Access to bigger clients, the opportunity to work on a grander scale and the prestige of joining the powerhouse of American design: it’s easy to see the attractions for the ambitious designer of joining Pentagram New York. But what does the firm’s newest recruit, 38 year-old Englishman Eddie Opara, have to offer in return?
For a start, there’s his age. Pentagram’s London office had well-documented problems in replacing some of its ‘greats’ as they headed for retirement. The New York office, where Michael Bierut and Paula Scher continue to lead the way, has been decisive in attempting to avoid similar issues. Opara joins his compatriot Luke Hayman (who was made partner in 2006) in what looks like a carefully managed succession plan.
And then there are his skills. Opara represents a very modern type of designer, capable of moving fluidly from screen to print and whose work encompasses art, commerce and intellectual property. In other words, he embodies the positioning that Pentagram may well see as its future.
Opara first learned these skills at the London College of Communication (or LCP as it was then) and subsequently Yale. Growing up in Wimbledon, his original ambition was to be an architect, even becoming a member of the Architectural Association at the precocious age of 15. But he was eventually steered toward graphic design by an art class friend and, after being rejected by St Martins, got in at LCP.
“The person who really changed things for me was [designer] Nick Bell,” Opara says. Bell was a visiting lecturer at LCP and taught Opara in his first year. “He showed me how to deal with process, about caring for your work and about explaining it in a very simple manner.”
After graduation (with a First) Opara worked briefly for Bell while also holding down a Saturday job at Currys. Electrical retailing’s loss was graphic design’s gain as Opara took up the offer of a place on the MFA course at Yale. While LCP had provided a thorough grounding in print, Yale opened up Opara’s eyes to the other media: “Yale allowed me to look at video and new media and learn how to code. The internet was just coming through and I started to build installation pieces for friends who were artists.”
On graduation in 1997, Opara pursued his interest in emerging technology, joining Boston-based Art Technology Group, a bunch of MIT graduates who were working on early incarnations of today’s content management systems. A stint at Imaginary Forces in New York saw him working on the gigantic outdoor display screens at the then Morgan Stanley building in Times Square after which he moved to 2×4 at the invitation of his ex-Yale tutor Michael Rock.
After working on projects for Vitra, Prada and the flexible identity system for the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Opara set up on his own in 2005 as The Map Office. Here he was able to bring together the different strands of his interests in a multifaceted practice. A series of well-paying identity projects for property developers helped the studio grow quickly but ultimately, Opara says, led to frustration. “The majority of that work I really regret. There’s a formula to it, once you’ve seen one rendering of a New York apartment you’ve seen them all.” The money, though, was very handy – his second job brought in $100,000. “But I was stupid,” Opara says. “I didn’t know there was going to be a crash and I hired too many people.”
Frustrated by the experience, Opara began to wonder whether the studio would be better off producing work it could own. He talked to his colleagues about the content management systems he had built at ATG. “I’d been away teaching one day, came back to the office and they said ‘we’ve built a CMS’. It was crap but it worked so I thought ‘OK, let’s go further’. Over the next year we built The MiG, a system that our clients still use today.” As well as websites, the MiG can run installations, iPad apps and other forms of digital media. The Map provided it to clients for free, earning revenue from maintaining it and building front ends such as JWT View, an online data visualisation system devised for the ad agency.
Opara also wanted to focus more on artistic work which led to one of his best-known pieces, Stealth, a large installation which debuted at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2007. “Years back I’d read Invisible Man [not the HG Wells classic but Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel about an African American man who considers himself socially invisible] and I wanted to create something that referred to being slightly invisible in design. When I first started I didn’t have anyone in design to hold on to in terms of my colour or my culture.”
Which brings us to another aspect of what Opara offers Pentagram – diversity. The New York office has two female partners (Scher and Lisa Strausfeld), which is an improvement on London’s none, but everyone, up until now, has been white. This is not so much an indictment of Pentagram but of the design industry as a whole. There is no suggestion that Opara owes his appointment to anything other than his innate ability but the presence of a black partner at the most prominent design firm in the US can only be a positive.
Inevitably, Opara will be cast as a role model – is he ready for that? “I don’t know if people will be looking at me in that way. In London there are a lot more black designers than there are here and I don’t quite get why. There’s a lot of African American artists doing amazing stuff but not in graphic design.”
Eschewing the hipster hangouts of Williamsburg, Opara lives in a rather different part of Brooklyn – Bedford Stuyvesant. He says his reasons owe more to property prices than principle but being there has opened his eyes to the potential of graphic design to help African American communities. “[Bed-Sty’s] not what you think, it’s a very intriguing place [but] the educational system around there is really bad. I’d love to go to a school and ask them if they know anything about graphic design: to explain that it’s a trade and you can do this with it. That’s the tragedy of graphic design in America – it’s perceived as an artistic area rather than something that can adjust the way you think and do things. You can’t say it changes the world, it doesn’t, but it adjusts the way you think and deal with issues. I want African Americans to think about how empowering design is, how you can use it to your advantage to get what you want. There’s a strip [of shops] really close to me – with just a bit of graphic design it would look like something out of a really high class neighbourhood which would change the way people think about where they live – it’s all about perception in America, not class.”
There’s one thing that intrigues me about Opara’s elevation to the Pentagram aristocracy: here’s a talented, English designer who has made his career in the US: if he had stayed in London would he have become a Pentagram partner so quickly? “No. I don’t think they’d know who I was. In London, it’s like being an actor in Hollywood: everybody’s a bloody designer. I think the reason why I became a partner here easier,” he continues, “is possibly because of the school I was in and the channels I was connected to. [Existing Pentagram partners] Abbott [Miller] and Michael [Bierut] knew me already. I remember Michael introducing me at an AIGA conference, so there is a tighter family here.”
Assuming he assimilates successfully into the demanding Pentagram model, where does Opara see himself in ten years? “I’d like to be far more mature with my explanations to my clientele. I don’t want to spread myself so thin that I collapse and die – New York can do that to you. And I suppose I just want to keep on jogging, getting a bigger and better clientele, keeping my ear to the ground regarding technology, understanding that visual communications is always adjusting itself in the way it is presented to the public, so it’s important not to be stuck in a medium that is dying.”
And he has one other, previously unstated ambition. Through his family, Opara still feels very much connected to Nigeria, the country of his parents’ birth, specifically the oil-producing region of the south. One day Opara would like to establish a design school there. “Design can help with the infrastructure, communications and urban design within that area. I want people to understand that Africans can be part of this world in a functioning manner other than just in the arts. I need to give back somehow and I would like to be in the position, within ten years, to be at least on the tip of starting something. Africa needs institutions like that.”