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Q&A: Female Design Council Grant Winner: Luam Melake

One of the two winners of the organization’s inaugural grant tells GRAY about her design background, the inspirations behind her work, and what’s next for 2021.

Edited for length and clarity by Rachel Gallaher

Images courtesy of Luam Melake

Woman sitting on oversized style chair red base with black sitting area, man laying across her lap, concrete floor white background

Designer Luam Melake's Listening Chair, part of her grant-winning collection The Optimisd.

New York-based furniture designer Luam Melake is one of the two winners of the Female Design Council’s inaugural juried grant, GRANT 01, which was designed to support the ideas of Black female designers in the United States and to further its commitment to champion equity and gender parity in design. The two $2,500 grants are meant to provide emerging designers with the financial resources needed to bring their ideas into prototyping and/or production.

Melake received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of California, Berkeley in Interdisciplinary Field Studies, majoring in Architecture with a minor in Art History. She graduated in 2008. Her work has appeared in multiple exhibitions (both solo and group shows), and she been an artist-in-residence at prominent institutions including the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha (2019), Fondation Blachère in Apt, France (2019), and the Museum of Arts and Design in New York (2017-18).

On the occasion of her grant award, GRAY reached out to learn more about Melake’s work.

How did you get into design in the first place? Was there any particular person/event/interest, etc. that opened those doors for you, or have you always been exploring your creativity?

I’ve been a creative person since early childhood and was interested in practicing all the arts—drawing, painting, music, acting—and immersed myself in the history of film and fashion. I had so many interests that it was difficult to figure out which creative outlet suited me best. I was very serious about painting but felt like I didn’t have anything original to contribute. I decided early on that architecture might be the best application of my interests and going to UC Berkeley to study it was how I started in design.

My parents are immigrants from Ethiopia and Eritrea and came out of a socialist ideology. Both were lifelong civil servants before retiring; my mother engineered roads and my father planned public parks. They shared an ideology that government could do a lot to build communities and foster healthy social conditions. I think an inclination towards public service led me towards architecture. I wanted to use my creativity to positively affect people in the real world, rather than work solely in the realm of poetics. My work is still very focused on the experience of the user/viewer.

Designer Luam Melake touching brown glossy furniture piece, large room with bare rafters

Designer Luam Melake.

Why furniture? What drew you into creating functional objects vs. sculpture or art?

I wanted to study architecture at Berkeley because the program was oriented towards teaching students how to think conceptually. It was a sort of Bauhaus approach and the perfect program for someone planning an interdisciplinary future! I dreaded the reality of working in the architectural field, with the long timelines, vast technical issues, constant collaboration... Furniture seemed like an ideal scale to work in. It allows for creative control, it’s functional, structural, and there is a lot of potential for innovation.

I later studied weaving at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York with the idea that I would eventually fold this skill set into a furniture practice somehow. When I first started making furniture, I found that I had a lot of downtime as I was waiting for materials to cure and started playing around on the loom, throwing concrete and metals on the surface of the fabric, and weaving industrial materials into the loom. I developed my language with my woven works very quickly. It was so refreshing to make non-functional objects, which allow so much more room for creativity and material exploration. I love having a non-functional side to my practice that still requires working within a set of limitations.

Your grant-winning collection, The Optimisd, focuses on a very specific period of European design. What made you interested in exploring it with your work?

My Optimisd series began with a question: how can design offer proposals to improve the many complex social ills we are living with in the US today? The 21st century seems to have wrought a rapid breakdown of the social order. The digital age has produced profound alienation on an individual level, which is keeping us from realizing a more collective society. I believe we need to enter another period of radical reconsideration of how we are living and leave behind models that are no longer relevant. This is why I was looking back at European design of the 60s for inspiration. I was looking at Joe Colombo, Verner Panton, and Italian Radical Design most closely.

I took a revelatory college course in post-war art that must have been the start of my interest in this era. I have also worked extensively in design over the past 15 years and have been exposed to a lot through my professional history—most notably at William Stout Architectural Books in San Francisco, my first job after college. That place is a national treasure and working there was better than getting a Master’s degree in design history. Later I was the gallery manager at Demisch Danant, a gallery specializing in French design of the 1950s-70s and immersed myself in writing and researching design of this era while working there.

Blue half oval and half circle, glossy book ending brown glossy table cement floor white walls

The Better Together table, another piece from Melake's The Optimisd collection.

Your collection revolves around the importance of social interaction. We all just went through a long period in which social interaction was banned, discouraged, and actually dangerous. This isolation obviously had very adverse impact on most people. Did you find this affirming of your work… do you feel that your approach is even more important as we start to return to work, school, etc.?

I think this work has become even more relevant since the pandemic. My series is about increasing the potential for intimacy through more direct social interaction and is ideally suited for social situations amongst people who already know each other. An existing relationship makes close contact more comfortable, psychologically. The people we live with are often the people we need the most and also the people we take the most for granted. This was especially true during the pandemic. The skills we learn from maintaining close relationships affect how we form new relationships, so it is the best place to start to bring empathy and respectful discourse into the broader society.

What’s next for you?

Thanks to the Female Design Council Grant, I will be continuing my very young Optimisd series. I am currently developing new designs. There were several psychological and anthropological studies I read during the pandemic that will inform new forms for this work. I am also finishing up a large wall hanging that reflects my excitement for a post-pandemic era. I’ve clearly been working on becoming more of an optimist!

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