African furniture is undergoing a transformation. Forget village handicrafts; today’s designs are contemporary, high-end and beginning to sport “Made in Africa” branding. They are also a growing presence in both local and overseas markets.
The continent’s creative industries are on the rise, boosted by a buoyant economy and emerging middle class with a growing disposable income. The sub-Saharan economy, according to the World Bank, is likely to increase by more than 5 per cent over the next three years, outperforming the global average. Consumer spending is strong, but the question is whether wealthy Africans are willing to invest in homegrown design over international luxury brands.
Joëlle le Bussy is a designer of French Senegalese heritage who has lived in Dakar, Senegal, for 30 years. “When I first moved here I couldn’t find any furniture to my taste,” she says. “Everything with a contemporary feel was imported and I wanted something that was made in Senegal.”
Taking matters into her own hands, le Bussy opened Galerie Arte Dakar in 1996 and started designing her own furniture, the majority of which is made from sustainably-sourced Senegalese woods. Beautifully finished, with simple lines and every detail handmade, these are contemporary pieces with an inherently African aesthetic. One wooden console, the ngali, (€850) has drawers covered in leather made by the nomadic Tuareg people from neighbouring Mali while a wooden armoire, the dogon, (€2,300) is simple and contemporary in shape but has an antique Malian door inset into its front panel.
“I want to create something that is 100 per cent Senegalese and that is also seen as a luxury product,” says le Bussy. “I brand everything I make with ‘Made in Senegal’ and especially chose a website address that ends in .sn not .com to show I’m proud these products are Senegalese.”
Le Bussy’s attitude is not widely shared. Low purchasing power – the World Bank estimated in 2010 that 48 per cent of people in sub-Saharan Africa lived on less than $1.25 a day – means designer furniture is out of reach for much of the population. And many of the growing middle classes who can afford le Bussy’s pieces are not enamoured of local design.
“Most wealthy Senegalese prefer European design,” says Le Bussy. “Made in Senegal is not associated with luxury and there’s a perception if you want to show you have taste and money you have to buy European design,” she says.
Cécile and Mbor Ndiaye, the husband and wife team behind textile design group Mis Wudé, say the preference for imported products even complicates the design process. When Cécile asked a leatherworker to create a prototype of her first product, a contemporary version of a local shoe design, she was delighted with the result until she looked at the sole. “I saw they had stamped ‘Made in Italy’ on the bottom,” she says. “They thought they were doing me a favour, that it would be more valuable if it had a European marque.”
The couple named their company Mis Wudé in response. Wudé means “leather work” in the local Wolof language and Mis stands for Made in Senegal. “The idea that our products are made here is very important to us; it’s the driving force behind the business,” says Cécile.
Although the brand mostly sells to expats in Dakar and exports to the Caribbean and Europe, a local market is beginning to emerge.
“The moment you begin to be known abroad, people here take notice, too. There’s an enormous creative potential in this country, it’s just a question of building confidence in local skills and talent.”
It seems that a creative confidence is beginning to spread across the region as more European design brands look to Africa for inspiration. In Mali, architect and designer Cheick Diallo has a studio in the hills above his birthplace, Bamako. Diallo’s experimentation with weaving metal to create sculptural chairs and loungers (priced at £2,800), has inspired the likes of Italian brand Moroso.
Painter and furniture designer Hamed Ouattara works in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a country which suffers from endemic poverty but reported economic growth of about 7 per cent last year, according to the World Bank. “I’m always working to bring out a design that reflects the realities of Africa,” says Ouattara of his reclaimed metal furniture pieces. “My goal is to provide a counter point in a continent that suffers from an excess of imports, poor quality imitations and products that don’t reflect our culture.”
Having trained in accountancy, Ouattara’s switch to furniture making was criticised by his family. But his striking pieces, including a curvaceous reclaimed-metal chair, priced at £350, and reclaimed-metal sideboards, from £1,600, have exhibited widely around the world and Ouattara supplies clients across Europe and Africa.
Back in Dakar, Babacar M’Bodj Niang established his furniture design practice, Nulangee, 12 years ago. Having enjoyed making objects since childhood, he forged a career in design, despite family disapproval and a lack of formal training. Niang uses local materials – wood, leather and brass – to create sculptural and delicate pieces, such as his Toggay Bu Jup banquette (£650), which has spindly legs like that of a newborn giraffe. He hopes to increase his export market and is in talks with London-based interiors store Mint, which is interested in selling his work.
The success of these designers is all the more impressive when taking into account the challenges of setting up a business in the region. Infrastructure in much of Africa remains unsophisticated; transport is difficult and expensive; the logistics of exporting, including low-level corruption, continue to be a barrier; and training and education is limited – there are few specialist design schools in Africa.
Niang, Diallo and Ouattara are members of Design Network Africa, a programme funded by the Danish government that links 16 designers from 10 countries across Africa. The programme aims to encourage the group to develop new products through creative collaboration.
It is organising Graphic Africa, an exhibition of the work of all 16 designers at Habitat’s Platform exhibition space on King’s Road during the London Design Festival in September. For these designers, exhibiting abroad is of value not just in developing an international profile but in building local markets too.
“Today, about 25 per cent of my customers are from Senegal and black Africa. When I opened my gallery it was only about 8 per cent,” says le Bussy. “The percentage is growing because the younger generation is beginning to understand it is important to have our own fashion and design identity. But what is irritating is that often success here comes only once we’ve had recognition abroad.”
Nana Ocran, a London-based writer of Nigerian origin, says that while “the notion of importing quality still exists in Africa”, things are beginning to change. “Where in the past people were guided by religion and tribalism, younger voices are starting to break away from this. People are taking more control of their own stories and building narratives in contemporary and original ways.”