Can used plastic be reborn as art? Just ask Chicago designer Norman Teague.

The renowned furniture maker and UIC professor tested the question in a new work that debuted this past May at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

Norman Teague in his studio, in 2022.
Norman Teague in his studio, in 2022. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times
Norman Teague in his studio, in 2022. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times
Norman Teague in his studio, in 2022.
Norman Teague in his studio, in 2022. Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times

Can used plastic be reborn as art? Just ask Chicago designer Norman Teague.

The renowned furniture maker and UIC professor tested the question in a new work that debuted this past May at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

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When Norman Teague looks at discarded plastic, it isn’t waste — it’s something that can be precious, especially when designers step in to give the material a second life. This past May, the 54-year-old designer’s sculpture about plastic pollution, “Reprise,” debuted in the “Everlasting Plastics” exhibit of the U.S. Pavilion of the Venice Architecture Biennale, the venerable international cultural exhibition that takes place annually in Italy.

Inspired by basket weaving, Teague took 40 to 50 objects and wrapped hot plastic coils around the shapes in order to create the final forms. For the project, Teague collaborated with Cody Norman, a Chicago plastic sculptor and lecturer at the School of the Art Institute, and Ken Dunn, the city’s “King of Recycling,” over several months to reimagine discarded plastic as new forms. Known for his designs of chairs and other furniture, Teague says firing and melting plastic felt similar to working with the more familiar — and artistically respected — medium of clay.

Norman Teague's art at the Venice Biennale.
Norman Teague’s art at the Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Resnicow and Associates
Teague says a reputational makeover could save used plastic from the landfill. “I think I have a newfound respect for plastics, but also thinking about new directions of what could happen with ‘waste’ and how we can put it back into the world as designers, but also as just patrons of humanity,” Teague said. “If it’s a precious commodity, does the narrative behind that commodity seem to carry enough value to influence others or become a priceless object?”

What runs alongside Teague’s mindset as a designer is his role as an educator — he teaches at the University of Illinois Chicago — and he is committed to using his newfound artmaking knowledge to influence others. For Teague, it is important that his designs do not just remain in the studio and within his practice. As a professor of industrial design, he wants to be open and accessible to his students, especially since there are still ”so few designers of color in the mix.”

Curators Tizziana Baldenebro and Lauren Leving says they selected Teague for “Everlasting Plastics” because, besides being “a designer at the top of his field,” they were interested in how he incorporates community thinking into his work.

“As we think a lot more about the globalized artscapes, we need to think about how that kind of comes back and infuses the immediate community, what that relationship looks like,” said Baldenebro, the executive director of Cleveland-based nonprofit gallery SPACES. “Norman is someone who thinks about that very heavily.”

“He’s also quite committed to supporting young people and specifically young Black folks on the South Side of Chicago, where his studio is based. He is working with students and creating jobs and thinking about mentorship in this way. It’s also a sustainability of this knowledge as it extends outward,” said Leving, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.

“Norman is really about blurring the boundaries between art, architecture and design. The way that he works with people and builds relationships — I would go so far to say that that is part of his practice, the way that he credited individuals and advisors,” Leving said. “He is working with a lot of thought partners to ideate or collaborate or brainstorm and so he is in his own way, like a connector between these disciplines and taking elements from art, architecture and design to create work in a fairly unique and risk-taking practice.”

Growing up, Teague bounced around the South Side with his mother who worked as a crossing guard. His youngest days were in Bronzeville — just blocks away from where Teague’s first solo show at the Blanc Gallery – and he recalls stints in Roseland, South Shore and Englewood. He was educated at CPS schools, including the now-shuttered Anthony Overton Elementary School and Tilden High School, where he recalls having to be wary of racist attacks on the way home from school.

After finishing up basic training for the National Guard to pay for college, Teague went to UIC, but only for one day. “I was so intimidated, I never returned until I was a teacher,” he said.

Even as Teague worked toward his design degree at Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute, he struggled with the lack of inclusivity in his design history teachers’ curriculum. “I literally was bringing designers to them and saying, ‘You could talk about Elijah McCoy. You could talk about Stephen Burks.’ It would always sort of tear at me,” Teague said, referencing two famous Black American innovators. “There’s been a standard of teaching for many years, yet today we wonder why there’s such a small percentage of young Black students in the classroom,” he said.

This is why Teague stresses the importance of getting his students outside the classroom to work with Black creatives. As part of his curriculum, he had students collaborate with local artists or retail spaces, such as leather worker and investigative writer Yohance Lacour, Pilsen based fashion designer Brandon Lamar Rials, the Hyde Park sneaker shop Leaders 1354 and Hyde Park based showroom The Silver Room. It was “basically collaboration between academia and ‘urbania’ — let’s call it the hood,” Teague said.

Teague in his studio
Ashlee Rezin / Chicago Sun-Times
These partnerships gave his students a chance to design with their own two hands in diverse fields like metal making and woodworking, while also opening up professional avenues for their future careers. Teague believes strongly in offering different forms of teaching in order to make arts education more accessible. For example, he envisions stand-alone classrooms sponsored by universities that allow people, especially non-students, to learn.

“If there were … classrooms attached — or not attached — to the institution, I think that we might find a new group of people that are interested in learning because the comfort levels of going to the standard collegiate direction can be very intimidating,” Teague said.

His experience with the lack of arts education opportunities in the South Side is what motivates him. “There’s so many ways we can improve upon the conditions of South and West side living, just by not asking them to come to you, but you going to them,” Teague said.

In this spirit, Teague co-founded the studio blkHaUS with artist and designer Folayemi [Fo] Wilson in 2016 to place emphasis on socially focused design and support community organizations through architecture, performance, music, history. This work included hosting a shoe designing workshop for students.

“It allowed us to introduce design as a profession. It allows us to create scholarships,” Teague said. “It felt like a family moment where … We shared a lot of the same desires around design and wondered why there wasn’t more of it in our neighborhood, and so that is what we did to solve that problem.”

Teague’s work at the Biennale ultimately echoes what he wants to see in the future for Black creatives and communities. “Reprise” was an exploration made possible because of the money, time and educational resources behind it, and he says he hopes that kind of privilege is afforded more to Black studios and Black practices.

“Speculation” — the word Teague uses to describe artistic wanderings — “is how new discoveries come about because there’s time and money put into the hands of people that are interested in speculating further on a particular idea,” he explained. “If the hand training and the educational components became just not so far-fetched, I think that we’d have some happier communities.”

If you go:Reprise” will be on view at the U.S. Pavilion of the Venice Biennale through Nov. 26. Here in Chicago, you can find Teague’s Sinmi Stool and Africana Chairs at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago), sit at tables and chairs he designed at Bronzeville Winery (4420 S. Cottage Grove Ave., Chicago), or see his commercial millwork at the boutique The Silver Room (1506 E. 53rd St., Chicago).

Mendy Kong is a digital producer at WBEZ. Follow them @ngogejat.