Charlene Prempeh’s book Now You See Me is here to tell you that Black designers belong in the canon
The London-based journalist and founder of creative agency A Vibe Called Tech, doesn’t only uncover the history of Black design, but the trials that come with unearthing it.
- Yaya Azariah Clarke
- 6 November 2023
There has always been a longing to explore the genesis of Black creativity. But, few have congregated the breadth of its design history like Charlene Prempeh in her new book, Now You See Me. The A Vibe Called Tech founder and journalist came upon the idea during a conversation with Crystal Genesis, founder of the podcast Stance and A Vibe Called Tech’s creative director Lewis Gilbert. “We were working on a brief for the North Face and Gucci collection, and wanted to connect the explorer aesthetic to stories of Black pioneers, and Genesis said: ‘What about Anne Lowe? The woman who designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress’,” Charlene tells us. “After a moment of shock, wondering why I had never heard of her, I was brought back to the reality of why – the formalities of segregation, colonial rule and anti-Black racism have both hindered their existence and encouraged their erasure from our collective memory and the design canon.”
“Design felt like a natural space to start that conversation but it’s just as relevant to music, science, art and a range of other subjects,” Charlene tells us. She started the process of collating a roster of creatives across the board to springboard future documentations for the book, led by the desire to stir up the questions: “Who have we not seen?” and “What has culture lost as a result?” Focusing primarily on graphic designers, fashion designers and architects, the stories told lend an eye into not only their design accomplishments but Black history and the reality of Black designers today.
Through her laser focus on Black creativity, Charlene has often found herself enthralled by the work of designers of the past. Among them is designer and art director Emmett McBain, a creator of McDonald’s adverts and the Black Malboro Man – the first Marlboro advert to feature a Black person. Through the uncovering of his work, Charlene offers a history that points to the beginning of identity advertising that is evermore prevalent today. “He [McBain] focused on Black designs for Black audiences, and this meant he could design without having to worry about the eyes of the white establishment,” she tells us. “To me, his work creates an intimacy with its Black audience, it’s a model for design rooted in freedom,” she adds.
Charlene’s research process was nothing short of extensive. Spending months in New York researching, and visiting libraries throughout the US on a hunt to find documentary evidence, she also noticed that the UK’s design history is even more covert. “Insidious systematic racism hinders opportunities for designers there, as well as colour blindness,” she tells us. “It often means that those Black designers who have slipped through the cracks are harder to identify.” Due to this reality, a lot of the evidence and research gathered was accessed due to families of the designers archiving and preserving their work, many of which institutions have now gotten their hands on. And there came the challenge – many of these archives were unavailable because the institutions were holding onto them and hadn’t yet processed them. “It highlighted the fact that we cannot rely on anyone else to document our histories,” Charlene says. “It made clear the need to establish a way of ensuring the work of Black designers is not written out of history ever again.”
Now You See Me deals with the revelation that Black design is rarely ever uncovered without trials, resistance (from institutions) and personal or oral accounts. It’s a roadmap for Black creatives, and all who dare to expose themselves to a wider design history. With hopes that it will also be a springboard for uncovering even more, such as any ideas or designers they may have missed, it’s the book of all books, birthing a more inquisitive attitude toward Black design and the canon.
Ebony Magazine: Ann Lowe (Copyright © Ebony Magazine, 1966)
About the Author
Yaya (they/them) is a staff writer at It's Nice That, with a particular interest in Black visual culture. They have previously written for publications such as WePresent, and worked as researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.