Charlene Prempeh on ‘Now You See Me: 100 Years of Black Design’

MILAN — African American revival architect Paul Revere Williams defined Southern Californian style with more than 2,500 buildings and homes to his name, including the font of the Beverly Hills Hotel and its Polo Lounge, and luxurious homes for celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball.

With a career that spanned from the 1920s to the ’70s, he was the first Black architect inducted into the American Institute of Architects and later became a fellow. Since his white clients often didn’t want to sit next to him, Williams learned to sketch backward.

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This is just one of the little-known stories London-based Charlene Prempeh unearths in her book “Now You See Me: An Introduction to 100 Years of Black Design,” published by Prestel Publishing.

Prempeh, the cofounder of A Vibe Called Tech, a Black-owned creative agency known for its work with brands including Gucci and Frieze, has dedicated much of the past three years to forging collaborations across creative industries and highlighting the diaspora’s contributions — from Lagos to London and to the runways of New York and Milan.

In “Now You See Me,” Prempeh celebrates a century of history-defining cultural moments and movements through the fields of fashion, architecture and graphic design. Archival and documentary photographs shine a light on the lives of pivotal figures and moments — from the unsung couturier Ann Lowe who designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress to the public perception of Michelle Obama feted as first lady of the United States in a Jason Wu gown.

Prempeh also uncovers the biographies of contemporary figures like the image consultant Law Roach and the interdisciplinary artist and designer Samuel Ross. Prempeh connects her experiences as a Black creative with designer legacies with the hope of urging industry leaders to recognize the pioneering contributions of these individuals and those who will follow them.

WWD chatted with Prempeh about “Now You See Me: An Introduction to 100 Years of Black Design,” which is set to hit U.S. shelves on Tuesday.

Now You See Me: 100 Years of Black Design
Now You See Me: 100 Years of Black Design

WWD: When did you have the epiphany to write this book?

Charlene Prempeh: It all came about when I was working on a Gucci project and we were looking at pioneers of the past through a collaboration with North Face and Ann Lowe’s name came up. I was like: “How do I not know this person?” And if I didn’t know who Ann Lowe was, then that means other people didn’t know too.

WWD: You founded A Vibe Called Tech in 2020 in response to the George Floyd murder. And since then you have been invested in highlighting the work of forward-looking Black trailblazers with the potential to shape culture and style as we know it. What were some other stories that surprised you?

C.P.: Paul Revere Williams’ story was the most surprising, as was finding out he drew backwards for white clients who came in and wouldn’t want him to sit next to them. It’s insane that he isn’t spoken about in that world continuously and among the Black icons from the past 100 years. Actually his name should be at the tip of everyone’s tongue.

Ann Lowe
Ann Lowe photographed by Ebony Magazine.

WWD: You highlight the contributions of contemporary designers, illuminating the contributions of everyone from Dapper Dan to South African designer Sindiso Khumalo, a pioneer in sustainable fashion and textile design.  You also go into detail about the reaction to Michelle Obama’s inaugural portrait, dressed by Jason Wu. How is this book different from other anthologies of Black contributions in history?

C.P.: Quite quickly I realized I didn’t want to do a directory of Black design. I wanted to understand what some of the key themes were and I went on this slightly rolling journey. I discovered one person and something would come out of that person’s life that helped decipher another discussion around other designers.

WWD: You were born in the U.K. and your parents are from Ghana. How would you describe the strong imprint West African creatives are instilling in fashion, architecture and design today?

C.P.: West Africa has always been a real hub of innovation. I was doing a cultural project out there earlier this year. The project was about understanding what different communities are doing [and just how different every community is]. Case in point: football is played on grass and played on normal pavements and people share trainers to make sure everyone gets a chance to play.

When you go past these shoe stores with patchwork upsoles… it was such a brilliant visual illustrating how much community is central.

WWD: You discuss Ghana and Nigeria’s colonial break and the creativity and talent that erupted from these historical events, bringing to the fore the work of the Nigerian architect Oluwole Olumuyiwa.  What is the future of African architecture and what can it contribute to the modern world?

C.P.: In hindsight I wish I had discussed Lesley Lokko, who is a Ghanaian-Scottish architect and was the first African woman to receive the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal British Institute of Architects  and the third woman to win after Zaha Hadid and Yasmeen Lari. The Oshinowo Studio designed the Adidas store in Lagos and I love that African architecture is showing up in commercial design and brands are seeing the value of that space. That is what I am most excited about. Turning it into a commercial entity.

WWD: You have yet to discuss the interiors world where Stephen Burks and Samuel Ross are influencing global trends with their design-forward vision. Yet the bestselling pieces are by white designers. Why are so few creatives of color propelled on a global stage to icon status as opposed to fashion?

C.P.: Five years ago I would have really struggled to identify a new guard coming through and name people who are the taste-makers in terms of interior designers. Design is different from fashion, for example, which is a more organized ecosystem. Also, unlike the fashion industry, there have been significant appointments editorially and in houses that have helped keep the momentum going. The design world doesn’t exactly work in the same way and has much further to go. In public consciousness it doesn’t hold in the same way.

Charlene Prempeh
Charlene Prempeh

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