African culture is so present in all facets of life in the United States that it is often overlooked and underappreciated—think of the rich spices in Southern cuisine or the lively call-and-response in a Top 40 hit.
In the design world, there is no mistaking the influence of Africa, whether it is West African mud cloth or Ethiopian cotton. But while it is important to pay homage to these cultural roots, it is equally valuable to look forward and design for the future.
These five Black designers are working to do just that with their furniture and design projects, incorporating African traditions into everyday life through family and heritage.
Hana Getachew created Bolé Road Textiles as a way of incorporating her love for Ethiopian handwoven fabrics into her interior design career. Named after a lively thoroughfare in Addis Ababa, (where Getachew was born) Bolé Road is a textile-lover's dream. Throws, pillows and even napkins—most made of Ethiopian cotton —feel as luxurious as they look.
“I love the traditional weaving craft of Ethiopia. It’s so dynamic, complex, and rich that it provides endless inspiration for my work,” says Getachew, who recently collaborated with West Elm on a home collection.
Getachew explains that many times African-made goods are not seen as “good design” and are instead labeled trendy rather than timeless.
“They [African-made goods] are often relegated to specific themes, such as ‘ethnic,’ and often seen as part of a trend,” the designer says. “It’s time to update this narrative. African-made goods are not frozen in time; they evolve and can be modern, timeless, and profoundly influential to the broader design world.”
As owner of Norman Teague Design Studios, Norman Teague has made a number of fascinating pieces, but he is best known for his meticulously crafted Sinmi rocking stool that uniquely pushes design forward while also paying homage to the glorious past.
“It's not a Lamborghini, but it is a fun way to do what humans have done for years,” Teague says of the Sinmi rocking stool. “There are many chairs in the world and each utilizes a unique combination of connections, materials, and creative brilliance to design and develop them. The added value is that Sinmi is fun, curious, and conversational.” In all of his work, Teague seeks inspiration from “Adinkra symbols, the Yoruba language, patterns” and other aspects of Black life.
What does the future hold for Black designers? “I strongly believe creative currency fuels the betterment of education that funnels in vibrance and beauty throughout disinvested communities of color."
One glance at Jomo Tariku's catalogue, and you’ll find pieces reminiscent of royalty and intertwined with history. An Ethiopian-American artist and industrial designer, Tariku is effortlessly profound in his thoughts on his African heritage and its influence on his work.
“Instead of all the negative things we hear about Africa, I prefer to focus on the things that have left a lasting impression on me: the diversity of its culture, language, customs, religion, architecture, hairstyles, body scarification, colors, and many more,” Tariku explains. “All of them are infinite resources for my inspiration. I also respect and admire the work by those who have come before me and the work being done now by so many creatives from the continent of Africa and the African diaspora.”
In fact, it was being surrounded by African objects as a child that fuels his creativity now and jump-started his career.
“Growing up in Ethiopia I was surrounded by the eclectic collections that my father had acquired during his travels through Africa.… Our home was filled with these objects including locally made traditional three legged stools,” Tariku shares. “I incessantly sketched in our living room—initially out of boredom. I am surprised that this developed into a lifelong passion of turning these objects into my own interpretation of my African heritage.”
Bradley L. Bowers
With family from Nigeria and Savannah, Georgia (by way of the West African slave trade), avant-garde designer Bradley L. Bowers hopes that his pieces can move design forward by getting people to “think broader and reconsider their assumptions.”
“In West Africa, the culture of crafting and wearing masks resonates with me,” Bowers explains. “It was often believed by white colonizers that the masks were ‘portrayals’ of the spirits they were named for, but the truth is far deeper. Instead of crafting masks that mimicked the spirits, the wearer created masks whose image would put the spirits at ease and encourage them to join in. The mask was the conduit and the wearer gave it life. I see my studio in the same way. The work I make is created to stir up ideas inside you. I am merely the motor that sets it all in motion.”
Why does Bowers choose to incorporate African culture into his work? It’s simple. “Because I can’t do anything else,” he says. “Everything I do is African-American. Because I am African and American. The way I eat, the way I sing, the way I talk, the way I dress. They all bear traces of my lineage.”
Bridgid Coulter is a veritable Renaissance woman. She owns a boutique interior design studio in Santa Monica, California and also has a portfolio brimming with enchanting (and eco-conscious) textiles inspired by traditional block-printed African cloth.
“I believe that we're connected to our ancestors at a molecular level, which I find fascinating,” Coulter explains. “And it really influences my style. I consider myself a storyteller in 3-D: Design space is my canvas and culture is part of my storytelling process.”
In regards to what the future holds for Black designers, Coulter is “preparedly optimistic.”
“I think that people are more open to considering designers who don't necessarily just look like them, which is cool. As a collective, we can really embrace the richness and the value and the talent and the thought process and the excellence that Black designers can bring to the table. But also, as a culture we should look for people who may have a shared understanding so that they will value and invest in these designers."