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Now You See Me

MEET | Oct 18, 2023

Charlene Prempeh, the writer, author and founder of A Vibe Called Tech, a Black-owned creative studio and consultancy, which encourages a culturally diverse lens in the creative industries, has launched her first book to coincide with Black History Month.

Charlene Prempeh, the writer, author and founder of A Vibe Called Tech, a Black-owned creative studio and consultancy, which encourages a culturally diverse lens in the creative industries, has launched her first book to coincide with Black History Month.

Now You See Me: An Introduction to 100 Years of Black Design celebrates the Black graphic artists, architects and fashion designers whose work has helped define key cultural moments and movements over the past 100 years. Previously marginalised or even erased from history, the book serves as a marker for many talents often overlooked but now cannot be forgotten.

We caught up with Charlene to find out more…

What inspired you to write Now You See Me and why did you think it was important to celebrate the work of Black creatives right now?
The seed was planted during a Zoom call with Chrystal Genesis, founder of culture podcast Stance, and Lewis Gilbert, creative director at A Vibe Called Tech. We were working on a brief for the North Face X Gucci collection and wanted to connect the explorer aesthetic to stories of past Black pioneers and Genesis asked, “What about Ann Lowe? The woman who designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress?” After an instant of shock, wondering why I had never heard of her, I was brought back to the reality of why I had never heard of her. The formalities of segregation, colonial rule and anti-black racism have both hindered their existence and encouraged their erasure from our collective memory and absence from the design canon.

Joyce Bryant Wears Zelda Wynn Valdes Gown Van Vechten Trust

Could you share a few other examples of these designers and their impact on key cultural moments or movements?
I think quite an obvious one is the example of architect Paul Revere Williams who notably learned to draw upside down so that he didn't offend his white clients by sitting next to them. Working from the 1920s onwards, Williams designed a lot of the iconic Hollywood buildings we know today. Not only did he design homes for the likes of Frank Sinatra, but he also played a part in designing Los Angeles International Airport, as well as The Beverly Hills Hotel. He was also a massive contributor to the Spanish Colonial Revival style that is so prevalent in LA, known for designing buildings with curved lines and grand staircases.

There was Norma Merrick Sklarek, who was the first African-American woman member of the American Institute of Architects in 1959. This was a time when no women were working in these industries, let alone black women.

Similarly, designers such as John Owusu Addo and Demas Nwoko have not had the recognition because their work has gone beyond the Eurocentric gaze and their modern, highly technical architectural design work stands in direct opposition to the Western idea of Africa as undeveloped and uncivilized.

In Fashion, Zelda Wynn Valdez laid the groundwork for the Black polymaths we see today, designing gowns for the stars of the 1940s and 50s, working on costumes for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and working on community projects teaching women to sew.

Black History Month is a significant time for the launch of your book. How do you see your work contributing to the celebration and understanding of Black history and culture?
I’ve always found the lack of record on black lives strange and I wanted the book to add to a growing body of work that aims to address and correct that imbalance.

Ann Lowe Fitting A Dress Jpaul Getty Trust Smithsonian National Museum Of African American History Culture

Can you discuss any challenges you encountered while researching and compiling a century of Black design? Were there any surprises or discoveries that stood out to you during this process?
It is challenging trying to find something when a conscious effort has been made to obscure it or erase it. There is that famous saying that “history is written by the victors”. As I discuss in the book, the innovation that took place in countries like Ghana and Nigeria after becoming independent from Europe in the late 50s, and early 60s was with the intention of building/ portraying a modern, advanced Africa, which could compete with their western, capitalist counterparts. It was very telling to observe a sort of rupture and plateau in the work of black architects in West Africa around the time that postcolonial hope gave way to neocolonialism with the dismantling of Pan-African strategy and the CIA-backed overthrow and assassinations of those instrumental figures of the All-African Peoples' Conference of 1958.

In the UK there is the issue of arguably more covert, insidious systematic racism hindering opportunities for black designers, as well as an active colourblindness, which often means that those black designers who have slipped through the cracks are harder to identify.

One of the key themes of your book is "visibility." Could you elaborate on why visibility is important in the context of Black design and how it has evolved over the past century?
At the moment, there are unprecedented levels of attention being paid to diversity in the creative industries and endless conversations about representation. Now You See Me! is about showing that black designers have always been here and black people have a rich legacy of creation, technique and creativity. Black designers, historically, have carved out a space for themselves both within and without the industries that have systematically excluded them. What I hope I have done is illuminate those designers, whose work has often been relegated to the shadows, and give space to their stories, which provide not only blueprints but cautionary tales for both practising and aspiring black designers today.

Now You See Me By Charlene Prempeh

What do you hope readers will take away from your book, particularly those who may not be familiar with the contributions of Black designers to these fields?
I hope that the book can act as a springboard for readers to start their own exploration into the work of black designers throughout history and also invite intrigue for what works and ideas we may have missed, perhaps because they lay outside of the mainstream canon of design or because they did not suit a desired historical narrative.

Collaboration and mentorship often play significant roles in creative industries. Can you share any stories or insights from your research about the relationships and collaborations among Black designers over the past century?
Despite the trope of “pulling the ladder up behind you”, which is rife in our current government, what is clear amongst the designers I write about in the book, is that they felt the need to create alliances with other black creatives of their time and create space to enable access for black designers. Whether it was Zelda Wynn Valdez, teaching women to sew, or Emmet McBain and Tom Burrell forming a black-owned ad agency. Or even, Graphic Designer Charles Dawson who designed and self-published children’s book ABC’s of Great Negroes — it is clear that a respect and desire for collaboration and mentorship has been there throughout.

In the context of your book's title, Now You See Me what message or call to action would you like to convey to your readers and the broader community regarding the ongoing recognition and support of Black designers and their work?
A lot of the evidence and research we accessed was due to families making the effort to document and archive the works of their ancestors, but ultimately institutions become the custodians of those archives and they control who has access to it and how and when it can be accessed. There were times when archives were unavailable as they had not been processed yet by institutions. It highlighted the fact that we cannot rely on anyone else to document our histories and preserve our legacies and made clear the need for establishing a way of ensuring the work of black designers is not written out of history again.