Partnership creates custom artwork installation focused on diversity

National Guardian Life Insurance Co. partners with Hip Hop Architecture Camp for one-of-a-kind display at its Madison headquarters.
Dei Wall
The design concept for the Text[Tile] wall by Wisconsin architect Michael Ford at National Guardian Life's Madison headquarters.

With the majority of its employees working remote for nearly two years, National Guardian Life Insurance Co. (NGL) used the opportunity to refresh its 58-year-old headquarters, located blocks from the Capitol.

In 2020 NGL approached Michael Ford, an award-winning, licensed architect and owner of BrandNu Design, a multidisciplinary design firm focused on architecture, fashion, and education, with an opportunity to partner on a custom artwork installation for its remodeled lobby.

“We aligned on the most prominent space at the main entrance in our lobby for Michael to develop a concept using NGL’s diversity, equity, and inclusion pledge,” says Dwayne Maddox, assistant vice president, marketing and inclusion experience at NGL. “Michael took our commitment to DEI and incorporated his design process which converts lyrics into textiles.”

Ford, known as “The Hip Hop Architect,” designed a one-of-a-kind, two-story stone piece that embodies NGL’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion as an integral part of its mission, vision, and values.

“This project is important to me because it is the first built project which incorporates my process for mathematically deconstructing words and reconstructing those sonic experiences into something physically tangible such as textiles,” explains Ford. “On a bigger scale, this project is important because of the fact it’s a statement about diversity and inclusion.”

NGL’s DEI statement reads: “Valuing diversity of thought, background, and beliefs are key to living our cultural values of integrity, dependability, collaboration, compassion, and growth. It’s vital to our promise of helping customers face life’s challenges with confidence, dignity, and grace. We strive to create an environment free of racism, discrimination, and intolerance — fostering equal opportunities and promoting belonging and inclusion.”

The Text[Tile] wall takes NGL’s words and literally casts them in stone. Ford describes the project as modern-day hieroglyphics. Ford started by deconstructing the statement letter by letter, using a process he created which converts music lyrics into architecture based on syllable counts, rhyme schemes, and other mathematical information which can be extracted from text. The reconstructed statement is made letter by letter and word by word as a series of stone tiles representing each letter in the text. Hence the project name, Text[Tiles].

“When we started transforming our office building, we knew our lobby should serve as a community space,” says Knut Olson, NGL president and CEO. “Our goal was to create a modern, welcoming environment where everyone felt comfortable and a sense of belonging. Michael Ford’s artwork visually showcases NGL’s commitment to supporting DEI initiatives in our workplace, community, and the insurance industry. The artwork is intentionally placed in the lobby because that’s where it can be the most impactful and appreciated by employees and the community.”

NGL and Ford view the project’s value as adding to the Madison community and beyond. “The value of this project goes beyond the physical installation,” notes Ford. “This collaboration allows for me, a Black architect in Madison, to display a unique approach to design while also celebrating other Black architects throughout the state.

“Currently, less than 2% of licensed architects are Black,” continues Ford. “In Wisconsin, there are a total of 12 licensed Black architects. This project will allow the Madison community, which is seeing significant growth and building, to discover the Black architects and assist organizations in acting on some of the diversity and inclusion statements and statements of solidarity made throughout these past few years.”

“Connecting and collaborating have been a priority for NGL throughout our 113-year history,” states Jessica Grann, vice president, chief culture and communications officer. “During the last couple of years, we’ve been on a journey to reexamine, enhance, and incorporate our DEI initiatives into our corporate culture. At NGL we believe it is our obligation and duty to ensure everyone feels a sense of belonging, respect, and equitable treatment. We want each of our employees to bring their full, authentic selves to work each day. Our goal is to make everyone feel comfortable, accepted, and valued for their unique life experiences and viewpoints.”

NGL anticipates the installation to be completed by its May 2022 building reopening.

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