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Watch now: Madison's Hip Hop architect gets major award and creates his own hieroglyphics

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The work of Michael Ford is meant to stand out, inspire and engage.

The Madison architect is in the midst of designing the space for the Universal Hip Hop Museum in New York, has submitted designs for the proposed Bronzeville Center for the Arts on Milwaukee’s north side and has designed the Detroit House of Hip Hop.

Ford, who in 2010 founded BrandNu Design, is also preparing for the installation of a 25-foot-tall granite wall he designed that communicates the diversity, equity and inclusion statement for National Guardian Life in Madison. It uses a hieroglyphic-like alphabet created by Ford with each new symbol etched onto one of 360 granite tiles in the company’s lobby.

Michael Ford

Architect Michael Ford, founder of BrandNu Design, looks over marble panels that are part of an installation he designed for the Madison lobby of National Guardian Life. Ford, 39, is one of three winners of Wisconsin's Young Architect of the Year award from the American Institute of Architects Wisconsin Chapter.

“We could have easily wrote the words of their mission statement on a wall, but we wanted it to become a conversation piece,” Ford said Tuesday as he watched some of the tiles being sandblasted at Quarra Stone Co. on Madison’s East Side. “It’s architecture that prompts people to do something.”

For Ford, 39, action is as much a part of his mantra as his design work. As one of just nine African American licensed architects in the state, it’s Ford’s mission to bring minorities into his field. It began in 2016 with a Hip Hop Architecture Camp at Madison Public Library and has expanded to 30 cities and two other countries where more than 3,000 young people have been introduced to architecture and its intersection with music and culture.

Michael Ford

This rendering shows how panels, which will include hieroglyphics created by architect Michael Ford, will create what Ford is calling a Text: Tile Wall that communicates the diversity, equity and inclusion statement for National Guardian Life Insurance. The project is scheduled to be installed by the end of May.

On Wednesday, Ford was recognized for his efforts and design work when he was named one of Wisconsin’s Young Architects of the Year by the American Institute of Architects Wisconsin Chapter. It’s the organization’s highest honor for architecture professionals in the state who have been licensed for 10 years or less. Black architects make up less than 2% of the licensed architects in the U.S., and Ford is out to increase that number.

Michael Ford

Architect Michael Ford examines a test panel that had been sandblasted at Quarra Stone Co. Panels like these will make up a wall in the lobby of National Guardian Life Insurance.

“Getting new voices and pulling new people into architecture is important, but also having a portfolio of good work is important as well,” Ford said. “I think my ultimate legacy, though, for me will be measured by the number of people I inspire to become architects. And not just become architects but to not check their culture at the door. When you can bring your total self into the design world, that’s where you can make a true contribution.”

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) was founded in 1857 and now boasts 94,000 members around the country. The award from the AIA Wisconsin chapter, founded in 1911 and with about 1,500 members, was based on leadership skills and contributions to the profession and the community in areas such as design excellence, technical expertise, education through teaching or research and service.

Michael Ford

Architect Michael Ford, founder of BrandNu Design in Madison, has designed the Bronzeville Center for the Arts planned for Milwaukee's north side.

Others winning the award are Matthew Clapper, founder of Modern Architecture & Development, and Brandon Reinke, a project manager for Galbraith Carnahan Architects, both in the Milwaukee area. The trio of winners will be presented with their awards during the 2022 Design Awards Gala on Sept. 16 in Milwaukee.

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“It’s just his innovation and his way of looking at the world that is so phenomenal,” Lisa Kennedy, executive director of the AIA’s Wisconsin chapter, said of Ford during a break Wednesday from her organization’s annual conference at Monona Terrace. “He’s just found an innovative way to reach young people.”

To build on that effort, Kennedy said her organization is in the midst of raising funds to create an annual scholarship and mentoring support for students to attend UW-Milwaukee’s School of Architecture & Urban Planning.

Michael Ford

Harvey Rodriguez helps guide racks of stone tiles into a sandblasting booth at Quarra Stone Co. The round circles represent the letter "S" and will come out lighter after they are sandblasted. The area covered by the templates are protected from the sand will remain shiny.

Ford was born and raised in Detroit, where he received his master’s of architecture degree from the University of Detroit Mercy. His graduate thesis was titled “Hip Hop Inspired Architecture and Design.” He worked at Hamilton Anderson Associates in Detroit, where his work included the Dow Chemical Company Founders Garden in Midland, Michigan; Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square in New Orleans; and Project V, a conceptual MGM site master plan that could some day consume 29 million square feet for hotels, gaming, retail and conference space in Las Vegas.

But when the housing crisis and recession further crippled his hometown, Ford moved to Madison in 2010 to work at Flad Architects, a company known for its work designing school and research facilities, laboratories and office buildings. He left Flad in 2014 to grow BrandNu Design and founded the Hip Hop Architecture Camp two years later in conjunction with the city of Madison’s Public Library, Planning Department and Mayor’s Office. The program is now recognized nationally.

Michael Ford

Oswaldo Delavega, left, and Hector Espada prepare marble tiles for sandblasting for a project by Madison architect Michael Ford.

That same year, in 2016, he met groundbreaking rapper Kurtis Blow at a UW-Madison event. They began to talk, which propelled Ford into designing space for the Universal Hip Hop Museum scheduled to open in 2024.

Ford has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network and the “Today” show, and in Vibe magazine, Rolling Stone and Architect Magazine, among others. In 2017, he was invited to be the keynote speaker at the 2017 American Institute of Architects National Conference on Architecture, a year after he delivered the keynote at the 2016 South by Southwest Eco Conference in Austin, Texas. This weekend Ford will be the keynote speaker at the National Planning Conference in San Diego.

He has also taught at Madison Area Technical College, and in 2018 took part in planning efforts to redesign James Madison Park along Lake Mendota. He recently began designing virtual metaverse space for Infamous Mothers, an organization that helps guide women through entrepreneurship, careers with other businesses, education and parenting.

Michael Ford

Michael Ford watches as a series of marble panels are sandblasted in a booth at Quarra Stone Co.

“I don’t think its pushing the limit,” Ford said of his work. “For me, it’s representing what can happen when you bring more diverse minds to architecture and diverse experiences, backgrounds and culture because architecture has lost its mystique of what it once was. For me, the greatest architecture that’s ever been made is the architecture that makes you ask questions.”

At Quarra Stone, a Madison company that does artistic stone projects for clients around the world, Ford’s wall pieces for National Guardian Life’s lobby have been sliced from massive cuts of Negro Marquina stone. Featuring irregular white veins, the marble is harvested from the Basque Country in the far northern reaches of Spain.

Machinists spent part of their day on Tuesday sticking templates to the half-inch-thick, and 18x8-inch panels before they were sandblasted to reveal Ford’s iteration of hieroglyphics. Ford was on hand to see the first run through the sandblasting booth.

“He’s interested in the actual details of the fabrication, as well as the end result, so that’s probably my favorite part of him,” said Heather Schatz, Quarra Stone’s director of fine art. “Every single detail matters to him, and he gets really excited about that. And he’s in our backyard.”

"It’s just his innovation and his way of looking at the world that is so phenomenal."

Lisa Kennedy, executive director of the AIA's Wisconsin chapter

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