What’s Good G?

Blazing Trails

Germane Barnes

Germane Barnes spotlights Maya Bird-Murphy and Catherine Sarr, two winners of the new Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab, an incubator program supporting outstanding BIPOC creatives

Buongiorno from the American Academy in Rome!

Since we last met, I’ve been diving deep into my research here as part of the Rome Prize fellowship, focusing on the contributions of North Africans to classical architecture. (There’s an extensive legacy of North Africans living and migrating through Italy, however their architectural influence has been largely ignored. My goal is to find and disseminate those contributions with the ultimate aim of creating a new column order inspired by those communities.)

Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab's inaugural awardees. Photo by Chris Strong; Courtesy of Rebuild Foundation

This past month, I also had the chance to visit Chicago for the announcement of the inaugural winners of the new Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab. This exciting, freshly launched incubator program was organized by artist and social innovator Theaster Gates and Prada Group, in partnership with Rebuild Foundation, and aims to support and amplify the work of artists and designers of color across the creative spectrum. The debut award-winners are an incredible group of people—all of whom you should make a point of knowing—and I’m honored to be included among them.

 Theaster Gates (center) and collaborators; Photo courtesy of Rebuild Foundation

Selected by a committee that included the late Virgil Abloh, creative director Miuccia Prada, and architect David Adjaye, among others, the first cohort includes: Maya Bird-Murphy (Architecture), Brandon Breaux (Fine Art & Design), Catherine Sarr (Fine Jewelry Design), Demarr Brown (Culinary Arts), Tolu Coker (Fashion Design), Kyle Abraham (Dance), Mariam Issoufou Kamara (Architecture), Norman Teague (Product Design), Kendall Reynolds (Footwear Design), Yemi Amu (Agriculture), Kenturah Davis (Visual Art), Salome Asega (Art, Technology & Design) and yours truly.

Awardees meet together in Chicago; Photos courtesy of Rebuild Foundation

Every one of the awardees is an expert in their field, and approaches their work with intentionality and depth. I was especially struck by two women in particular—Catherine Sarr and Maya Bird-Murphy—each of whom is forging their own unique path within the discipline.

Catherine Sarr is the creator of Almasika Fine Jewelry. This brilliant and elegant jewelry line is made from ecologically friendly materials, and blends cross-cultural references and stories with deceptively simple designs. I witnessed Catherine present her jewelry at a dinner and was blown away by the intricacy of her collection. A relatively young designer born in Paris to Beninese parents, , Catherine launched her line in 2014 and quickly found a celebrity following (Alicia Keys, Lizzo, and Zoë Kravitz, to name a few).

Pieces from Almasika Fine Jewelry; Courtesy of Catherine Sarr

As she tells it, “I worked for various luxury and diamond brands promoting craftsmanship from around the world, including several years spent at DeBeers. As my journey has taken me from Paris, London, Abu Dhabi to now Chicago, my guiding philosophy has been to find what we have in common with others.”

I am certainly not an expert on jewelry, and especially not fine jewelry. However, there is a certain familiarity and comfort in her designs, presumably the result of this search for common ground. The selection she showed during our initial Chicago retreat showed a range of gender bending options, diverse materiality and culturally rich inspiration. She is absolutely someone to keep an eye on!

Jewelry designer Catherine Sarr; Photo courtesy of the designer

In addition to the amazing Catherine, I am so inspired by what Maya Bird-Murphy is doing in Chicago to battle systemic racism within the architecture profession. Maya is an architect, educator, and founder of Chicago Mobile Makers, an award-winning nonprofit organization bringing design-focused skill-building workshops to underrepresented communities. 

Maya Bird-Murphy in Chicago; Photo courtesy of Rebuild Foundation

She gave us all a peak behind the curtain of her own educational process and the numerous and repetitive hurdles she encountered. It was due to the hostility of the field that Maya decided to stop pursuing licensure, but she never quit architecture. Instead she created Chicago Mobile Makers as a new model to teach and develop future architects of color. Mobile Makers introduces young people of color to architecture with the intent of empowering their experiences in the built environment. They host numerous design oriented workshops in a retired United States Postal Service delivery van that Maya purchased and designed. This brightly colored, magic truck acts as a classroom, workstation, community gathering space, and art gallery. If you’re in Chicago or Oak Park, IL you may see it rolling into a venue near you. Chicago Mobile Makers truck; Photo courtesy of Maya Bird-Murphy

Over the next three years, Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab will support these two wonderful talents—and all their fellow awardees—by helping establish relationships with global companies and other collaborators, and we’ll all meet for annual activations and workshops. I can’t wait to see where this road leads, and I’m so grateful to be on the ride with such inspiring talents.

Til next time,