Design Out Of Africa

At the end of a recent Design and Technology lecture, we spoke about the lack of knowledge about African designers. We looked at the randomly allocated designers that we had researched for our Pichi Kichi presentations, and discovered that the vast majority were from Europe, and none were from Africa.  I have set about finding some examples of African design, to not only prove that it is out there, but that examples of it should be regarded in the same vain as our Heatherwick, Rams and Grange.

I came across the work of Nifemi Marcus-Bello, a product designer from Nigeria, in Vogue Magazine. He studied product design at Leeds University and is now leading the nmbello industrial design studio in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria. His first footsteps into the world of design were under the guidance of street-side welders and carpenters. When studying at Leeds, it was his unusual background that gave him a foot-up. There is an ingenuity that comes with being able to make do with what is available to you. In Lagos, the manufacturing industry is smattered with a number of challenges, from ‘outdated production techniques’ to regular power outages. Marcus-Bello says that despite these difficulties, ‘it still works’. This adaptability has been vital to his successes.

LM Stool from Marcus-Bello

In 2018 Marcus-Bello walked into a lifestyle store in Victoria Island, Lagos’s CBD to ask whether they might stock his new product, the LM Stool. They rejected this proposal by saying that it wasn’t African design, despite the fact that the stool was designed and manufactured in Lagos. In order to manufacture the stool, Marcus-Bello discovered a nearby factory that made metal casings for electrical power generators and studied their metal processing capabilities, ensuring that what he designed would be able to piggy-back the production lines at the factory. In my current project, ‘The Future of Food’, I am currently at the stage where I need to be prototyping to get user feedback and further research to refine my design, but due to the ever growing restrictions of the coronavirus, this is an increasingly unlikely thing to happen. I will need to take leaf from Marcus-Bello’s book and make do with what’s available to me. There’s no argument in my eyes that Marcus-Bello’s designs aren’t African, but they don’t shout about it by using stereotypical African colours or imagery of wildlife. He takes a much more subtle approach to connect with his heritage.

My favourite piece of Marcus-Bello’s work is his flat pack table, Tebur. There is nothing flash about the design, it is very understated in-fact. It has an elegant simplicity. We recently learnt about Jasper Morrison’s principle of ‘thingness’ from one of the Pichi Kichi presentations last week. Thingness is a term coined to celebrate quietly brilliant designs that are driven by usefulness rather than being flash, and that have a difficult-to-describe sense of a ‘thing’ about them. Looking at Marcus-Bello’s work I feel a huge sense of thingness about this table. Without any instruction it is clear what its function is, and where and how it should be used. It’s brilliant.

Design Indaba is a design conference originating from South Africa. They have a focus on creativity coming out of Africa. They are made up of designers from all over the continent with a few from further abroad, such as Thomas Heatherwick, but the majority are local to South Africa. Their work is probably more widely known about than other African design groups. 

They recently worked alongside IKEA to create the Överallt collection, which caught my attention in particular as it is linked to my current food project. A group of 10 designers from 5 African countries came together with a particular interest in ‘the ritual of people slowing down, sitting, eating and drinking together.’ My project is based around encouraging the social environment while eating. The Överallt stool is a curved chair that when combined with more, can create a fluid, social eating environment as seen in this image from IKEA. The founder of Design Indaba, Ravi Naidoo, said that IKEA wanted to capture the rising creativity coming out of Africa in some way. Design Indaba specifically didn’t choose furniture designers for this task so that they could accurately capture a unique sense of Africa. The Överallt basket, as shown here, is designed by Selly Raby Kane, a fashion designer from Senegal, and as a result this unconventional basket has the aesthetic of braided hair, which was a representation of her home city, Dakar.

There is a huge amount of design coming from Africa, and it is design that I think we should be more aware of. If you go looking for it you can find it – Marcus-Bello had a collection in the London Design Festival recently, but the names are not in household use yet. As awareness is spread from projects like the one IKEA took part in with Design Indaba, I think it is inevitable that we will become much more acquainted with these designers and their work in the future.

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