Skip to Main Content
Stories for being at home.
The designer behind Ford's most iconic cars.
McKinley Thompson Jr was a designer at Ford.

McKinley Thompson Jr. Drew the Future

The designer behind Ford's most iconic cars.

02 16 21
Mckinley thompson car design.

Mckinley thompson jr designing.

A nuclear powered car.

The ford Gyron.

The ford gt40 racer.

 

1. Header image: McKinley Thompson Jr. at a drafting table. / 2. The design that won Thompson the Motor Trend contest — a turbine-powered car. / 3. Thompson, second from right, at ArtCenter College. / 4. A design for a nuclear-powered tractor trailer. / 5. The Ford Gyron. / 6. The GT40 racer, which was built to beat the dominant Ferarri racecars.

In terms of iconic product design, the Ford Bronco is a standout. First released in 1964, the Bronco has made a lasting aesthetic impression. You still see vintage Broncos here and there, and with the 2021 launch of the new Bronco, it’s clear the burly vehicle continues to capture our fancy. But the story of the Bronco’s designer is no less interesting than the vehicle itself.

McKinley “Mac” Thompson Jr. was born in 1922 and raised in New York. It didn’t take long for him to discover the world of automobiles — in an interview from 2001 he recalled seeing a DeSoto Airflow at the age of twelve “It just so happened that at that moment the clouds opened up for the sunshine to come through. It lit that car up like a searchlight. I was never so impressed with anything in all my life. I knew that’s what I wanted to do—I wanted to be an automobile designer.”

First, Thompson had to hone his drawing skills. During World War II, he served in the Army Signal Corps as an engineering coordinator and draftsman. In 1953, Motor Trend magazine hosted a “From Dream to Drawing Board to ?” design contest. Thompson won — and as part of his prize received a scholarship to the ArtCenter College of Design in Los Angeles. He was the first Black student in its Transportation Design department.

After graduating in 1956 with a degree in industrial design, Thompson was hired by Alex Tremulis. Tremulis ran the Advanced Design Studio at Ford Motor Company, where the team was given free reign to explore futuristic and far-fetched concept designs on behalf of the automaker. Thompson was the first Black designer at Ford, and the Detroit Free Press once called him “the Jackie Robinson of car design.” Thompson’s work fit right into the forward-looking team, though some of his designs were more far fetched than others: one design for a nuclear-powered tractor trailer is particularly fanciful. But, of Thompson’s early work on the team, his best known concept was the Ford Gyron, a three-wheeled car inspired by the shape of military aircraft.

Throughout the sixties, Thompson shaped some of the most legendary Ford vehicles. He was instrumental in the development of the first Mustang coupe, the GT40 racer (of Ford vs. Ferrari fame), and Thunderbird models in the early part of the decade. In 1962, he received the ‘Ford Motor Company Citizen of the Year Award’. Meanwhile, Thompson’s early concept sketches for the Bronco informed much of its still-recognizable design language. The four-wheel-drive SUV was launched in 1964 and quickly became popular among consumers for its style and its utility as a work vehicle.

1. Concept sketches for the first Bronco, by Thompson. / 2. More concept sketches by Thompson. / 3. An early advertisement for the Bronco.

 

Thompson rose in the ranks at Ford until he retired in 1984 as the manager of Ford’s Appearance Development and Feasibility Design Modeling Department. While he took a step back from the auto industry, he didn’t stop dreaming. He spent the next ten years working on a concept car called “The Warrior”, which used a light fiberglass body that was strong yet easy to produce. Thompson hoped that the vehicle could be a low-cost product for developing countries. While the vehicle never reached production, it’s clear that Thompson’s fascination with alternative materials and streamlined production was ahead of its time. But that’s hardly surprising. One wouldn’t expect anything less from the Jackie Robinson of car design.

Learn more about McKinley Thompson Jr. here.

The New Orleans designer recalls a Caribbean childhood and world travel in her work.

BOA Designs Green Furniture with a Global Perspective

The New Orleans designer recalls a Caribbean childhood and world travels in her work.

02 24 21

By Loré Yessuff

New Orleans-based furniture designer BOA grew up on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands regularly admiring the ocean that surrounded her homeland. During her childhood, she’d spend time attempting to form the shapes of the water. This daily artistic study acted as a foundation for the practice she has today. BOA creates minimalist and imaginative furniture that proves the possibilities of eco-conscious design, under her label OI Studio. In addition to being sustainable, her pieces completely reject the colonial gaze and uplift authentic definitions of Caribbean visual culture. We talked to Boa to learn more about her thoughtful approach to designing long-lasting, gorgeous furniture.

What was the first thing that drew you to design? Can you share a memory?

My initial interest in design had nothing to do with career possibilities. When I was young, I didn’t know about furniture design, interior design, architecture. I didn’t know about any of that. But my father used to bring home Architectural Digest magazines. We would sit and dream about the kind of house I’d design for him when I grew up. Architectural digest was different then. There weren't any products to look at, very few interiors. It was architecturally focused and none of the houses I was seeing in the magazine looked anything like I had ever seen on my small island. This opened my eyes.

I really love that you have this vivid memory of your father coming home with these magazines and opening your world to what things could look like. I read that your upbringing and Caribbean heritage influences your work. Can you talk about that?

My heritage does influence my work. However, I will say that most people don't see the connection because they're looking for stereotypical representations. Because of colonialism, there's this perception that Caribbean design is just about stately houses and caned chairs. That's not Caribbean design, that's European influence on Caribbean design. For me, Caribbean design is about being innovative and minimalist. It's more about an approach to being resourceful with what you have to work with.

Also, Caribbean design is adapted to the climate. So there's a lot of materials that we can't use, even if we had them, because it wouldn't survive in the humid, salty air. When I design now, I always think about where the piece is going and the kind of climate it is going to be in. It's more about an approach than a style.

I think what specifically influences me is the beach and the horizon. Every day, looking at the Caribbean sea, I would paint and sketch and draw over and over again. This view from my porch, the water meeting the landmass. It's just a big, clean, horizontal plane which led to my love of clean shapes and lines in my design.

 


Eco friendly materials like bamboo, teakwood, and lucite.

Green materials like bamboo plywood and kirei board not only minimize environmental impact but make BOA's furniture adaptable to humid climates.


That approach is very deep and rooted. It's really marvelous that you’re not interested in those stereotypes or the ways that people try to imitate Caribbean design without having a deep connection to it. What kind of materials are you most interested in or want to work with the most?

I'm a green designer, so that limits the materials and finishes that are available to me. 90% of the materials that are out there are toxic. They either are off gassing or have formaldehyde in them. They are plastics, solvent, whatever. I never use anything that isn't eco-friendly, so I have a limited palette. I find my materials at trade shows. There wasn’t any in 2020 and I don't think there'll be any in 2021, so I've been using what I've collected over the years. I use things like bamboo plywood. I used to use this material called kirei board. Kirei means beautiful in Japanese. I used it for many, many years until it was discontinued last year. It's made from sorghum stalks.

And then I would mix it in with things like formaldehyde-free MDF, which is a medium density fiberboard for a lot of cabinets and doors. I can use that in a tropical environment. I can use it somewhere where it's extremely cold, like on the East coast. And because it's not a tree sap, it doesn't respond to the environment, meaning it won't shrink and it won't expand. So I use the formaldehyde-free MDF a lot. And I use sustainably harvested wood veneers.

Have you always been a green designer? What was your journey to becoming a green designer like?

I have not. I'm a recovering addict. I love solid wood. I love the smell of it, the feel of it, everything. And when I first started designing, I moved to Bali for a few months and that's where all the Teakwood comes from. Most Teakwood in the world comes from Indonesia. And seeing all these beautiful pieces made of solid wood, I was just completely obsessed. I actually designed and made my first collection in Bali. Around the time I lived in Bali, I visited Brazil for maybe a month.

In Brazil, seeing what was going on there—deforestation, flooding, the erosion, the suffering of indigenous populations, landfills, all that. I also started learning about VOCs (volatile organic compounds) which over time are not really good for our health. It was a matter of just observing, doing some research, and just committing myself. I think it was in 2004 when I decided to go as sustainable as possible. Which is not to say that I don't have solid woods in my work, but it tends to be reclaimed or FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) certified. But it's very hard to find affordable FSC lumber. Finding materials is the hardest part.

How do you navigate the financial stress that comes with being a furniture designer? Are you often commissioned for your pieces? Do you get grants?

The financial stress is real. Being an independent furniture designer is not a lucrative career. Custom work is what I do, so most of my projects are commissions. Occasionally, I've designed collections that have not been commissioned and exhibited them at places like the Brooklyn Designs Tradeshow. I don't often design that way because then if there's not a customer paying for the materials, then it costs me thousands of dollars. For one show, I spent almost $15,000 just making four pieces in the show.

Minimalist console designed by BOA at OI studio.

An OI Studio console designed by BOA, with bamboo cabinet doors.

For me, Caribbean design is about being innovative and minimalist. It's more about an approach to being resourceful with what you have to work with.


You mentioned how making money can fluctuate. I'm a writer, so I totally understand. I'm not writing to make money *laughs*. I write because there are many emotional and spiritual and creative rewards that come with it. That being said, I’m wondering what the rewards of your creative practice are?

I would say that the most important reward... it feels like… I don't want to say therapy, because that's not accurate. When you're an artist, there’s something buried inside of you and when you get it out there, then you're a better person. I live in my head a lot and design pieces in my head, but it doesn't help me if I don't show those pieces to the public. Making art just makes me feel as if I'm alive. Like I'm contributing and expressing myself.

Can you give any advice for people who are interested in buying eco-friendly furniture? What ways can they make sure that what they're buying is good for the earth?

Do your research. If that's something that's important to you. Follow people online that promote green designers or green design in general. It might be challenging, but you're going to have to do research.

But the research is worth it, right? The hard work is always worth the cost of doing something that's better for the earth long term.

To me, it is. Some people don't think about the responsibility that we all have as consumers. We live in a capitalist society where consumerism is reinforced every single second. We are taught to want and to consume. We buy and throw away instead of buying things that are gonna last a lifetime. And we don't think about where those products go after we stop using them.

I think that's such a good challenge—to be more thoughtful about the way we consume furniture. A lot of people are starting to get the sustainability message in regards to clothing and food. More people are making the move to secondhand clothing and/or sustainable clothing lines. But we’re still behind in regards to furniture. I’m speaking for myself too.

America is still young when it comes to design education for the masses. I remember one time I was getting my car detailed. In the waiting room, there was a guy who asked me about my job. I told him that I’m a furniture designer. And he was like, “I don't know what that is.” And I told him, “Well, you’re sitting on a chair right now. Someone designed that chair.” He was like “Really? I thought a machine made this.” I said “Well, whether a machine manufactured it or not, it has to be thought up. It has to be figured out.” It looked like a light bulb went on in his head. He had no idea! And he's representative of a lot people.

Table designed by BOA at OI studio.

BOA's clean design aesthetic draws inspiration from her obsession with the straight horizon of the island she grew up with.


How would you suggest that people who don't have a very robust design education venture into learning more?

  1. Go to your local bookstore and find the magazines in the home & garden section. Even if you don't have the money to buy some or you're not sure which magazine to read. Just start thumbing through some magazines like Domino, Elle Decor, Architectural Digest, Wallpaper any of those.
  2. If you're on Instagram, then you follow a specific hashtag like design, modern design, architecture. And if you follow those hashtags, then those things will start popping up in your feed. You’ll find people to follow as you see more and more of these posts showing up.
  3. Watch design shows. HGTV is a good start. Netflix has some shows too.  

What advice would you give to people, especially black people or people of color who are eager to get into the design industry?

Try to take as many art classes. Do your research and look for black designers whose work you admire, don't feel shy to reach out to them. I think all of us older designers want to see more diversity in every way, so we would be more than willing to talk.

Is there anything else you're eager to let people know or anything you want to plug?

I'm part of this really amazing project called Obsidian. It's a concept house that is set five years into the future. For the very first time, black designers, architects, and artists are designing a house for black people and the way we live. Concepts of sustainability, futurism, technology and innovation are the drivers of the design. I’m one of the 23 contributing designers and my space is “Suspended Lanai”. I’m happy to have been a part of that, I’m really proud of it. I’m also working on a new furniture collection called “Drop” in hopes to release it in late Spring or early Summer.

Shop OI Studio. Images by Melissa Townsend and BOA.

 

Loré Yessuff writes poems and essays about the intersection of intimacy and identity. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Man Repeller, Vox, Voicemail Poems, and elsewhere. In addition to writing, she facilitates a monthly workshop called Poembutter which is aimed at making poetry fun and accessible. Currently, she’s obsessed with sleeping in, making lavender syrup, and Jamaica Kincaid's body of work.


This widget makes post narrow
This will be hidden in site
Explore the work of the Detroit architect.

Nathan Johnson’s Space Age Style

Explore the work of a modernist Detroit architect.

02 09 21



 

1. Header image: The plan for the Bethel A.M.E Church, designed by Nathan Johnson. / 2. An advertisement for Stanley's Mannia Cafe showing Johnson's design in its heyday. / 3. The Bethel A.M.E Church is still in use today. Image via Infinite Mile Detroit. / 4. One of Johnson's People Mover stations in downtown Detroit. Image via Curbed Detroit. / 5. Johnson's addition to the Second Baptist Church sits next to the People Mover track in downtown Detroit.

For the Detroit architect Nathan Johnson, the influx of building projects in the 1960s and 1970s fueled by the golden age of the automobile industry were an opportunity to introduce the city to his uniquely forward-looking style.

Born in Kansas City, Johnson began working for White & Griffin in Detroit in 1950 after meeting founder Don White at a convention for their fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. The firm was one of the first Black-owned architecture firms in the country, and it was a major force in Detroit’s design scene until it closed in 1954. The firm’s partners made a point of mentoring young Black architects in an industry where racism was rampant. For Johnson, who noted that he found inspiration in the career of Black architects like Paul R. Williams, the support and mentorship at White & Griffin was formative. But after a few years in the ranks of draftsmen, Johnson struck out on his own when White & Griffin ceased operations in order to work on projects in Liberia.

From his office on West Grand, Johnson quickly developed a large roster of clients, in particular church congregations looking to build new places of worship. But rather than construct a series of staid churches, Johnson often used his work during the period to explore the futuristic Googie style, which sprung from a collective fascination with the technological advancements of the sixties.

One notable example is Johnson’s design for the Stanley’s Mannia cafe, commissioned by the restaurateur Stanley Hong. The result was a fanciful building that centered around a roofline reminiscent of the launch trajectory of a rocket. Below the sweeping prow were swooping curved walls and a colorful facade. The restaurant’s appearance was so unique that it served as advertisement for the food — and surely enticed many a driver to stop in. Stanley Hong was so pleased that he had Johnson design a modernist home for his own family. While the restaurant was popular in its day, the building has been abandoned for decades.

 

Nathan Johnson at home in Detroit, 2019. Image via Docomoco.


Other projects remain in use. In 1974, Johnson designed a new building for the congregation of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which has existed in Detroit since the 1840s. In Johnson’s plan, a complex was formed from two pavilions, each with that dramatically upswept roofline that Johnson loved. Inside, a vaulted ceiling would float weightlessly over an open sanctuary. The entire complex would sit nestled around a landscaped reflecting pool, and would connect to a block of modernist administrative offices. While only the main pavilion was ever constructed, the Bethel A.M.E Church remains one of Detroit’s most recognizable architectural landmarks, and is still home to the congregation that hired Johnson to build it.

Later, Johnson dabbled in the ‘international style’ with several high-rise apartment buildings along the Detroit riverfront. In the eighties, Johnson’s design for a brutalist addition to the Second Baptist Church received attention for the way it married the older style of the church with a simplified concrete form. Johnson also created the iconic concrete passenger stations for Detroit’s People Mover, which in 1987 was an interesting experiment in civic mobility, and is still running today. The large project, spanning the downtown core of Detroit, was especially notable for the way Johnson made sure to subcontract work to other Black architects and designers, including the late Charles McGee. But for Detroiters, Johnson’s most familiar work may be Shed 5 at Eastern Market, where thousands shop each weekend at one of the largest and longest-running outdoor markets in the country.

Though Johnson’s career outlasted the Googie style that made him so successful early on, he never lost his taste for modernism, and Detroit is all the better for it.

Learn more about Johnson’s work at Docomoco and Noir Design Parti.

 

The founder of Diaspora Co., at home in Oakland.

Sana Javeri Kadri is Building a Better Spice Trade

The founder of Diaspora Co., at home in Oakland.

02 04 21



As soon as we saw Sana Javeri Kadri’s bookshelf on Instagram, we knew we had to get to know its owner. The Oakland-based entrepreneur founded Diaspora Co. to bring equitably sourced (and truly delicious) spices to wider audiences. Once we were lucky enough to take a peek inside Sana’s home— which also serves as a workspace—we found a cheerful space filled with momentos and books as personal as they are beautiful. We spoke with Sana about her business, the things that inspire her every day, and of course, a few of her very favorite dishes.

Hi Sana! Could you introduce yourself?

Hi hi! I’m the founder & CEO of Diaspora Co., a third generation Mumbaikar, and queer dog mom living between a creaky old cottage in the hills of Oakland, California, and my childhood home on the Arabian Sea in Mumbai, India. I was raised in a family of wildly idealistic, and highly argumentative architects who I think taught me to believe that literally building a better world is absolutely possible, it just takes time and putting one foot in front of the other.

Tell us about Diaspora Co.!

We’re a single origin spice business dedicated to equitably sourcing truly delicious spices and herbs from small, organic family farms across India. Beyond highlighting gorgeous, indigenous spice varieties, for me, it was also about creating a business for us, by us. Complicating and deepening what “Made in India” means, and how we tell our own stories of freedom, struggle, and diaspora through food. We’ve got big, big dreams!

Have you always thought about starting a company? Or, did a particular moment or event shape your desire to bring Diaspora Co. into the world?

In retrospect, I would never have lasted long at a job. I hate being told what to do, I work terribly hard, but only on my own terms and schedule. I hate feeling bored/monotonous in my work, so I can safely say that whilst running this business has been many horrible, unexpected things, it has never once been boring. I was pretty lost, miserable, and yearning for a project to apply my ample brain noodles towards in 2016, and I think the huge possibility that the spice trade as it had existed for 150+ years was overdue for an overhaul was a suitably huge project for me to take on.

Four years in, I’m definitely chuckling at the wide eyed, hungry 23 year old who birthed this idealistic, colorful, and very queer business with no financial support, nor fear of failure. I think the idea that even if the business stayed 10x smaller than it is today, it would still provide an equitable market for one farmer, and his one spice, and thereby create change, that was enough to propel me forward. Today, we work with 30+ farms across 11 Indian states, and that sense of responsibility has only grown, and continued to make more sense. I’m so proud of 23 year old Sana’s fearless vision, that I’m only just grasping the magnitude of all these years later.

A lot of what you do is centered around creating equitable, responsible supply chains. Why is that important?

I had really hoped that 2020 was the year that we made sourcing sexy again. But then the pandemic hit and supply chains went for a complete tailspin. Where did the coconut milk powder in your latte come from? Who grew the grapes in your sexy bottle of pet nat? How are there always enough oats for organic oat milk? Our current food system has purposefully obscured and concealed food origins from us, under the guise of providing us with the stability of mass production.

Making supply chains sexy again, especially with something as niche as spices is my small way of trying to encourage us all to begin to reimagine our food system, and rebuild it to serve our farmers and their workers, to serve the land, and to serve us all a more delicious final product. This idea that small businesses can be excellent and ethical whereas large corporations will somehow crumble under that same pressure is highly flawed - it’s a logic we accept because demanding accountability, pushing for policy that binds businesses to certain standards is much harder than just accepting vague statements from men in suits about scalability, feasibility and “the only way to feed the world”.

Your business is very tied to your identity, particularly as you work from your home. How do you manage to make time for yourself, and create some space, both mental and physical?

I don’t really?! Haha! I have been working hard to establish what the values of the business are vis a vis which are my own personal values that don’t need to be reflected within the business. So much of that intertwined identity came from the fact that for the first two-three years, the business was really just me and our farm partners! But at this point, we’re a team of nine incredible women and non binary folks who represent many identities, but share a common value system about our commitment to equity, community and deliciousness.

I wish I had established working hours, and designated time off (my partner Rosie would definitely love me more if this was the case!), but that is not the life I signed up for, at least for this decade. Mentally, reading (fiction, cookbooks and my precious Sunday paper) and watching a ton of Korean dramas helps me unwind and unplug. Physically, Rosie & Lilly (our pup) will often drag me out of the house for long dog walks in the morning or evening that I have come to appreciate so much more in the pandemic.

What inspires you?

I’m a total bookworm, always have been. As a kid who grew up in a heteronormative, patriarchal culture that didn’t make space for me, books were my escape. As an adult who tends to hold onto the pain of the world very tightly and sensitively, books have a way of helping me make sense of things that would otherwise overwhelm me.

I make it a point to cook 1-2 meals for my partner and myself every day, because it’s at once calming, productive AND delicious. So cookbooks tend to be my biggest inspiration! I read cookbooks in bed every night and they are probably the one thing I really splurge on.

Since I grew up reading almost entirely white, male and British authors (hello colonial hangover!), I’m making up for that by reading fiction mostly written by WOC and trans authors in my adulthood. It is a joy to finally see nuanced and complex representation in my literature— my favorites from the past two years would be - America is Not the Heart, Freshwater, and Girl, Woman, Other.

As the daughter of two very opinionated architects, browsing design magazines, and endlessly reorganizing my home decor Pinterest boards is another inherited habit that allows me to weave together 70s Europe’s color blocked interiors, post-colonial tropical modernism a la Goeffrey Bawa, South Asian kitschy maximalism, and our current IG obsession with all things mid-century modern.

You are clearly very well-versed in food from an industry perspective, but also as a cook. What’s your favorite dish to make at home?

Without a doubt, Sundubu Jjigae, or Korean soft tofu stew! I first had it at the iconic now-closed Beverly Soon Tofu in Los Angeles during my freshman year of college, and have spent years iterating to get it to taste half as good. Currently, I grow Second Generation Seed’s beautiful Lady Choi peppers every summer specifically for my sundubu jjigae habit, and also use incredible Queens SF’s gochujang. Paired with Koda Farms Kokuho Rose heirloom rice cooked in a dashi broth, there is truly nothing better.

Are you working on anything new right now that we should look forward to?

Yes! We’re launching SO many new spices this year, from truly exquisite farms all over India! I can honestly barely keep up. If we’re lucky, it’ll be roughly 20 different spices, which is pretty wild! My favorite recent launch has been our Kashmiri Saffron, which is by FAR the best saffron in the world, which is not something I say lightly/just because I’m biased! We literally tested every other saffron on the market and ours simply scored higher and tasted better than everything else.

Shop Diaspora Co. and follow them on Instagram.

Frequently Asked
Questions

Have a Question?

Check the list below to see if we have your answer.

More information about the dimensions, colors, materials and shipping information can be found on individual product pages.

{[ section.title ]}

{[ topic.title ]}

Don't see what you're looking for? Reach out on the contact page.