Interview with Marquise Stillwell from Openbox, by Christer Windeloev-Lidzelius

 

Dear Marquise, So good to connect with you and thank you for sharing your insights and work with our community. To kick things off, could you please share with those in our audience who may not know who are, where you come from what you do?

I’m a catalyst for connecting people, sparking new ideas, and asking big questions. My work revolves around building communities across design, art, and culture as a systems designer. I’m fundamentally curious about people — our social behaviour, and how we negotiate space and value.  And I enjoy doing these things through various mediums.

I founded Openbox, a design and research studio in New York, through which I explore the intersections of people and the systems we live in and seek to build equity within those frameworks. From there I started Opendox, a film company committed to telling overlooked narratives in art, science, politics, and nature. Deem Journal is a design journal I embarked on with two fellow co-founders that sees design as a social practice. I also co-founded Artmatr, an international community dedicated to merging technology and painting methods. I’m deeply passionate about cities and see coastal resilience and climate change as social justice issues. And Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank I co-founded, develops policy solutions for coastal cities.

 

 

 

We have known each other for quite some years now, but what was your introduction to Kaospilot and how have the relationship been formed over the years with our insitution?

A series of serendipitous moments. I happened to be at Truth Coffee on Long Street in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s a place where different characters go to decompress and connect with each other which makes it the perfect intersection for surprise and proximity of luck. Kaospilot was running their South African outpost program upstairs and we just started connecting from there. Over time, I came to see them as my extended Danish community.

 

Talk more to us about Openbox, what it is, what you do and work with – and the name, Openbox, where does it come from (as I remember it is an interesting story to that)?

Openbox focuses on designing urban ecosystems. Our aim is to empower communities to shape the outcomes of design and development projects in a way that sees them benefit from these projects on their own terms. The name is inspired by Henry Box Brown, an enslaved black man who literally mailed himself out of slavery to Philadelphia from Virginia in a box. So the concept of Openbox borrows the word box as a metaphor for his genius. We look for ways to leverage the very systems that oppress BIPOC communities to catapult them. It’s about finding ways to make heavy frameworks flexible.

 

The latest project of yours that I have learnt about is The New Bauhaus. Can you please talk to us about that?

The New Bauhaus is an intimate look at the life and legacy of László Moholy-Nagy, the innovative Hungarian artist and educator who pioneered an approach to design education that completely altered how we think about and teach the profession. With an interdisciplinary method that blended art, design, and technology, he emphasized the process of design, and pushed his students to live full and happy lives as a foundation to developing their own practices.

 

I’m hoping this film will get us back to the dialogue of what design is supposed to be — the process of adding value. I think design mistepped and fell in love with itself as an object: architectural buildings, furniture fixings, and decorative pieces have moved away from living in the process. What the film explores through Moholy-Nagy’s eyes is design as a process — as something to be experienced — rather than simply an end product.

 

 

A substantial part of your work evolves around design, but what is your view of design and what is needed to improve design?

I see design as a social practice, a process of adding value, that is everywhere. And that view has not changed, only deepened. In my mind design has three pillars: process, people and power. The people who make up the process of adding value need to be empowered to hold design outcomes accountable. Empathy cannot be a proxy for understanding culture. We can no longer afford to misrepresent that process of creation by excluding those very communities from participating. That exclusion is how we end up with designs that are inequitable and unsustainable.

 

In terms of design, where do you see the field going and where do think it should be heading? What is of importance you think?

Design needs to recognize the full spectrum of people that have yet to be represented through the built environment. And to do that we need to ask ourselves who gets to define design. Take Scandinavian architecture, for example. It has taken its form, in part because of historical invasion of other places, but also because Scandinavians give their people the space and time to think. So they have been able to create an entire brand around the thinking of their design, ie. the process. This is what makes contemplation a privilege.

Another example, The Bauhaus designers, were like the Anthony Bourdain’s of design. They were able to travel and borrow, and even steal insights from the places their country colonized. And these were societies that weren’t looking to commercialize or create economies around their buildings. So as we have seen, design is powered by history. And those histories are best told through the eyes of those who embody them. Which means the industry needs to make way for and redistribute power to the owners of those untold narratives.

 

I find that your work has great a span, from tech, to arts, to social value, people and questions of social justice and climate change and so forth. How does that work and is there a red thread?

When someone asked John Coltrane why he played so many notes, he said “because they’re there.” I’m a designer and I think this is what designers are meant to do. I do so much because I can. Being a designer of color especially is to be dynamic because it’s impossible not to bring all the experiences that have made me resilient to my work. I think design has steered away from what it means to think about the process which to me is all encompassing. So the thread is the process. And everything I do is about the process.

 

If I remember correctly, the first project of yours that I learnt about was The Lowline. Can you please explain the project and how you went about it?

The Lowline was an underground park planned for the unused Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal. It was an opportunity for much needed green space in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York, but the project was struggling to materialize after some years of fundraising and community engagement. We worked alongside the Lowline to discern what equitable development is, where the Lowline stands, and how the Lowline might course correct to become more community-centered. Through interviews with industry experts and lowline stakeholders, we created a framework which formed the basis of our strategy. From there we evaluated the impact of their community engagement and finally produced a roadmap that got them back on track to the people-centered outcomes they desired.

 

 

Someone like you, where do you seek inspiration? What drives your creative edge?

People. I’m  inspired by the way we live in all walks of life — the small and simple, but unpredictable moments that characterize our lives. I love moments that stop me and force me to slow down like when someone is playing a sax on the subway. I love awkward moments too because I am so curious about what makes them awkward. I hate being spoon fed. Overly produced moments almost never inspire me. As a designer I find it’s the moments that stretch me and push me out of my comfort zone that I tend to draw from the most in my work.

 

As an entrepreneur, what has been important and helpful for you as to generate success (however you want to define that)?

To watch where the bar of success is. I feel like I’m just getting started and have to be very mindful of how I celebrate the small moments and set my expectations of myself. Unfortunately the number of people like me in this space is far too limited which presets the bar of success too low. To have accomplished all that I have certainly feels successful since my own expectations are larger than what I can see, but again, I’ve never had an example of someone doing what I do. I’m operating in an industry that has low expectations of me so I am constantly having to redefine what success could look like.

I always start with an investment in people. People make the process and the process is everything

 

 

I find that your projects that I have learnt about is both inspiring and empowering. How do you go about ideas and generating the new and how do you curate development?

I always start with an investment in people. People make the process and the process is everything. The key for me is to create conditions for the best possible outcome. That all entails the proximity of luck and timing, with a diverse team of people in the right place. From there I can ensure the appropriate power structures to create an empowering process for everyone involved.

 

Every project I embark on is always about the people. It’s through an understanding of people that I can grasp the full story of all that is touched by my work. So it begins with empathy and is driven by rigour. No matter the medium — whether a film, built environment project, or systems design — my job is to first ensure the integrity of the research. To reach an equitable outcome, that means the work must be executed by a team with both diverse perspectives and skill sets.

The education system has failed students by teaching them that their individual contributions are the greatest mark of success when it’s really how well they work with others that will make their designs successful

 

 

You have taught at Kaospilot as well as other educational institutions and I am curious about your thoughts on education and learning. What is needed in today´s world you think?

I think we need to stop grading and measuring students as individuals and create better platforms for how we assess them. Design education should emphasise the “we” rather than the “I”. The education system has failed students by teaching them that their individual contributions are the greatest mark of success when it’s really how well they work with others that will make their designs successful. We also need to teach students how to ask better questions rather than grading them on how well they provide answers — that hinders their ability to be reflective. Another deficit from requiring answers from students is that they emerge from school with answers not based on rigour or curiosity, but on receiving reward or recognition. The “Are you listening or are you just waiting to be heard?” class at Kaospilot is a great example of how to combat that style of training.

 

 

Finally, what would be a great next project for you?

What excites me about any new project is working with new people, new thinking, and new places because that’s what I’m drawn to: divergent thinking, doing and being. I’ve found that every great project starts with a beautiful awkward moment. I like being in places that make me feel a little uncomfortable. Long street in Cape Town, South Africa is one of those places. Amidst all its beauty and culture one may suddenly hear gunshots and see people running. There’s something incredible about sitting in the middle of that tension. So I’m motivated by that kind of complexity — not to solve it, because I don’t believe in absolute solutions, but rather to create better, adaptable conditions. It’s about creating agency for me.

 

Thanks Marquise, I look forward to what’s next.

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