About a week ago, Nifemi Marcus-Bello, a 30-year-old Nigerian product designer, walked into a high-end lifestyle store in Victoria Island, Lagos’s central business district. He asked if they might stock his “LM Stool,” named after a dear friend.
The two-legged stool—created by bending, welding, and laser-cutting metal—looks weightless, and comes in two colors. It’s currently on view in the Venice Design 2018 show held during the the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale. But the store, which has acquired a global reputation as a destination for a rich range of goods from the across the African continent, declined to stock it.
It is not “African design,” they said. And the meeting was over.
Over a banana milkshake at Vestar Coffee, Marcus-Bello tells me that he’s since been wondering what, exactly, an African design or aesthetic might be.
He is Nigerian; African. The stool was conceptualized and produced in Lagos. He first learned design under the tutelage of street-side welders and carpenters, artisan masters of Lagos’s informal economy. It was this local knowledge that gave him an edge when he studied for Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Product Design at the University of Leeds. “I use what is around me to create,” Marcus-Bello says. “I am not copying from anywhere else. I exploit our process.”
The process he is referring to is one of functional chaos—a very familiar Nigerian reality—where the manufacturing industry is hobbled by a laundry list of challenges, from outdated production techniques to power outages. But somehow, it still works. Marcus-Bello makes do with what he has, and his furniture reflects the resilient spirit Lagosians are known for. (The LM Stool is designed around the production process of a factory that creates generator casings, which cover the ubiquitous machines that provide electricity.)
When the store referred to “African design,” I suspect they meant a stereotypical formula: A dash of animal prints; a mish-mash of bright patterns; a semblance of the baobab tree. But Marcus-Bello is part of a small class of Nigerian product designers redefining this imaginary ideal—and perhaps reinventing what good design looks like, period.
Moyo Ogunseinde, a real estate developer, architect, and product designer, is breaking rank as well. Inspired by her childhood memories of festivals and a countryside life where grandparents were neighbors and not a distant call away, she founded Aga Concept to create minimalist design objects that, unlike Marcus-Bello’s, might actually be identified as “authentic” African design, reinterpreted in contemporary ways.
“As Africans, we want someone else’s memories, we want someone else’s cars or fashion. Why aren’t our memories good enough? It is because we are not capturing them for people to relive them,” she says, inviting me to share a bowl of popcorn when we meet at Upbeat, an indoor sports center she designed.
Ogunseinde is alluding to the success of an expansive Western global capitalist retail culture mixed with the hangover of a colonial era when Nigerians and Africans at large were conditioned to think west is (the only) best, while at the same time playing into Western definitions of what African design should look like. Victoria Beckham over Ejiro Amos Tafiri or Meena.
Instead, Ogunseinde wants her history to be “touched and felt,” so she designs products with it. She grew up in Ibadan, in southwestern Nigeria, where agriculture was the mainstay of the economy, so she made the Oko, a chair shaped like a hoe, to remind herself and others of that time. She’s also been creating objects inspired by the masked, costumed figures, or masquerades, called Egungun, which used to terrify her as a child. They were welcomed to Ibadan every July, said to represent the collective spirit of ancestors. Some of Ogunseinde’s versions are nine-feet tall, some bear hats. She’s currently in the process of scaling the design to create lamps.
Not everyone is keen to have their bedside light inspired by ancestral history. A Christian friend once told Ogunseinde she was crossing a line, “eulogizing spirits.” “[But] I don’t want to be so precious about our history that I don’t move it forward,” Ogunseinde says, shrugging.
Oreoluwa Oluwatobi, an architect turned designer who founded Alaga Collections, is also borrowing from history, albeit more literally. When he made Akanke, a contemporary rocking chair—a rarity in Nigerian furniture—customers received more than a nostalgic design. They were also getting a story: the name is drawn from the Yoruba language, meaning something that a thing that takes care of you, that rocks you.
“I want us to remember our names, put beauty in it. My products are named after things we might forget,” Oluwatobi, also a writer, says. He does extensive research into folklore for his work.
Oluwatobi uses adire, aso-oke fabrics indigenous to Nigeria, to design chair and stool covers, preserving age-old fabric making practices. The fabrics have garnered global attention: they were used by Nigerian designer Maki Oh in her recent Fall 2018 NYFW collection, and also worn by First Lady Michelle Obama.
Oluwatobi is preempting history, too. When the Lagos State government recently announced that it would be phasing out the Danfo, a set of ubiquitous yellow and black busses that are an indelible part of Lagos culture, similar to the New York subway, Oluwatobi designed a chair in the bus’s iconic colors.
This design class is tired of playing small, and they’re sending their brands around the world. Marcus-Bello’s largest order so far has come from a furniture collector based in New York who found him online by typing “contemporary African furniture“ into Google. He is currently also designing modular furniture for a client in Japan. Ogunseinde is feeding her products into hotel chains and restaurants in Nigeria, while also building them in other countries. She has also listed her products on the American design products platform WallpaperSTORE*hoping her homegrown goods will become global desirables.
Oluwatobi’s story-driven products, which he remarkably sells on Twitter, are popular with Nigeria’s star-studded literary community. Novelist and feminist icon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is currently visiting Lagos and is by now well-known for her impeccable sartorial choices, often made by Nigerian designers. Oluwatobi reckons there is space in her collection for an Alaga chair.