If it wasn’t for the pandemic, those CD rugs you’re seeing all across the Internet probably wouldn’t exist.
Sean Brown, the Toronto native who created them, was knee deep in prepping for Daniel Caesar’s Coachella performance. Brown was in Spain shooting Caesar on a Formula 1 race track in front of a car they designed for Coachella. They also planned to sell a line of F1 x Daniel Caesar merch at a pop-up in Los Angeles during the festival. Then Covid-19 hit, and for the first time in a couple years Brown could sit still.
But the timing worked out. Brown had just moved into a new apartment and was working on an area rug for his space when he glanced over at a stack of CDs, picked one up, opened the case and pondered, “Yo, I wonder if we die cut the center and we just started doing CD rugs, how that would hit." He approached the manufacturers who made a couple samples, which Brown posted to Twitter to gauge interest, and the idea did indeed hit. It started to spread quickly on Twitter and he was featured in the Black Parade Directory, a list of Black-owned businesses curated by Beyonce’s stylist, Zerina Ackers. He had never received that much traffic to his site before.
Brown struck a chord with people who were at home and wanting to surround themselves with beautiful and nostalgic things. CD art used to mean something before streaming took over, and Brown selected classic albums including Sade’s Love Deluxe, Jay-Z’s Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter, and Kanye West’s MBDTF. Those seminal albums that speak to a very specific time when Covid-19 didn't exist.
Today he’s dropping another batch of CD rugs, they retail for $250, that will include Lil’ Kim’s Hard Core, A Tribe Called Quest’s People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, and N.E.R.D.’s Fly or Die. This might be the last drop.
“I love everything that's happened with them and the attention and the eyes that they put on my work, but I don't want people to think that I came into this to do just rugs,” says Brown. “And everything has a shelf life, you know? I think it's a really cool moment and I hope it turns into something that's a novel item going forward, but I want to make sure that I don't overdo it.”
The rugs are a part of Brown’s Curves brand, which he likens to a MoMA Design store filtered through the lens of a Black man interested in the arts. It started in as a photo exhibition in 2018 at the Peter Mackendrick Gallery in Toronto that featured pictures Brown took in Japan from his iPhone 5s, which turned into a book called “In No Particular Order” and a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of one of the images he took in Tochigi, Japan. He and his team made an e-commerce site for everything and talked about revamping it late last year, but couldn’t get to it.
But once quarantined, he had time to build a site and introduce more products.
“With the pandemic I've just had all this time to kind of reflect about where I want to put my energy, what I want to do and really think about my ideas,” says Brown. “I could lay everything out and be like, ‘Hey, this is what I want to do. This is actually what I enjoy doing. This is what makes me happy.’ Not that everything else wasn't, but I had time to kind of focus on what I was doing as an artist for myself, you know?”
The first item he made while quarantined was a reusable grocery bag covered in stills from Hype Williams’ videos including his film, Belly, TLC’s “Scrubs,” Missy’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” and Biggie’s “Mo Money Mo Problems.” Brown has gone on to make incense holders casted from his hands, CD stickers packaged in plastic CD jackets, woven throws covered in more classic CDs, and an ambient playlist that anyone with wi-fi can access.
“I want to kind of create a space and an environment where it's just not about commerce,” says Brown. “You can kind of just hang out, and I used to love that about Colette, you know? I could just go to the site sometimes. Or I could go to the physical store and just grab coffee.”
There’s a theme with Brown’s work and his IG page. He’s into greenery, clean lines, saturated pastels, and the early 2000s. He posts old issues of The Source, wears vintage Sean John, and was even able to say thank you to stylist June Ambrose while he was on set with SZA for her “The Other Side” video with Justin Timberlake, which Ambrose styled. Brown says the 2000s informs a lot of what he does today.
“It was such an era of Blackness that was so bold and beautiful and it’s lost,” says Brown. “These brands were birthed out of necessity because high fashion wasn’t championing Black people, so we went out and created all of these beautiful Black brands. Then once they got to a certain level, everyone just cashed out. And that impacted print media and it kind of buried an entire era of culture prematurely. But it’s embedded into who I am. So, I have kind of made it a point now to keep that alive. I just can't let that die.”
He's so serious about not letting it die that he created a deck and pitched Puff’s team because wants to launch an archival line for Sean John.
“The brand doesn’t need to be reinvented,” says Brown. “It just needs to be reintroduced to a new generation exactly as it was 20 years ago.”
Brown is referring to the early days of Sean John when Puffy was showing the line at New York Fashion Week and selling it out of his Manhattan flagship near Bryant Park and Bloomingdale’s.
“As Black creators we need to come together and make this a part of what's happening in culture now, just so that it doesn't die. Because Prada didn't die. Tommy didn't die, Polo didn't die. And these brands became global,” says Brown. “There's no one who can convince me that these brands weren't setting the standard for fashion at one point.”
But he’s also relaunching his own line, Needs&Wants Studios, a menswear brand he co-founded with Sid Singh and Tharan Parameshwaran in 2013. The brand was known for its Canadian sensibilities and revamping classic pieces like a varsity jacket, which was logo free, and a fishtail shirt. Things were going well, but once Brown started creative directing for Daniel Caesar, he wasn’t in Toronto enough to focus on the line.
This time around he’s designing pieces that he would actually wear. The plan is to launch in the fourth quarter of this year.
“When I started the brand I was just making what I believed to be nice clothes. It was my opinion on what men’s sportswear should look like. But I never really wore the brand. So that's a major difference. But it’s also about paying attention to what's happening with the world, because the art has to reflect the times. So, what does fashion look like? Luckily for me I wasn't putting logos on stuff anyway, but I think things are getting even more simplistic. I don't even know if jeans are as much of a thing as they were two years ago because of what's happened.”
But Brown isn’t done with creative directing for artists. He and SZA bounce ideas off of each other, and he continues to work with Caesar. Brown’s created a strong visual identity for Caesar, which includes album covers for “Pilgrims Paradise,” which Brown says involved 10 hours of Caesar jumping on a trampoline, “Freudian,” and “Case Study 01,” which Brown says was actually a film error they decided to keep. He also co-directed the “Cyanide Remix,” video featuring Koffee with Keavan Yazdani, which won the Prism Prize Audience Award this year.
Budgets for music videos and album visuals aren't what they were during the early 2000s, which some could say was the golden era for Black music videos and album art. But Brown doesn’t feel like budget is the main thing affecting visuals today, which generally, we both agreed, aren’t as impactful as they used to be.
“I just think it lacks intent,” says Brown. “With artwork, it doesn't necessarily need budget. It just needs a great idea, you know? But I think people just don't care as much, and the music industry doesn't care.”
For other younger people who care and want to do what Brown does, he says he’s careful about the advice he gives, particularly to women and people of color.
“It’s not as black and white as, ‘Just do it. Just do what you love.’ There’s all types of factors—how people are raised, their economic position—that affect how people pursue their dreams,” says Brown. “If anything, don’t listen to me, just kind of look within and figure out what your place is in all this. But one consistent thing that I do believe to be true is if you do something repetitive enough, the reward for good work is more work. So I guess what could be true historically is to never give up.”