The new African aesthetic
From Senegal to Ethiopia, designers are combining tradition with luxury to push through the archetypal images associated with the continent. And the look is inspiring artists far beyond its borders, Nana Spio-Garbrah writes
The design world's sights have been set on Africa of late, with headlines from the Telegraph to Vogue, but the aesthetic has moved well beyond the safari look that persists in Google searches for African decor.
Last September's opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, designed by Ghanaian-Tanzanian architect David Adjaye, has cemented the prominence of Africa and its diaspora on the design and tourism landscapes.
While much of the decor interest has been fixated on the northern- and southernmost tips of the continent, sub-Saharan Africa is now forcing its way into the limelight. Nigeria burst onto the scene as the go-to country for African creativity with successful events such as the Art X Lagos contemporary-art fair in November. And Nigerian-born artist Laolu Senbanjo has become mainstream thanks to his work on Beyoncé's megahit Lemonade.
With design from Africa no longer limited to Morocco or South Africa, the hallmarks still remain: magnificent woodwork, bespoke pieces and vibrant textiles. But the continent's new crop of artists are detaching themselves from the archetypal African image.
Informed by superior craftsmanship and ingenious design, they're creating modern interpretations of traditional furniture and utensils, making bold statements with contemporary abstract art and innovating with eco-friendly design and upcycling.
For those whose postholiday budget doesn't match their bucket-list travel ambitions, embracing this global-chic look at home can be the next best thing. "Global elements can make antique-filled traditional rooms seem less stuffy and can save contemporary rooms from the curse of banality," says Margot Austin, a Toronto-based interior stylist.
Canadians have been slow to embrace African decor, perhaps because much of the architecture – traditional Victorians in the cities and cedar-shake cottages in the country – doesn't intuitively lend itself to the inclusion of a hand-carved Senufo stool from the Ivory Coast or a brightly patterned Yinka Ilori chair. And despite the lush summers, our harsh winters have dominated local interiors with a focus on neutrals over colour, says interior designer Samantha Sacks of Sam Sacks Design.
To inject a bit of African flavour into their clients' homes, interior designers look to accessories and conversation pieces.
"While many Canadians prefer to play it safe with larger investment pieces, home accessories are a perfect place to add an interesting and global aesthetic without too much commitment," says Toronto designer Montana Labelle. "I find many of my clients are thrilled to pair a classic streamlined sofa with mud-cloth throw pillows, or bookcases with a hand-carved wooden bowl."
Morocco continues to draw design enthusiasts. "When a travel destination becomes popular we see its influences in the design and food scene. Morocco is a must on every design aficionado's travel agenda," Austin says. "The textiles and carpets and colour palettes from the region continue to inspire interior designers everywhere."
Sacks has been travelling to Morocco for years and even hosts a souk in her home where clients can buy rugs, textiles and ceramics from her travels. Twice a year, the principal designers at the Toronto firm visit Marrakesh, Addis Ababa and Cape Town looking for unique finds for their clients.
African-inspired housewares are available online in Canada at retailers including Toronto-based Snob ( snobstuff.com). "This store is one of my favourites for sourcing globally inspired decor finds," Labelle says. "I think their African stools are one of the most relevant [pieces], an item that can work well within any modern or contemporary decor." Ontario's the Grand Collective (thegrandcollective.ca) is another online retailer linking South African artisans with Canadian consumers.
Montreal-based Astere Justine Haile launched her brand, House North of Addis, last March after travelling to her father's ancestral homeland for the first time and falling in love with the traditional textiles. "It is all about the Ethiopian artisans for me. I can trace every fabric I use back to its artisan," she says.
A handful of luxury design artists such as Cheick Diallo have received widespread recognition, but everyday houseware brands inspired by Africa remain more obscure. So, while you save up for a flight to Senegal or a diving trip in Mauritius, bring a piece of the continent home with one of these up-and-coming brands.
Aga Concept, Nigeria
A new generation of designers fuse modernity with heritage. Aga Concept calls its approach "Afrominima" – their acronym for Afrocentric minimalism, which typifies neo-African culture far from the stereotype. Designed by Olubunmi Adeyemi and Moyo Ogunseinde, their interpretation of traditional African cooking utensils appeals to all the senses. Available from store.wallpaper.com; price range: $50-$80.
Baba Tree Baskets, Ghana
Gregory MacCarthy left his hometown of Vancouver for a small weaving village in northern Ghana, where he founded his basket-weaving collective Baba Tree Baskets. Relaunched in 2012, the brand is founded on the principle of fair wages. Finished baskets are true luxury items, taking between 35 and 100 hours to produce by hand. Originally centralizing shipments from Vancouver, MacCarthy now has distribution headquartered in Ghana. Available from babatree.com, prices starting at $70.
Mungo Design, South Africa
Founded in 1998 by master weaver Stuart Holding, the brand makes its textiles on 19 th-century Hattersley looms, imbuing each piece with a bit of history. "Mungo has always proven to be the best in both quality and simplicity. I love their bed linens and throws!" says Toronto interior designer Ashley Davidson. Available from mungo.co.za; towels and throws starting from $116.
Naaka, Burkina Faso
Although headquartered in France, the firm's design acumen is West African, with the brand focusing on eco-design and upcycle chic from salvaged woods, scrap metals and other materials. Available from naaka.fr/boutique; Dogon buffet priced at $2,550.
Fatyly Ceramics, Senegal
Inspired in her design by the mysticism of Africa's landscapes, Fatyly's latest tableware collection reflects the mystique of the baobab tree. However, the brand found wide acclaim for its Nguka collection, inspired by the elegance of 1950s Senegalese women. Manufactured from fine bone china. Available from weendudesign.com/fatyly-1; prices: $475 for set of four plates from Fatyly Baobab collection.
Bespoke Binny, Britain
Bespoke Binny, founded by Natalie Yaa Obenewa, is a brand that applies traditional African textiles such as Mali's bogolanfini to lighting and soft furnishings. Available from bespokebinny.com; prices begin at $85.
The Ninevites, South Africa
Looking to preserve local weaving expertise, these rugs are handmade from sheep's wool, mohair or karakul wool and imprinted with patterns of the Ndebele tribe of Zimbabwe. Information from firstname.lastname@example.org (website under renovation); rugs priced depending on size, from $350 to $1,650.
House North of Addis, Canada
The brand, founded by Canadian Astere Justine Haile, offers soft furnishings made from gabis, the traditional handmade cotton blankets used to keep Ethiopians warm in high mountain altitudes. Available from housenorthofaddis.bigcartel.com; cushions starting at $70.
Marta Bakowski, France
Designed by Polish-French artist Marta Bakowski, the "Sorcier" sconce is the industrial, modern and functional rendition of the Ngil mask of the Fang tribe in Gabon. The sculptural piece is distributed by Paris-based furniture and lighting company La Chance and available in Canada through 2pirdesign.com, retailing at $455.
Reflektion Design, United States
"When I was in Marrakesh I was introduced to the work of artist Hassan Hajjaj," says Sacks of Sam Sacks Design. "Many of his subjects wear Ankara wax prints. I love their bold patterns and bright hues and will definitely be incorporating these patterns into my work over the coming year!" Available from reflektiondesign.com/products.