His artistic life began in earnest when he got into photography as a teenager living in Los Angeles, where he was born. (His portraits have appeared everywhere, from album covers to a book jacket — he shot the actress Abbi Jacobson for hers — to magazine profiles.) After moving to New York in 2014 to study liberal arts at the New School, he shifted his focus to fashion, taking internships at Rachel Antonoff, Rag & Bone and Saint Laurent. His senior year, he landed a curatorial internship at MoMA PS1 and an editorial one at Artforum, where he stayed on after graduation. He would co-found his own publication, November magazine, which publishes long-form interviews with artists, designers and writers, a year later. And just last month, he took over as the second-ever editor of Pin-Up Magazine, a high-minded architecture glossy. As if this weren’t enough, Olunkwa’s furniture designs were recently shown at Greene Naftali in East Hampton, N. Y.
“Anything with a structure is inherently and intrinsically architectural,” said Olunkwa, who discovered architectural theory at New York’s New School, and who is also drawn to the writings of Raymond Williams, Lisa Gitelman, Michel Foucault and Sara Ahmed, among others. “[My work is] about showing people how to see things.” But while theory imbues his pieces with intellectual rigor, Olunkwa is also practical and in possession of plain old good instincts. His practice has been governed, too, by “seeing something, wanting something, thinking that I need something and then claiming it.” That’s how he came to design himself a craft table last summer, after his last roommate moved out of their two-bedroom in Brooklyn’s Stuyvesant Heights neighborhood and Olunkwa began living by himself for the first time. He’d inherited much of his furniture in the space from a friend, which made him feel as though he were in someone else’s house. While on summer break between semesters at Columbia — from which he’s since received his master’s in critical, curatorial and conceptual practices in architecture — he purged and began anew.
The table’s top is shaped like a flower. Olunkwa landed on the form, which recalls the sort of drawing a meticulous child might make, after seeing a sewing pattern a friend posted online. The splayed-out legs, one for each rounded petal, are modeled after those of a sawhorse. Budget constraints helped determine the material: birch plywood that, in its hue and lack of pretension, is sure to lighten up any room. The piece was part of a larger idea he had — to reimagine his former bedroom as a workroom of sorts. And so he also designed a series of wooden bookshelves that were partially inspired by those lining Donald Judd’s personal library in Marfa, Tex. “I think he’s a blueprint,” says Olunkwa. The lowest level of the young designer’s shelves extend farther into the room than the others, like a pouting lip. The boxy, straight-backed chairs Olunkwa designed to go with the table are Judd-like, too, though they are more playful than severe. When the chairs are snuggled up to the table, the grouping’s colors and shapes make the pieces look like they’ve been commissioned for an upscale kindergarten classroom. “When I showed my mom one of them, she said, ‘Can I sit in that chair?’” Olunkwa said of the set’s childlike quality. Of course, that quality is part of the appeal, and Ssense and Picture Room are now selling Olunkwa’s furniture, which is manufactured by the Brooklyn-based Largent Studios.
Olunkwa has also reworked some of the other rooms in his space. When we spoke, he was sitting in his living room on one half of a custom pistachio-colored sectional sofa by the multidisciplinary artist Sam Stewart — the missing half was out for repairs. The piece faces a nine-foot-tall flame-orange painting of an ecstatic figure by the artist Ellen Frank — further proof that Olunkwa isn’t a strict minimalist.
Through an open set of French doors lies the workroom. It’s finished now, and heavily in use. The shelves teem with books and records and magazines and objets d’art, and on the craft table was an Apple desktop, a recording microphone, a copy of the cultural theorist Lauren Berlant’s 2011 book “Cruel Optimism” and various Post-it notes on which Olunkwa had written messages to himself. He feels excited about the future and is thinking of renting studio space where he can experiment with new forms and materials — he’s particularly interested in resin at the moment, and is toying with the idea of making side tables from cymbals. “Before, I only ever functioned as a survivor — ‘What do I need? What does this space need?’ And now it has everything it needs. I’m relieved of that provider duty,” he said. “So now I really want to play, to make things and not always know what they are.”