The New York office of Pentagram is adding its first partner in four years: Eddie Opara, an interactive and graphic designer who currently heads the Map Office in New York will be partner #17, the newest addition to the firm since Luke Hayman in 2006. Opara's dazzling multidisciplinary range combines technology-based wizardry with solid graphic chops, making him a smart addition to the global partnership, says partner Lisa Strausfeld. "Eddie is the ideal next generation Pentagram partner. He is traditionally-trained graphic designer and a self-taught software developer with a perfectly tuned eye and keenly strategic mind. He is what every client needs."
Bringing a wealth of skills as well as all-important diversity to the table (Opara is black), it seems that Opara is also what Pentagram needs. This ability to bring a fresh perspective to the renowned firm is an idea that enticed Opara from the outset. "This was an invitation to do something that is new, exciting, and interesting, where I could take it to different areas," he tells Co.Design.
Born the same year that Pentagram was founded (1972), Opara grew up in London where his heroes were Pentagram founder Alan Fletcher and designers who joined the ranks later, like Harry Pearce, Dominic Lippa and Angus Hyland (Lippa and Hyland attended Opara's alma mater, the London College of Printing). Joining these design "demigods," as Opara calls them, is a heady feeling but one he feels is perfectly timed in his career. "I'm longing for bigger, better jobs — something where I can express myself even more. I need that in my life," he says. "Plus one of the great things that I'm getting out of it is I'm learning. I'm 38 years old and I'll never stop learning."
Indeed, a constant accumulation of knowledge — both institutionally-taught and self-administrated — seems to be the theme that runs through Opara's work. After the London College of Printing, Opara headed to Yale's graduate school of graphic design, but immediately realized that he wanted to reach beyond print design. Opara veered out into the burgeoning field of interactive design, technology and research. He worked for a company named ATG, which was populated by MIT Media Lab grads, then moved to Imaginary Forces, where he focused on electronic environments and motion graphics. He was then recruited by his former professor at Yale, Michael Rock, to work at 2x4, where Opara was finally able to bridge his print and new media personalities into beautiful work for Vitra and Prada.
"The areas that I deal with are very multi-faceted," says Opara, noting that his own diverging interests encouraged him to leave 2x4 five years ago and start his own firm, where he could also introduce self-initiated projects into the fold. He gracefully moves from creating graphic identities for institution like Brooklyn Museum and the UCLA Architecture and Urban Design School to building Web sites for firms like the Architectural Research Office to programming motion graphic walls for the Morgan Stanley building in Times Square.
Map's work shines in graphically-rich, concept-heavy pieces that create their own unique physical environments. For a forthcoming project Map produced 84 wallpaper patterns for the Museum Tower, the new apartment building next to MOCA. The patterns are algorithmically-originated so that each is unique. And one of the firm's most well-known works is Stealth, a large-scale installation exploring the notion of identity and invisibility in race, which debuted at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2007.
Opara's company has also developed technology products like a visualization software system named View for the ad agency JWT, to use in analyzing the effectiveness of the brands it manages. Even the tools which Map uses internally are in demand: The MiG, a content management system created by Opara and his team, will be offered for free later this year. At Pentagram, Opara is interested in introducing the idea of products like this to enhance the firm's offerings, noting that they already have decades of practice with the Pentagram Papers, an occasional publication produced by Pentagram as a distinctive black booklet dispatched to a design world A-list. "They've always had that idea of product," says Opara, who says that he would like to move that sensibility into new media. Maybe we'll see the first digital Pentagram Papers?
Michael Bierut, a partner at Pentagram for 20 years this fall, is looking forward to seeing how Opara's work will move fluidly between mediums at Pentagram. "As someone who was trained as a print designer, I'm always impressed by people that can navigate effortlessly between print and digital, between 2D and 3D, and between static and time-based design," he says. "You look for someone who has the kind of mind that can adapt to all kinds of situations. Eddie is a perfect example of that kind of person."
Bierut and Strausfeld both knew Opara from Yale, but it was over a year ago that Strausfeld was struck by a piece that Opara had designed for Stealth and invited him to the New York office, beginning Pentagram's lengthy and secretive auditioning process for adding new partners. "Because we only do it when we find the right person, it can never happen according to plan," says Bierut. But Opara was an early favorite. "When he met the other partners here, everyone was impressed with both his work, and with him as a person. He is simply a great guy." Opara then embarked on a kind of speed dating ritual which requires a potential partner to travel to London, Austin and Berlin to meet the other Pentagram partners (the San Francisco office closed when Kit Hinrichs left the firm in 2009 to start his own).
With his new media sensibilities and strategy-minded focus, Opara also seems to fill a very specific niche within Pentagram's fold, blending Strausfeld's geek-chic interactive work with, say, the drama of Paula Scher's large-scale environmental graphics. But Strausfeld says this is a direction that the entire firm is moving. "Every Pentagram partner is now working in digital and interactive media — it's a logical extension of what we need to do to meet our clients' needs," she says. "Eddie just happens to have exceptional talent and fluency in both traditional graphic design media and digital media."
Opara will bring his team of five from the Map Office, as well as his clients who choose to make the transition to Pentagram. According to Bierut, Opara is already working on a longtime Pentagram client from NYU, and they're looking at future projects for a commercial photographer, a real estate developer, and an art museum in the Midwest. Opara has also been charged with redesigning the flag that hangs outside Pentagram's Flatiron District offices, for which he created a QR code, a symbolic merging of the digital and physical worlds.
And are there any Pentagram traditions for inducting their new charge? Will they be making Opara run naked around nearby Madison Square Park? "No hazing," says Bierut, but right away, Opara will be attending his somewhat-daunting first partner meeting. "When you first join, it's a bit like meeting your in-laws at a big party that's been going on for decades," says Bierut. "You sort of wonder what the heck you've gotten yourself into."
With his signature easygoing attitude, Opara says his brief social encounters with the other partners has convinced him that he will fit well into the fold professionally. "If you can get along informally you usually can get along formally," he says. "These are your brothers and sisters, in a sense."