The NFL player–turned sitcom star Terry Crews approached his first outing as a furniture designer the same way he approaches everything he does — full-on. Never mind that he’d never created a stick of furniture in the past. It was something he’d always wanted to do and, now given the chance, he was running for the end zone. “I don’t mind throwing myself out there, and if people don’t like it, it’s ok,” says Crews. “I just have to give it my best.”
From the gridiron of professional football to prime time TV to his latest gig designing The Terry Crews Collection for Bernhardt Design, few people have been as successful in one career as Terry Crews has in two — with a third now underway. At 49 years old, the former NFL defensive end and current star of FOX’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine attributes his success to his adeptness at embracing change. “If you think you’re going to do the same thing for your whole life, you’ve got another thing coming — the world is changing so fast,” he says over the phone from Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and five kids. “You have to find a way to reinvent all the time.”
While mostly known for his acting roles and stints with the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles, Crews started with decidedly more artistic ambitions. A childhood obsession with comic-book art led to a scholarship to study graphic design, and a job as a courtroom sketch artist in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. “I’m probably the biggest nerd in the world,” admits Crews, whose other passions include fonts, PC gaming, Star Wars and Saul Bass–era movie posters. “Two hundred and forty pounds of nerd, that’s me,” he says with a laugh. While his art career took a backseat to football, he never stopped creating, even as a pro athlete. Crews gained a reputation as a capable portrait artist, painting likenesses of fellow NFL players for extra cash when he was between teams and taking drawing classes in his spare time.
Crews’s third act as an industrial designer came about as the result of an encounter between the former athlete and Bernhardt’s president, Jerry Helling at the Salone del Mobile, the world’s foremost luxury interior design show, in Milan. Helling was looking for designers with unconventional credentials, and Terry Crews, an enthusiastic amateur who idolized mid-century legends like Eames and Corbusier, fit the bill perfectly. “He wanted someone who was outside of that world, someone who could give a fresh approach,” says Crews, recalling his excitement at the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream. “And that’s what I had.”
With characteristic boldness, Crews set out to create something both fresh and timeless, a collection that could stand alongside the works of the 20th century’s greatest designers.
“When it comes to furniture, everything seems to be European,” he says of his ideation process. “I decided to come at it from a different viewpoint.” The result is a collection inspired by ancient Egyptian motifs and informed by the clean lines and simple shapes of Eames and Saarinen. The Ibis sofa takes its name — and the swooping form of its back — from the outstretched wings of the ibis bird, an Egyptian sacred symbol. The Float tables and Aire bench are inspired by pebbles along the banks of the Nile, their round edges smoothed by the river’s current. The Lilypad lounge chair, the star piece in The Terry Crews Collection, is a round-backed chair perched on an ovoid wooden table and looks very much like a flower growing from a lilypad. The design sprang from images Crews found of the hawk-faced Egyptian god Horus sitting on a water lily. “I thought, Oh my God, that’s what furniture is all about!” he says of his moment of inspiration. “When you sit down on the Lilypad chair, you’re basically like an Egyptian sky god. It kind of hit on all cylinders.”
Crews is already hard at work on his next collection for Bernhardt, due for release at New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) in 2018. He’s also got ambitions to expand into architecture, creating spaces within which his imaginative furniture can live. Another reinvention complete, Crews admits that the thing he loves most about his latest career is the same thing that got him started drawing and sketching as a kid — the idea that design, whether a comic book or a movie poster or a chair, can speak volumes. “When you see the Star Wars logo, you get the story right along with it,” he says, recalling a favourite metaphor. “I always see design as having a big narrative. That’s the thing that turns me on… It’s really about the story behind it.”
By Jeremy Freed – *This article originally appeared in INSIGHT: The Art of Living | Winter 2017
Photos: Bernhardt Design