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Teaching Brooklyn Kids "Funktional" Furniture Design

Artist Xenobia Bailey recounts her experience teaching a 10-week design class to students at a Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn high school, preparation for a public arts exhibition co-produced by Creative Time and the Weeksville Heritage Center.

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Photo: Courtesy of Xenobia Bailey

Walk through Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and you might stumble upon a surprising discovery. Amid the brownstones and grit is a charming row of old, whitewashed houses off the main street grid. Rediscovered by helicopter in 1968, Hunterfly Road is the unique relic of a 19th century African-American community, founded just after abolition in New York. Those early settlers of the area called Weeksville may well be Brooklyn's original makers, people who sustained themselves by using traditional homemaking techniques like canning and small-scale farming. 

 

As a designer, fine artist, craftsperson, and cultural activist, I celebrate this tradition of African-American domestic ingenuity. My work in the Funk aesthetic is inspired by unsung homemakers and housekeepers, such as my mother, who would use found materials to recreate pieces of furniture she saw in House & Garden. Though best known for its role in hip hop culture, I see common ground between Bed-Stuy’s present and past: The tradition of using limited resources to channel creativity into comfort and value. 

 

Serendipitously, public arts nonprofit Creative Time invited me to conduct a 10-week design class with the students of Bed-Stuy’s Boys & Girls High School, for a partnership with Weeksville Heritage Center. I asked these juniors and seniors to draw from familiar designs -- ones that were in their own homes -- to outfit one of the historic Hunterfly houses. My goal was to cultivate their innate design aptitudes through visualization, play, and fabrication. Our tools and materials were nothing but X-Acto blades, glue, and recycled cardboard boxes. 

 

 

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Artists Kara Walker and Xenobia Bailey. Photo: Courtesy of Christos Katsiaouni/Creative Time

I taught them how to source, design, measure, cut, and finish objects for their own home. I showed the students a few PowerPoint presentations of cardboard chairs and different examples of how to create well-supported, sturdy furniture–and they naturally responded with a sophisticated, neo-funky aesthetic. To free up their imagination, I asked the students to imagine they were creating the home of an enterprising young Black artist couple. The result is an intimate installation of “funkified” dining room, bedroom, lounge, and studio furniture that you can visit as it is being transformed. The entire home is being styled more each day with "funk-tional" African-American craft touches, such as a combination bed covering/yoga mat made from woven newspaper, and handmade newsprint flowers.

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Photo: Courtesy of Christos Katsiaouni/Creative Time

After a total of 20 weeks of working together from spring through September, I hope to collaborate with this inspiring group of apprentice designers again in the near future. In the meantime, the students have been visiting me every weekend at my cardboard table workstation inside Hunterfly Road house, where they chat, help me build, and greet visitors.

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Titled Century 21: Bed-Stuy Rhapsody in Design. Photo: Courtesy of Christos Katsiaouni/Creative Time

Funk, God, Jazz & Medicine: Black Radical Brooklyn will be on view free to the public Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through October 12at the Weeksville Heritage Center (158 Buffalo Avenue, Brooklyn, NY) as part of their partnership exhibition with Creative Time

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About the Author

Xenobia Bailey

Born and raised in Seattle, artist Xenobia Bailey studied ethnomusicology at the University of Washington, where she became fascinated by the craftsmanship and sounds of the cultures of Africa, Asia, South America, and India. She later studied industrial design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she was introduced to the concept of affecting lifestyle through design.Today, the New...

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