Where Industrial Design Meets Maya AngelouBy Gabrielle Whelan
Maya Angelou was not just a writer and activist. She was an icon. Her art impacted the world by plunging people of all backgrounds and ethnicities into a raw, shared human experience. She also had the rare ability to infuse her work with perspectives on racism and misogyny in a way readers could fully absorb.
Angelou’s celebrated canon includes autobiographies, essays, novels, and books of poetry, and is required reading for developing minds across US schools.
It’s safe to say that whether or not you’re a fan of Angelou’s, you respect her contributions to the literary world and to the social causes she championed, such as bringing an end to Apartheid. That said, as the US is in the midst of a new civil rights movement, Angelou’s message is just as critical as ever.
There’s more than one path to reinvigorate posthumous interest in a cultural hero. For Élan Hawkins, an industrial design student at the Academy of Art University (class of 2021), she chose to push Angelou’s message directly into her design collection. The footwear line that resulted aims to convey messages of equality, tolerance, and female and Black empowerment to today’s youth by simply walking past them.
I first met Hawkins at a cocktail event last winter celebrating the upcoming premiere of the CBS show California By Design. Hawkins served as one of the presenters of the six-episode series. I kept getting sidetracked while chatting about the show, however, because I was obsessed with her outfit. She explained the origins of each vintage piece, which led to a discussion about fashion, and that’s how I came to learn Hawkins had recently designed an Angelou footwear collection.
The world looks drastically different now than it did that evening. Over the summer, Élan and I Zoomed a few times about her product line, artistic inspirations, and actions we can take to diversify this predominantly white male profession. To that end, I asked her to start from the beginning.
So what got you into this field?
My dad was actually the one who suggested I give industrial design a shot. I didn’t even know what it was. I’m not alone there. When I tell people what I do, they typically respond, “What is that?” There’s an obvious need to raise this profession’s visibility.
Then in college, I studied under instructors from Nike and Adidas that cultivated my interest in developing products with a story. At the end of the day, I think storytelling is the most effective way to reach people. Why do people spend countless hours scrolling through Instagram? It’s because people are interested in stories…in this connection.
Okay, let’s talk about your Maya Angelou footwear line.
So I really wanted to bring literary characters into designs people could wear on a daily basis. The central question I approached this project with was, “How can I influence younger generations through product design?” This generation is going to be the next turning point, and I wanted to figure out how to get them to focus on something that also profoundly affects their perspective—so that 20 years from now, they’re still striving for equality.
I chose Maya as my subject because she’s influential but often goes under the radar. People don’t really know who she was. That she was an activist. A singer. A songwriter. It’s been an amazing experience to try to capture that in a product.
Does any particular work within her canon resonate the most with you?
I find Angelou’s poetry incredibly inspiring. “And Still I Rise,” in particular, is really powerful. Another poem that really resonates with me is “When I Think about Myself.” In this poem, Angelou examines how the Black woman will often smile to cover the pain surrounding how she’s spoken to. In my life I’ve also used laughter as a defense mechanism in racist situations. Ultimately, I decided to focus my footwear line on her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
To start, I studied the experiences of Angelou’s youth that shaped her into the artist she eventually became. Before publishing her book, for example, she remained utterly silent for an entire year. This was the result of a sexual assault she endured, followed by being told the attack was her fault. I found her ability to rise above that so inspirational, and weaving this backstory into something people could wear was incredible.
I asked myself how I could communicate this type of strategic storytelling—that of finding your voice, taking back your power, and overcoming systemic racism and abuse—through design.
Why did you decide to go with shoes to promote Angelou’s story?
I’ve always thought about how the feet are the sole of the personality, and then there’s also the whole grounding experience that takes place. That’s what initially attracted me to footwear. I then asked myself how I could communicate this type of strategic storytelling—that of finding your voice, taking back your power, and overcoming systemic racism and abuse—through design. I decided to focus on a design where, every time you look down at your feet, hopefully, you’ll feel buoyed by Angelou’s message.
What does the creative process look like for you?
I go straight to inspiration. In my off time, I’m looking at Pinterest and Instagram in order to follow up-and-coming artists and designers. This helps me gather information on the aesthetic I want for my designs. I also go through a ton of mood boards. I’m a very visual person. I love color and I’m big on illustration. I like to draw different characters wearing bold fashions. From there I think, how can I add color and implementation? Should it be boxy, sleek or wavy?
I’m also big on sustainability and recycled clothing. Mostly everything I wear is secondhand. I’m currently doing another footwear project using only recycled materials. I’m passionate about that because I’ve learned that only about 25% of donated clothing is actually usable, while the rest winds up in landfills.
What was it like to be a presenter for the CBS series California By Design?
I’d never done anything like that before. As we were filming the show, I got to experience many different types of products, which was awesome.
BUTLR was one the innovations I really enjoyed presenting. It’s an AI-system for your house. When you walk up the stairs, the lights turn on one at a time. It’s super energy efficient.
Let’s talk about the country’s current social climate. It’s ironic that back in January I was hearing people say, “This will be the year of clarity…of 2020 vision!” I don’t think a year dominated by a pandemic and protests is what they had in mind, but all of this has, in fact, given us some much needed clarity.
Yes. People are now finally thinking about the bigger picture. Most people get so caught up in advancing to the next step of their life that they don’t pause to see where they’re standing in the moment. With the quarantine came awareness. This country’s tunnel vision has been removed. We’re all looking at the news more. We’re monitoring social media. The quarantine brought a restlessness to the surface that allowed the Black Lives Matter movement to step into the light.
This profession (and many in Silicon Valley) are predominantly white male. Can you tell us about your experiences in this field as a female designer of color?
Since my father is Black and my mother is white, I grew up straddling both worlds. My mom has blue eyes and blond hair, and growing up people would ask me, “Are you adopted?” or, “Is that your mentor?” That being said, the white people I grew up with thought I was just Black, and the Black people I grew up with thought I wasn’t Black enough…that I was whitewashed.
Now, I don’t define myself either way. I’m in a state of acceptance of both my cultures while also feeling a strong desire to help the Black community grow. It’s nice to know I already have a product line in place designed to get across messages of equality.
I also just started a movement called Picture Blackness on Instagram. The goal is for Black creatives to share their personal experiences through any form of expression. I created a comic book type of illustration, for example, along with a video featuring a poem my sister wrote about her experiences growing up Black. I’m hoping to use this hashtag to elevate creative Black voices. I also recently spoke to Adobe and asked for their support in getting the word out. I’m hoping this creates a ripple effect.
What advice would you give young Black girls contemplating this field?
Exposure is the first thing. Being exposed to the field is what got me into it in the first place. And then as I began to navigate it, I embraced my Blackness and focused on reaching out to others to help lift me up. I reached out to teachers, for instance, to review my portfolio, recommend and support me. That’s definitely what I would advise girls thinking about entering this industry.
Another thing I’ve noticed in our industrial design department is that a lot of minorities hang out together. It’s natural to want to stay in that safe space, but I would also encourage them to reach out to other students. To go out there and just strike up conversations and integrate more. I make it a point to get out of my comfort zone and put my name out there.
I would also recommend speaking up whenever possible. One of my Black professors works at Adidas and reached out to them since they weren’t holding up to their commitment to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Nothing happened. He then posted about his experiences as a Black designer at Adidas on Instagram that got a lot of attention. It called them out. Companies like Nike and Adidas constantly use Black faces for their advertisements while their own employment is less than 2% Black…They’re profiting off of an image they don’t practice themselves. The post then prompted the New York Times to cover the issue, and sure enough, Adidas is now investing time and money into changing the game. I found that really inspirational.
Footwear is where I want to be, but it’s not where I want to stop.
What’s next for you?
At the moment, I’m working to make my Picture Blackness Instagram account as big as I can. I had a summer internship aligned, but then things changed because of the pandemic. Now I’m mainly reaching out to expand my network. I’m connecting with shoe designers and asking how I can continue to improve while getting mentored at the same time.
As of now, footwear is where I want to be, but it’s not where I want to stop. I’m also passionate about my illustrations and examining how I can put all these things together and magnify them to the max.
Do you think more people will be inspired to keep combining the fine arts with product design?
Right now, it’s now all about churning out modern and sleek products that don’t really tell a story, but it didn’t used to be this way. When you look at the designs of old Victorian houses, it’s apparent that people would spend months painting the flowers they sculpted on the exterior, for example. It’s fine art that creates the emotion of a structure. I do believe that fine arts and product design naturally align, and hopefully there will be a return to this type of fusion in the future. To me, a fine arts piece conveys complete emotion.
Perhaps incorporating more fine art, (and thereby more emotion), along with more storytelling into industrial design is one way to effect long-term change.
I hope so. The impression left by meaningful design can be felt by generation after generation.
Stay up to date with Élan Hawkins’ latest work: