In 2020, Dario Calmese made history as the first-ever Black photographer to shoot a cover for Vanity Fair—in its 106-year existence—with his portrait of Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis. But Calmese’s work goes well beyond photography; it sits at the nexus of art, fashion, and academia, pushing the boundaries of each to create unprecedentedly innovative projects that explore history, race, and what it means to be human. That same year, Calmese launched The Institute of Black Imagination (IBI), a design start-up that works to preserve, integrate, and cultivate the Black imagination through innovative and interactive experiences. IBI’s portfolio includes a widely acclaimed podcast, digital website, and a forthcoming location at the Oculus World Trade Center, all of which tap into the “Pool of Black Genius” to share the visions of the modern iconoclasts taking the reins on cultural thought and innovation. Currently a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Calmese serves on the global advisory board for Estée Lauder Companies and is a professor at The New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York City. He is also an NYC Urban Design Forum Fellow, show director for the fashion brand Pyer Moss, and he collaborated with Adobe Lightroom to design presets specifically for people of color.
About The Institute of Black Imagination
The Institute of Black Imagination (IBI) is an organization dedicated to the preservation, cultivation, and integration of Black imagination throughout the diaspora. Upending traditional, prescriptive approaches to community engagement, The Institute’s originality lies in a methodology of co-creation with the Black community, transforming a static and historical identity into something that is generative, forward- looking, and ultimately liberative.
When you look back in five years, what do you hope you and your organization have accomplished?
The year is 2027. What began as a simple acquisition of 2,000 books has now blossomed into a robust consortium of verticals rooted in access, liberative design, and education. The Institute has successfully designed a time-based framework through which one accesses the Black imaginary: the past (archival intelligence, or the preservation of Black imagination); the present (bringing Black imagination into space-time, or the integration of Black imagination); and the future (the pedagogy, or the cultivation of Black imagination).
First launched in 2020, the IBI podcast has now become IBI Media Group, the content, production, and publication arm of The Institute of Black Imagination. IBIMG now hosts multiple podcasts, like its own “Decolonizing the Gaze” and “Imagining Black Space” series, along with providing hosting services for multiple creatives throughout the diaspora. Not to mention, two years prior, it launched and is now streaming its own television interview series, “From the Pool of Black Genius,” which features iconoclasts in dialogue with IBI founder Dario Calmese.
Back in 2023, the IBI launched its first physical space at the Oculus at New York City’s World Trade Center. Designed as a pop-up to give people direct access to its archives, the IBI Oculus also served as an access point for the public to build tangible memories of what Black design looks and feels like, while also subverting the retail landscape. Now in 2027, the pilot pop-up is in London, Paris, Lagos, Johannesburg, and seven other global cities throughout the diaspora. Its first permanent location is now under construction in Accra, Ghana, with a plan to scale across multiple continents.
Now a fully self-sustained enterprise, the Institute is looking for a campus site (preferably a defunct HBCU) to house its permanent collection, educational facilities, and Innovation Lab focused on sustainable design.
How is the changing climate impacting your work?
With our natural environment rapidly declining under the current systems of design, it is ever more important for us to open up the aperture of imagination to develop new ways of being and creating that are restorative to people and our world. The IBI is an offering in rethinking what is possible. For us, sustainability is not a buzzword, but a necessary component of creation. What does it look like to design with the entire life cycle (from inception to discardment) in mind from the genesis of creation? From materiality to urban renewal, the ethos of the IBI is rooted in the question, “What does it mean to be a good ancestor?” It means creating and designing a world for future generations to thrive in, while providing the tools and access to information that ensures their ability to grow, thrive, and dream even bigger dreams. It means tapping into local and indigenous knowledge that understands separation is an illusion, that love of self IS love of the other, and by interrogating or even hacking existing systems, we can design for resilience instead of extraction.