resolved in themselves that it can work?”
He tends to take a multi-disciplinary approach to design, as he is also the fashion designer behind Milan-based streetwear label Off-White, which is being worn on Instagram by Rihanna and Gigi Hadid. He is also a DJ—and perhaps also a theorist.
“We are getting rid of the idea that you have to focus on one discipline your whole life; if you’re a writer, you’re typically not allowed to be a painter, a DJ or a sculptor,” he said. “That’s what architecture is, ironically, it’s multi-disciplinary. It’s not like you just build buildings.”
Abloh is worried, though, when he looks online for inspiration, he sees what he would like to see more of. “I don’t see enough designers who are really pushing something new,” he said. “We are in the age of complacency and commentary, instead of creating.”
By drawing a parallel to his daily newsfeed of online content, Abloh’s feed is 98% is cultural criticism versus 2% of new creative work. “I have an overarching fear our generation is not living up to the idols of the past,” he said. “I spend every waking day making six things at once; I want to foster that with young people. On one hand, it’s to inspire people but that’s not enough. I would hope there are more designers and artists, because it really is the renaissance and now is the prime time for that to happen.”