Issa Diabate

There is a tangible surge taking place in African design. From fashion, architecture and furniture to décor, graphics and fabrication, there is a quiet groundswell that is building and breaking beyond respective borders, both intracontinental and internationally. “Design thinking”, or “human-centred design”, have become the catchphrases in business, design, marketing and the like that is inherent in African design, because of the unique challenges that face designers across the continent. In addition, the silos that have often existed between disciplines are starting to break down, albeit it slowly.

While there continue to be those from outside the continent who feel they have the solutions for us “poor Africans” who cannot help ourselves, there is greater international recognition of what Africa can bring to the table from a design perspective. One such initiative is the collaboration between Design Indaba and IKEA. Design Indaba is very likely the foremost design conference on the African continent. Established by Ravi Naidoo of Interactive Africa in 1995, Design Indaba has grown to include the Design Indaba Expo, the Most Beautiful Object in South Africa (MBOISA) competition and the Emerging Creatives programme, in partnership with the Department of Arts and Culture. This annual event is attended by over 2 000 people, engaging with over 40 speakers.

In more recent years, Naidoo has sought to diversify and take the movement outside South Africa and has been involved with events such as Helsinki’s Design Commons, as well as Antenna, as part of the Dutch Design Week in Holland. He says, “Sometimes, we over-editorialise our own lives. We over-curate our lives, and we don’t give ourselves opportunities for sheer happenstance. Sometimes, random meetings with the right kind of people bring up wonderful opportunities.”

The creative explosion which is taking place in several cities around Africa right now is something IKEA is curious about.

It was this open approach to business that birthed Design Indaba’s partnership with IKEA. Started in the 1940s in Sweden by Ingvar Kamprad, IKEA revolutionised the way furniture was designed and sold.

Naidoo explains: “In this instance, I was invited to do ostensibly voluntary work, acting as a judge on a panel in Amsterdam. It was being coordinated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the IKEA Foundation, and it involved adjudicating the best submissions made by designers to ameliorate the plight of refugees, particularly in refugee camps.

“It was intense and, at the end of the day, Marcus Engman, the design director of IKEA, said: ‘I love your energy, we should do something together.’ And that was it.”

IKEA had already started thinking about the possibility of curating its first African-designed collection, and with Design Indaba’s track record in the creative industries in South Africa and in Africa, the collaboration made sense. Design Indaba served as the project manager and identified the designers to be involved: industrial designer Bibi Seck (Senegal); architects Bethan Rayner and Naeem Biviji of Studio Propolis (Kenya); textile and fashion designer Laduma Ngxokolo (South Africa); architect Christian Benimana (Rwanda); architect and artist Renée Rossouw (South Africa); designers Hend Riad and Mariam Hazem of Reform Studio (Egypt); architect Issa Diabaté (Ivory Coast); textile and fashion designer Sindiso Khumalo (South Africa); fashion designer and artist Selly Raby Kane (Senegal); and architect and curator Paula Nascimento (Angola).

These designers have all participated in Design Indaba over the years, either as speakers or exhibitors. As Naidoo says, it was important to “choose people that could think differently; people who understood what was happening in contemporary, urban Africa. IKEA’s fundamentally trying to improve the quality of life of people living in cities, and we have a good cross-section of people from major metropolises in Africa.”

At the announcement of the project, Engman said, “The creative explosion which is taking place in several cities around Africa right now is something IKEA is curious about. We want to learn from this and spread it to the rest of the world. Working together with these designers and creatives gives us the opportunity to do so.”

Naeem Biviji, Beth Rayner, Mikael Axelsson (Ikea), Issa Diabate IKEA Immersion Bibi Seck Beth Rayner, Marcus Engman (Ikea), Mariam Hazem, Hend Riad Print collaboration by Renee Rossouw and Sindiso Khumalo

The starting point was a deep immersion, where the designers had the opportunity to visit IKEA’s headquarters in Älmhult, as well as visiting actual stores.

Naidoo expands on this: “It was to understand IKEA’s philosophy, ethics and sustainability issues. They are very big on this. You can’t use certain materials and products, and they are also very conscious of health and safety.

“And it was to understand IKEA’s customers and the scale factor. A lot of the designers that we have in Africa have never worked at that kind of scale, where you may produce a product that could sell five million units. It must be incorporated into the design of the product, considering its manufacture, its price point and how it can be delivered globally to every single IKEA store. Designers on our continent have largely been a cottage industry. No matter how successful that designer is, there are few who have sold beyond thousands of units of anything.”

The next step was to start to formulate a consensus as to what insights they had and what strands they wanted to develop. For example, Naidoo speaks of how porous our boundaries are in Africa, and how that “interstitial space between your front door and the street is way more open in Africa than it perhaps is in the rest of the world. Look at the porch. It becomes this wonderful place for social intercourse, in terms of how it interacts with the front yard and the street.”

This influenced the approach to design, particularly from an African perspective. Naidoo often refers to a quote by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena: “Scarcity is a wonderful antidote to arbitrariness.” Because of scarcity, we have been upcycling for a while. The notion of repairing, fixing, changing and making our own is part of our creative DNA.

Diabaté adds: “A lot of values IKEA shares we already tap into in Africa. There is an interesting connection between how we do things in Africa and how IKEA does things.”

Diabaté explains what drew him to the project: “Being a big company, IKEA has a lot of resources when it comes to engineering, marketing, products, etc. It is interesting for me as an architect in design to bridge between how they do things as a big organisation and how I do things. I already had some ideas on how to get good product design and making it feasible for the environment they are in.

“I am focused on two areas. One part of the project is furniture, and the thinking is what type of furniture can you make from, for example, one piece of plywood. And how can you make it simple to assemble and then disassemble to move. The second is using the same philosophy for dwellings. You could start with one dwelling unit with a bed, etc., add a unit with a lounge, and eventually create a whole house.”

The project is now sitting with 40 pieces in the collection. The designers were recently back at the labs at IKEA headquarters, doing rapid prototyping and 3D printing to start physically making the products. IKEA leads with a constraint; in other words, how to make design as accessible as possible to the most people with a cost attached to it – for example, making a chair for 20 euros – which they call democratic design.

The team is also looking at how to ensure that much of the production is undertaken in Africa, with materials sourced from the continent, which will have an impact on job creation. They also exploring interesting distribution channels to ensure that the collection is accessible to people in Africa. As Naidoo puts it, “The design is not only about the design of the artefact but the design of the process of how to make it and, in some instances, we are learning that they actually build an entire factory for a product.” 

The collection will be available in 2019 and is a great example of how Africans have a role to play in design globally, beyond “exotic” arts and crafts.