Continental drift: Design inspiration from Africa
A digital journey exploring how inspiration from Africa translates into design a little closer to home.
Written by Pauline de Villiers Brettell
Design, whether you are looking at interiors, fashion, furniture or food, is all about authenticity at the moment. People want to strip back the layers and understand the story behind a product, along with the person and place who designed or made it. The consumer wants to understand the process involved in creating something, as well as the inspiration behind it. As a result of this, along with the range of current political discourse, it is an exciting time for creatives and designers who are bringing their African influence and inspiration directly into the design spotlight.
To set the tone let’s start with a little background music from Mama Africa herself – I first saw Miriam Makeba sing on stage in Istanbul when she was still living in exile and her songs always bring a smile of bitter sweet nostalgia to me. Pata Pata is the name of a dance, and “everyone starts to move as soon as Pata Pata starts to play”…
Despite the huge geographical area, along with so many cultural differences, Africa as a whole does have a rich and diverse history of highly tactile and visual artisanal design, and as we celebrate our diversity across the globe, we are also starting to see a celebration of this diversity in design. My roots are deeply South African, and despite the fact that I have been based in the UK for twenty years, this still impacts my design aesthetic on every level. These roots guide my choice of colours, my love of pattern, not to mention a permanent hankering for heat and sunshine. So I thought I would use this space to discover, highlight and share the work of designers who are able to transport us to another continent through their fusion of experiences and cultural expressions of design.
“Africa is not a country!”
Let me get that off my chest! While I understand that there are continental cultural and iconographic strands that run from north to south and east to west, to lump the whole of Africa, whether it be design, flavours, textiles, music under the generic continental banner is something I find misleading, and just a tad annoying. Appreciating that there is a sense of “Africa Rising” in the design aesthetic here in the UK at the moment, I thought I would explore this genre, but try and look a little more closely at the origin of inspiration. It has been a joy to discover and share artists and designers who are influenced by, but importantly, who are also reinterpreting and amplifying these design roots.
With a personal interest in textiles, both printed and woven, I thought this would be a good place to kick off the journey.
There is a deep and varied history of textiles from the southern tip to the northern edge of Africa – recently I have been following the conversation between Eva Sonaike and Kemi Telford on their IG chats – have a listen HERE – for their personal textile favourites and discover a little more about the details and the regional differences of textile design, and in fact some of the debate around issues like cultural appropriation and colonialism which are closely interwoven with the story of a lot of African textiles.
Taking inspiration from Southern African design is Sussex based design studio – Porcupine Rocks – who have developed a clear design vision and aesthetic through their showcasing of contemporary Southern African textile designers. These designers draw on a rich and very contextual visual language, and in the hands of Porcupine Rocks designers Suze and Paula, this combination of an African and European interior aesthetic results in a bright and graphic design style.
Also drawing on her African heritage, in this case Nigeria, designer Eva Sonaike (as mentioned earlier) designs a range of printed fabrics that, while clearly referencing her west African roots, is also about contemporary design that fits seamlessly into a broader aesthetic.
Staying with all things woven but moving into the realm of basketware is AAKS. From Ghana to London and back again . . . it is this process of cross cultural pollination that makes all of these designers and makers listed here so interesting. Their Weaving for Change project is particularly interesting and worth a read!
” The Conran Shop recent addition is the work by young Moroccan ceramicist Bouchra Boudoaua.”
Another craft that has deep roots across the continent is that of ceramics. This article in The New York Times Style Magazine is an interesting read (I do love where my searches for content lead me!) and reflects what I am trying to showcase through this article – looking at designers whose heritage allows them to draw on African traditions while they remain in step with, and immersed in contemporary design.
The Conran Shop has historically provided a platform for designers combining craft and contemporary design, so it was no surprise to me to see the recent addition of work by young Moroccan ceramicist Bouchra Boudoaua to their shelves – Bouchra clearly draws on her Moroccan roots in the marks and designs of her ceramics, yet the joyful colours of this range transport it straight onto the contemporary design shelf.
Online shopping has made the world a smaller place, and you could argue, made the marketplace more democratic and accessible. AKOJO is providing a UK based platform to a curated collection of African designers from across the continent, working with designers and makers with values of sustainability, along with ethical and responsible consumption being at the core of their business on both a micro and a macro level. One of my favourite items available via AKOJO are the textile designs from The Milaya Project, the story behind the Milaya textiles is both shattering and uplifting and showcases the indomitable spirit of these South Sudanese women that create beauty in desperate times. You can follow the project here on Instagram.
Sometimes it’s all about the mix – in this case the unlikely mix of Nigeria and Scotland – in the collection by Our Lovely Goods. They explain perfectly the process of home making in their “About Us” page and why the combination of Nigerian craft with a little Scottish Hygge makes perfect sense!
Moving a bit further afield, Jomo Tariku is an American industrial designer who has a range of furniture that draws directly on his Ethiopian roots – the lines are beautiful, international. clearly contemporary, yet undeniably Ethiopian. It is the balance of these design influences that make these pieces stand apart.
Italian design brand Moroso have a long history of collaborating with designers and artisans based in Senegal, as well as working on collaborations that cross design borders between Africa and Europe. Their collaboration with designers such as David Adjaye, whose roots are both Tanzanian and Ghanian, and with offices in London and New York, his designs in particular personify the concept of continental drift!
Moroso produced this visual document of the design process as it unfolded in Dakar Below is a link to this publication that celebrates the process of design and collaboration.
“This is the beauty of design, the project is a way of embracing life, a vision of the world. A colourful world which celebrates differences and diversity, making them a physical part of daily life and form of communication and interaction.”
Staying in the international arena, musician and curator of all things cool, Lenny Kravitz and his interior design studio – Kravitz Design – has recently launched their second furniture collection with CB2. As mentioned in Elle Decor recently, “The globally inspired collection pairs Parisian lines with sophisticated African textiles for a selection of home goods that feels warm, bohemian, and—in true Kravitz fashion—a bit rock and roll.”
When it comes to more accessible platform, love it or hate it, Ikea has a place in all of our design lives, which impacts on and in fact often directs the conversation when it comes to identifying trends in the world of homeware and design. They, too, have recently been looking to Africa as a source of inspiration, a place of production, and no doubt a new market. The annual Design Indaba in Cape Town South Africa is always a showcase for design across the continent, and in this article via Dezeen, the Ikea African collection is explored a little more.
Although it was a project that started a few years ago, the discussion remains an interesting one, as it got halted mid-sentence by the global pandemic that put a temporary stop to the process of continental drift in a very literal sense – so I have included a part of the discussion here, looking at how Ikea worked with ten different designers, from ten different countries to produce this range.
There are brands embracing the mix of traditional heritage with modernism.
Moving into the realm of fashion, apart from the beautiful AAKS handcrafted woven bags mentioned above, I am inspired by Kemi Telford ( you have probably already met her if you watched the IG video that I recommended above), in particular how she brings bold Nigerian colour and pattern onto the UK high street. Not only Kemi’s fabrics and designs reflective of her Nigerian roots but she has also managed to incorporate these into a brand that is relatable to her clients here in the UK.
Another inspirational fashion range, currently available in the UK via AKOJO, which I also mentioned earlier, is ASHA-ELEVEN. Again, this is a range with sustainability and ethics as its driving force. The colours of the new ASHA-ELEVEN range seem to me to be so reflective of the landscape that inspires them with the beautiful ochres and terracottas.
With its influence on design trends, I have discovered a great place to enjoy the blend of both worlds.
Food has become central to design and trends, so it was with interest that I discovered AKOKO – a London based restaurant mixing both cultures and spices and taking inspiration from both culture and context. It felt appropriate to start winding down this cross continental journey by focussing on our stomachs and feeding the soul with a beautiful design concept that epitomises the fusion of cultures I have been talking about, drawing on roots while fusing cultures and influences.
Akoko combines British produce with African flavours – and all of this in a beautifully designed environment that is both contemporary, and traditional with elements from west Africa sitting comfortably alongside those from urban London. The combination of a fine dining menu that is centred around an African culinary tradition which is historically communal is a brave move, but one that appears to be going from strength to strength.
And finally, having started on a musical note, it feels fitting to end on one, and to me this is the perfect note to end on as it embodies everything I have been trying to showcase here – a celebration of cultures crossing borders, of creativity drifting across continents in the 21st century all channeled into this performance by South African musician Abel Selaocoe on stage with the BBC Orchestra.
About the author
Pauline de Villiers Brettell
Pauline is a designer, writer and traveller as well as owner of Tea in Tangier, an inspirational Moroccan blog and shop.
Follow Pauline: IG @teaintangier
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