National Guardian Life hires hip-hop architect Michael Ford to set its DEI commitment in stone – literally

Special promotional content provided by National Guardian Life Insurance Company to celebrate Black History Month.

When the National Guardian Life Insurance Company (NGL) reopens its newly renovated downtown Madison office in June, visitors and employees will see the company’s new statement of commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion literally set it in stone – 20 feet high and 14 feet wide, carved in hieroglyphics in a black marble fresco that will weigh over a ton.

Designed by Michael Ford, better known as The Architect of Hip-Hop, the mural will exist in three dimensions, with longer, more prominent words raised in relief and illuminated by small spotlights.

“When they reached out and started supporting Hip-Hop Architecture Camp, they learned how few black architects there were. And they asked, ‘How do we get him involved beyond just doing a camp to expose the kids? How to create a moment, a celebrated piece? So they can use their project as a way to shine a light on a designer, a black architect,” Ford said. “Then once they saw what we were doing (in the hip-hop architecture class), it was like, okay, this isn’t just a kids’ camp. It can actually be used in our building.

Dwayne Maddox, NGL’s assistant vice president for marketing experience and inclusion, said once the company committed to a bold DEI statement, bringing it to life was a logical next step.

“We started working on our diversity, equity and inclusion, understanding that it was an internal exercise on our internal culture and it was an external exercise to engage with our community, for our community, where we live, work and serve as an organization. We wanted to do something. Making a statement was one thing. But putting it in stone, making it part of a physical manifestation and part of who we are as an organization, putting it in our building is symbolic that we’re starting from scratch, renovating our building, starting a new start that prioritizes equity and inclusion in everything we do.

Ford said the design parallels what he teaches kids to do in hip-hop architecture camp — which is to take sounds and words and turn them into physical structures.

“The design, the concept is really Michael’s,” Maddox said. “It’s proof that when you open doors, you never know what opportunities arise. We just opened the door and expressed that we wanted to work with Michael…and then he really brought his vision and expertise as an architect to life, and we couldn’t be happier.

Michael Ford, right, reviews plans with construction contractors at the NGL office in downtown Madison. Photo by Carlos Guzman.

TEXT[TILES] will be carved from over 2,000 pounds of black Spanish marble, sculpted and assembled by Quarra Stone on Madison’s east side. The company has been working in architectural stone for over 30 years and has recently engaged in more artwork from artists around the world. Ford knew of their work and, fortuitously, had been invited to a meeting to discuss new ways of depicting black hair in stone carving around the same time that NGL was initiating the mural project.

“I walked in, showed this to the (Quarra Stone executives) and they said, ‘Let’s go, let’s do it. We’ve done crazier things,” Ford said.

Some of the hieroglyph panels will be carved into test stone in the coming weeks, and Quarra executives say they aim to begin installation in May, ahead of an unveiling in June. The text of the statement will also be revealed at that time.

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