DESTIG Magazine - Interview with JOMO TARIKU - Is it finally time for Modern African Furniture to go mainstream?
Is it finally time for Modern African Furniture to go mainstream? A conversation with designer Jomo Tariku.
How long have you been designing furniture; in your case what you define as Contemporary African Furniture?
I would say since 1993 when I did my industrial design thesis on Contemporary African Furniture at the University of Kansas, School of Art and Design.
Why on and off and can you give me some background?
Well my life is no different than most immigrants who come to the US either to attend college or better their lives. I was born in Kenya, raised in Ethiopia and came to the US to attend college in my teens. After finishing college I struggled to get my immigration papers in order but surprisingly my ongoing extensive design work on contemporary African furniture helped me attain a work permit under “Alien of extraordinary ability”. Since then I have been working on developing new designs but even that has been a challenge since furniture design and prototyping is an expensive endeavor. I also believe my timing was off. Back in 2000 the market was not ready or fertile enough to see contemporary African design other than the items people were accustomed to like carved stools and masks from Sub-Saharan countries. Actually this is my second attempt after not building furniture for 7 years.
What made you come back into it again?
Sometime in 2015 an author who was working on a book titled ‘Contemporary Design Africa’ contacted me, which pleasantly surprised me since I only had old work. All my new work never left my sketchpads. I kind of felt ashamed in a way that I have not been inside a shop in years and was relegated to sending my old work just to be part of the publication. In a way my frustration of not being ready rekindled my passion to work on new ideas.
So from your perspective what is different between now and then?
There are more designers producing amazing contemporary African furniture design in and outside of Africa now. When I used to attend ICFF in and around the year 2000 there were no contemporary African furniture to talk about. I think a healthy and diverse community is finally developing that is here to stay and impact the furniture world. I also think the perception of Europeans or non-Africans only being influenced by African culture to produce new work like Picasso did in his paintings or the French designer Pierre-Emile Legrain in the 1920’s has also been put to rest. I hope work produced by designers and artisans like Babacar Mbodj Niang will not go unnoticed in the age of Instagram, global design festivals and collaborative work between designers.
I believe African contemporary furniture is unique in its own right just like contemporary Italian, French, Danish and Oriental furniture. Our works are adorned by patterns that reflect our surroundings. We don’t cleanse our work to the point it is invisible. We are fans of bright colors and wavy lines and fractals. We don’t totally abide by the minimalist principal of design but we somehow incorporate all these exuberant colors and lines into modern furniture.
What other changes are you noticing?
As small as it may, I think one of the bright lights recently is works of African designers like Bibi Seck of Senegalese decent collaborative work with Italian brand Moroso, as well as Cheik Diallo experimental furniture pieces from Mali. All the praise architect David Adjaye is getting for his African inspired architecture work on the Smithsonian African American museum can only help expose the caliber of work that can come when designers utilize their African heritage. The design world needed to be exposed to this type of work to get over the stereotype that Africans can only produce stools, masks and other small household objects and crafts.
But do you think that is enough?
There’s still a way to go. I think the licensing of African designer’s chairs and tables by major manufacturers and distributors should be the next hurdle. If you look at the designer’s section of any large and established furniture company websites you will be hard pressed to find any one working on contemporary African furniture. This has to change and it will change. I think one of the recent positive signs though is related to Ikea’s collaboration with Design Indaba out of South Africa. Ikea choose 20 African designers to work at their headquarters developing new products. I am not sure how much of that will be furniture related but this type of relationship needs to be encouraged. As Africa industrialises there is a lot to learn from companies like Ikea also who are specialists not only in design for the masses but of logistics and fabrication. The relationship created with others at Ikea will be an invaluable asset as well as this designers go back and work on their own portfolio.
How do you think that could be achieved with an industry that sometimes feels entrenched, promoting mostly contemporary European styles?
The biggest shift or disruptor of this industry has to be the influence of design festivals that keep popping up all over the world. I am the beneficiary of one of those. When I revived my career, it was not even in the US. The organizer of a design festival “Design Week Addis Ababa” in my native country Ethiopia invited me. This was right after my work being published in Contemporary Design Africa. I was in the process of reviving my furniture design work but I had no prototypes so I sent my 3D rendering ... even that was not refined. That still led to being invited to Downtown Design Dubai through Design Week Addis Ababa where I demonstrated my prototype and got media coverage. That led to being invited to Africa by Design in Accra, Ghana, Venice Design 2017 and ICFF NYC 2017. With each invitation, I refined and worked out the ergonomics and fabrication issues of my chair also. So in less than 2 years I achieved something I couldn’t attain in about 10 years of my furniture design career.
Can shows like Venice Design 2017 and ICFF 2017 in New York exposing design like yours help mainstreaming contemporary African furniture?
I think so. The shows by themselves are not built for specifically promoting African design. ICFF actually stands for International Contemporary Furniture Fair. But the International part rarely had any contemporary furniture from Africa except for a few designers’ work. So ICFF agreeing to give space to Design Week Addis Ababa to show the work of an Ethiopian American furniture designer is important in a sense they are understanding there are unique and new perspectives from a region that is rarely associated with contemporary furniture design. Because of this opportunity an Interior Design magazine editor picked my work as “The products that caught our eye at ICFF”. While Venice Design 2017 was more of a curated design show, where they picked about 50 international designers and fortunately I was one of them. It is presented also as a long-standing installation so it is a perfect space to show experimental and conceptual designs. Shows like this help flush out ideas and create relationships.
I hope the next ICFF and Venice Design or similar shows incorporate more African designs. There is nothing like seeing your work on the international stage with other high caliber designers next to you.
Where else do you think there is room for improvement?
Half of the job of a designer is trying to get exposure and I feel there is no one else who holds that key more than design publications like DESTIG and others of the same caliber. I see this issue even in popular design blogs but both mediums potentially could be a simple reflection of their editors visiting only the popular shows and events. I think print and blog editors have to spend time outside of their comfort zone searching and visiting small studios and checking portfolio pieces that will never make it to design shows. A simple Google search might find you the next best thing also. The other missing part is funding schemes and easy access to major furniture makers who license their work from other designers.
The products shown within this article (with the exception of the main image on page 46 – designed by Jomo Tariku) are by the other designers mentioned within this article – in no specific order.
Visit the Website: www.jomofurniture.com
Credits – Moroso & Various & Bemnet Yemesgen @Elasticreative