Pharrell Williams on why curiosity matters

Pablo Lobato

Pharrell Williams is perhaps best known for two things: producing ultra-catchy earworm songs such as Happy, and that enormous, Mountie-esque hat he wore to the Grammys hat a few years back. But he’s also a design nut, having tried his hand at furniture with a chair called the Tank; shoes, with sneakers for both Chanel and Adidas; and fashion, including sweaters made from upcycled ocean plastics for G-Star Raw. Recently, he unveiled his largest design project to date, a two-tower condo development in Toronto, done in collaboration with architects IBI Group and interior design studio U31, called Untitled. The Globe and Mail talks to him about the difference between making music and buildings, the power of curiosity and why diversity makes design better.

You’re very well-known as a musician. What motivated you to work on a condo project?

The idea of contributing to people's living spaces is super interesting to me. A home is a bit like a song, in that it’s an everyday thing that can make people feel good, when it’s designed well. And that’s a responsibility and honour that I take seriously.

How is working on a living space different than working on music?

Music is very different. It’s the one thing that can surround you in a room and not get in your way. In that sense, it’s the opposite of creating the physical room itself, the cavity. The design has to be functional and serve the people living there. But I love that challenge. Part of me was thinking of creating a space that I would want to live in. But more importantly, I was imagining the ways other people will use the spaces one day. It’s a very empathetic exercise. And empathy is a tool I use for all of my projects, whether it’s music, footwear, apparel or another kind of design.

Untitled has a very dynamic façade, with folding waves glass. To me, that almost has a musical feel to it.

The lead architect, Mansoor Kazerouni of IBI Group, had this concept to use the wave patterns of one of my songs to influence the physical form of the design. So when we thought about what song would make the most sense, I was like, man, let's make sure that this an elemental essence, something energizing, something people can live with every day.

What song did you pick?

Gust of Wind. It has strings that were meant to mimic the way wind can feel at certain times, almost like the gust of an emotion.

I’ve heard the song. It’s very upbeat. I imagine that results in a different kind of design than something sad and somber, like, say, a Mozart funereal dirge.

Uh-huh, yeah.

Before Untitled, you’ve worked with other architects, including the late, great Zaha Hadid on a sneaker collaboration for Adidas. What was that like?

I always felt like Zaha lived in the future. And she was just so resolute in her opinions. But her opinions were so incredibly well informed by years and years and years of experimentation and so much research. She had such a strong vision. She’s often described as one of the world’s most famous female architects, or a celebrated female architect. To me, she was just an amazing architect. I miss her friendship very much.

I once saw her speak at a conference and what stuck with me was her amazing confidence. Which couldn’t have been easy to maintain at times, being a woman in a male dominated profession, pushing through totally avant-garde ideas about architecture.

For sure. She was a sage.

You have been noted for bringing more diversity to design. In 2018, American architect Michael Ford praised you, saying that just by talking about architecture, you’re inspiring many young people, especially young people of colour, to take an interest in a profession that historically excluded them. Does being a role model motivate your design projects?

You know, I’m completely unaware of that. I still consider myself a student of design, a novice. I myself am learning from others, people with a lot more education and experience than me. To me, the joy is the learning and being able to work with amazing people who really know what they are doing.

But maybe an unintended consequence of you learning about design, especially in such a public way, is that other people see what you’re doing and feel inspired to learn themselves?

Maybe. But we should all feel encouraged to be curious. Human beings are innately interested in new things. We might not all be good at everything we try, but people shouldn’t feel limited in what they can try. I mean I do more than just mow the lawn all day. Well, I don’t actually mow my lawn. I’m not very good at it. But you know what I mean. People aren’t just built for one thing and that’s it.

In design, why do you think it’s important to have diverse perspectives?

It’s kind of like cooking. You want to have a good balance of flavours to have the best taste. It’s great when a group of people can get together and collectively push and pull each other to deliver something that’s going to be meaningful. Especially when that something is where people are going to spend their lives.

Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.