Experimental Design Lab

Theaster Gates welcomes the inaugural Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab on Tuesday, April 5.

The inaugural cohort for the Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab was announced on Tuesday, April 5, at the Stony Island Arts Bank. The cohort, composed of artists of color from Chicago, London and New York, is a three-year program with South Side roots aimed at financially supporting creatives of color working across industries.

The Experimental Design Lab’s program is in partnership with the Prada Group, Theaster Gates Studio and the Rebuild Foundation, and awardees were selected by Theaster Gates, Silver Room owner Eric Williams, filmmaker Ava DuVernay and late designer Virgil Abloh. 

According to Gates, of the 200 creatives nominated for the cohort, only 14 were selected — the awardees include a dancer, a visual artist and designers in every field from footwear to jewelry. Of those, half are from Chicago. 

Damarr Brown, chef de cuisine of Virtue Restaurant and Bar at 1462 E. 53rd St., is among those selected for the 2022 cohort. “I was shocked to be put in a group with so many amazingly talented people that are so diversely skilled in different practices,” said Brown.

Brown said that he and Gates have a decade-old relationship. Gates eats at Virtue often, and was a big supporter of Brown’s previous workplace, Mk Restaurant. (It closed in 2017.) Erick Williams, owner of Virtue, recommended Brown for the cohort. 

Maya Bird-Murphy, founder of Chicago Mobile Makers, a nonprofit which runs youth design and problem-solving workshops, is another local recipient. Bird-Murphy founded the initiative in 2017 early in her career as an architect.

“I started to think that a way we could address (the lack of representation) is through getting more young people who are Black and brown to learn about design and learn about their communities and how to make their communities better. And that really shows them that they have the power to make that change.”

The nomination surprised Bird-Murphy, who said she didn’t think Gates even knew who she was. “It was amazing to get that email because it really validates all the work that I have been doing,” Bird-Murphy said, adding that too often creatives are siloed within their respective disciplines. “I think it's really rare that we get to be in (interdisciplinary) spaces… I basically have only done architecture stuff and talked to architecture people, so it's really cool to just be connected in this way.”

A big part of the Experimental Design Lab Cohort will be networking retreats. Though Brown missed the first retreat due to prior obligations, “(The cohort) all ended up coming to Virtue kind of at the end of the retreat, and that's where I met everybody. And I was able to share what I do with them,” said Brown. Future meetings will take place in New York and Los Angeles over the next three years. 

Both Brown and Bird-Murphy said they are excited to collaborate with the cohort and share its work as widely as they can. 

“I would love to figure out how to get all of these people into our space. Because I work with young people, and for these young people to see these amazing people do this amazing work is awesome,” said Bird-Murphy. “I would love to have everybody come in and do workshops or a talk. And that's going to be so influential to young people.”

Brown thinks the Experimental Design Lab will highlight Chicago’s rich culture.

“When you think of things like art, food, creativity, lots of times you go immediately to New York,” said Brown. “But Chicago has so many artists and so many different facets… I think it pinpoints our city and really kind of green lights us, which I'm really appreciating.”

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