Nina Cooke John Wants to Create Belonging Through Building

·3-min read
Photo credit: Tony Turner Photo
Photo credit: Tony Turner Photo

Above: Cooke John’s 2020 installation Point of Action—which was installed at the Flatiron Public Plazas in Manhattan.

In Nina Cooke John’s design practice, art and architecture go hand in hand. The New York–based architect, designer, artist, and ELLE DECOR A-Lister who founded Studio Cooke John takes a multimedia approach to her work—and the results are beautiful.

Studio Cooke John’s current residential projects run the gamut from a townhouse renovation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to a ground-up oasis in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, both of which showcase her signature modern aesthetic.

Last year, Cooke John took her talents virtual as a collaborator on the Obsidian Virtual Concept House. The interactive home—which envisioned a sustainable and equitable future for Black families through design—was a collaboration of over 20 members of the Black Artists + Designers Guild. With architect and designer Leyden Lewis, Cooke John devised the house’s architecture and worked on the visualizations.

Photo credit: Ball & Albanese
Photo credit: Ball & Albanese

Her practice’s oeuvre has recently expanded into 3D art pieces and socially engaged public works. Cooke John’s 2020 installation Point of Action—which was installed at the Flatiron Public Plazas in Manhattan—was buzzed about for connecting people in a socially distanced way. Illuminated frames of red rope and aluminum served as deconstructed thresholds for passersby to step within.

Though these newer forays are devised for public engagement, Cooke John explains, the process is similar to how she designs for an individual—the goal is to create something that feels like home. “Because it’s becoming more and more a multidisciplinary practice, I feel the larger mission is really around strengthening belonging,” she says.

Photo credit: Courtesy Nina Cooke John
Photo credit: Courtesy Nina Cooke John

Her most anticipated new endeavor is the Harriet Tubman Monument in Newark, New Jersey, which is set to open to the public this summer. The monument, called Shadow of a Face, is replacing a statue of Christopher Columbus that was removed in 2020 and is part of a larger project of rethinking the city’s Washington Park. The park and the surrounding neighborhood will be renamed Tubman Square in honor of the abolitionist.

Though the call for proposals was a bit outside her usual repertoire, Cooke John submitted a design after some encouragement from a friend. “I thought, Oh, they probably want a traditional sculptor to do something figurative,” she recounts, “but I decided to enter anyway, knowing that my proposal would be one that really was about creating public community space in a particular way.”

Both educational and artistic, the monument will honor Tubman’s legacy through a variety of mediums, including audio. The physical monument is centered on an abstract figurative piece with a commanding presence, tall enough to see across the whole park. Another piece will be a sculpture of Tubman’s face.

Photo credit: Courtesy Nina Cooke John
Photo credit: Courtesy Nina Cooke John

“I felt like Harriet Tubman needed to claim the space in the park, you know, unduly elevated,” Cooke John says of the towering central piece, but the face serves a more interactive purpose: “You can touch it; you can directly connect to it; you can see your face in hers.”

Community members will also play a part in the installation—Newark residents can engrave a tile that will become part of a mosaic wall. The team is also partnering with Audible to record locals’ personal stories of liberation to be played as part of the monument.

These personalized elements are critical for the creation of a community space that allows people to thrive. How comfortable one feels in a public space has a direct correlation with how much one engages with civic life. This comfort also encourages connection with others, and as a result, more collective empathy. This is imperative, Cooke John says, for achieving liberation. Put simply, she adds, it’s an approach that is “people-centered.”

This story was created as part of Future Rising in partnership with Lexus. Future Rising is a series running across Hearst Magazines to celebrate the profound impact of Black culture on American life, and to spotlight some of the most dynamic voices of our time. Go to oprahdaily.com/futurerising for the complete portfolio.

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