Africa has long been a source of inspiration for the design world, from the now ubiquitous black-and-white Beni Ouarain rugs from the mountains of Morocco to the bright wax fabrics from Ghana. More recently however, contemporary designers, both African and international, have been reinterpreting African craft in innovative ways. There are also more venues in which to showcase their work: Johannesburg’s Museum of African Design, which opened last year; the much anticipated concept store Alara, owned by Nigerian interior designer Reni Folawiyo, which opens later this year in Lagos, Nigeria; and the upcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, which is scheduled to open in 2016.
“Craft is very old in Africa, but design is young,” says Trevyn McGowan, who along with her husband Julian, is the co-founder of Source, a major exporter of South African design and a supplier for retailers such as the Conran Shop. “People are turning to Africa because it offers something raw and vital and fresh. Designers are not just looking for traditional pieces, such as ashanti benches, but for what breaks the mould.” Examples include sculpted chairs crafted from leather and wood by the west African artist Babacar M’Bodj Niang, and custom-painted cabinets by Johannesburg-based duo Dokter and Misses.
While cycling around Senegal a few years ago, the Spanish designer Ramon Llonch was drawn to the brightly patterned fishing boats that lined the beaches, many of them damaged and abandoned. He now buys these old traditional vessels and works with local artisans to take them apart and then transform the painted wood into contemporary furniture, from coffee tables to cabinets, under the name Artlantique.
“Another example of an upcoming designer is Hamed Ouattara, who works out of Senegal and makes a limited furniture collection out of recycled oil drums,” says McGowan. “Habitat bought his pieces.”
The McGowans also founded Southern Guild in 2008, a design platform, and soon a gallery opening at the end of the year in Cape Town, which sponsors collaborations between African designers and international rising stars such as the Haas brothers. After almost two decades in London, the couple moved back to their native South Africa about 10 years ago and built a modern, three-storey glass-and-concrete beach house. It is filled with contemporary African design objects by Gregor Jenkin, Conrad Botes and Ceramic Matters.
The colourful, woven-plastic chairs traditionally found in west Africa have also been reinvented by the Mali-based architect and designer Cheick Diallo, whose designs are shown in Milan and Tokyo.
“Collectable furniture and fabric is getting a lot of attention,” says McGowan. Take the metal chairs of the late Austrian artist Franz West, which are covered in west African fabrics. A few years ago in Milan, Moroso debuted Swiss designer Philippe Bestenheider’s Binta, a chair inspired by the shape of baobab tree and covered with waxed African fabrics.
Even more sensational is Theo Ruth for Artifort’s Congo Chair. Designed by Studio Job (and produced in collaboration with Vlisco), the fabric was originally designed to upholster seats for a Defender vehicle it created for Land Rover in 2013. Studio Job has also developed a L’Afrique wallpaper for the Dutch company NLXL, and a L’Afrique rug for Moooi (on show at the Moooi Gallery in London).
Not everyone is willing to paper their walls with African-inspired patterns. While Maryam Montague, the author of Marrakesh by Design, has never hesitated to add to her collection of African design pieces that fill her home and guesthouses in Marrakesh, the Peacock Pavilions, she understands that sometimes it helps to start small. She is working on a collection of pillows made with bogolan (mud-dyed) cloth from Mali which she will sell through her online store, Red Thread Souk.