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Discover the women celebrating the artistic history of the continent and contributing to the revival of African interior and textile design.

Emi Eleode

Jan 20, 2022

With a diverse and rich creative tradition dating back thousands of years, design and textile have contributed significantly to the history of Africa. There is an abundance of different production methods, including woven, appliqued, dyed, and printed, created for practical or decorative purposes. One such example of these methods is the geometric pattern decorations known as the Ndebele house painting done by the Southern Ndebele women of South Africa, who paint on the walls of their homes.

Many artistic practices such as weaving have been used as a form of currency and an embodiment of wealth and prosperity, such as the kente cloth from the Akan people of central and southern and southeastern Ivory Coast, which symbolizes their heritage history and religion. They also hold power and are used in ceremonial rituals, birth, adulthood, marriage, and funeral rites and are considered spiritual objects.

Over the years, particularly in recent times, Africa has garnered global interest in what could be described as a renaissance in the African interior design and textile world. Designers working today not only strive to highlight the variety of the continent's creativity and vibrant culture through their work with local artisans and more, but they are also branching out their businesses on an international scale and collaborating with other designers in a cross-cultural exchange.

Johanna Bramble

Your Dakar-based luxury handweaving studio uses the traditional, ancestral Senegalese technique of two people—the weaver and assistant, to weave beautiful designs which add uniqueness amongst other industrialized products. What made you choose this design approach, what is the cultural significance of incorporating in Senegal and what stories are you trying to tell with each piece? 

Because weaving in Sénégal and all over the world are deeply rooted in identity, I often say that: "Witness of the evolution of civilizations, textiles give us to see the unsuspected link between cultures and free us from frontiers." In Senegal, weaving is linked to different traditions and rituals, and what fascinated me was the power given to these magical handwoven clothes. From the technical aspect of the know-how to the use of the weaving, it's very mystical. Protection against evil eyes, from birth to death, Talismans, family treasures, Manjak weavings are magical. They have powers recognized during ritual ceremonies. They play a primordial symbolic role in it.

They are also precious witnesses to me and remind me of the history that links me to Africa. So Panos in Criollos and Serru Rabal in Wolof, the stories behind a whole nation, interested me. And in this weaving, I understood how much it is associated with our humanity.

Previously working in the world of haute couture in Paris and design companies in France, what aspects of those experiences do you incorporate into your practice?

All my experiences before creating my studio were important and had a tremendous influence on how I work. For example, Haute Couture and industrial design gave me a particular way of organizing. Having the chance to experience both allowed me to put together the freedom of idea and reality of production, which are probably the key to success.

What inspires you?

Details in my environment inspire me a lot. I like to shoot the surrounding elements. From the light to the structure of a feather or a shell, our organisms and their structures fascinate me because they can often be associated with woven designs.

Johanna Bramble is the founder of the Dakar-based hand weaving studio Johanna Bramble Creations. Check out their work here.

Johanna Bramble and works. Photo: Courtesy of Johanna Bramble.

Aïssa Dione

Considered a pioneer of West African textile design with unique creations that combine traditional techniques with the new to reflect contemporary aesthetics, you also have a wide breadth of knowledge of the local textile industry. In addition, you are known to collaborate with designers and artists worldwide. What inspires your practice? 

The raw material, cotton, which is only being exported without local transformation, has inspired my practice. This transformation would have allowed us to create jobs and fight poverty. This is the political and economic analysis that has inspired my practice. 

Tell us about the Aïssa Dione Tissus studio and your textile and design work.

The Aïssa Dione Tissus studio was founded in 1992. Our workshop is located in Rufisque, close to Dakar, and is known for producing contemporary fabrics using traditional weaving techniques. My career in interior design began somewhat by chance after being offered to redecorate the office of a client who had purchased one of my paintings.

The fabrics used in my interiors were quickly in demand. So I established a makeshift studio in my home, creating textiles with the assistance of a single weaver—one of the last remaining groups of the Manjak weaving craftsmen, on a hand-built loom. Our studio now employs more than one hundred people who practice traditional Manjak weaving methods, a disappearing craft with its origins in Guinea-Bissau. I showcase Senegal's rich textile heritage through my work with local artisans, dating back to the fifteenth century.

Much of the fabrics I use, including Kara, are characterized by vivid, bold geometric patterns in earth tones. I also developed newer patterns for the Manjak fabric while improving the quality of traditional raw materials such as cotton and raffia.

I've received orders from fashion houses, including Fendi Casa and Hermès, and created fabrics for renowned interior designers, including Jacques Grange, Dimorestudio, Rose Tarlow, and Peter Marino. 

We read that you're also a painter. How does this integrate with your design and textile practice?

Naturally, because of my sense of colors, shape, and textures. I studied fine arts in Paris before relocating to Senegal to develop my work as a painter. I apply the technical knowledge of my fine art studies to traditional hand weaving.

You were part of the interior design team for Kehinde Wiley's Black Rock Senegal artist residency. What was the collaboration process like?

It was a very powerful exchange between lovers of colors and material.

What are your hopes for the future of the Senegalese textile industry and African design aesthetics?

I'm hoping for the rebirth into production, achieving autonomy for our industry, and finding a new way of penetrating the global market.

I've also been working with the government of Togo and Burkina Faso to develop and save the existing weaving cultures from disappearing by creating sophisticated designs, improving quality, and training the weavers to propel the traditional weaving arts to the heights of textile for commercial use while maintaining the uniqueness which eachculture has.

Aïssa Dione is a French-Senegalese textile designer, artist, gallerist and founder of the Aïssa Dione Tissus studio. Check out her work here. 

Aïssa Dione and works. Photo: Courtesy of Aïssa Dione.

Hana Getachew 

Where did the Bolé Road Textiles name originate from?

Bole is a neighborhood in Addis Ababa where my childhood home is located. So my brand name and business is a homage to home. 

Ethiopia is known for its rich history with textiles. As an interior, textile designer, and creative director of Bolé Road Textiles, how did your upbringing, living in several places including Addis Ababa, Montreal, and New York, to working as an Associate Principal architect at STUDIOS Architecture in NYC, influence the work you do?

Everyone's upbringing influences their life journey. I had a love of art from a young age which evolved into a love of design. My reference point for both was the colors, textiles, and art I saw in my homeland and, of course, my design education and career.

What developments– significant or small, have you seen or experienced which provide an optimistic glimpse into the future of Ethiopian textile, art, and design?

I love seeing the emergence of Ethiopian artists, photographers, and fashion designers. It's an inspiration to watch, and I look forward to growing and evolving the community.

Describe a typical working day.

A typical working day has been relatively uneventful during these last two years. I am now living and working in London. I work from home, spending most of my time coordinating production with my artisan partners. Other than that, I monitor the operations of my business, ensuring my clients are happy.

Hana Getachew is an interior designer and creative director of New York-based design studio Bolé Road Textiles. Check out their work here. 

Hana Getachew and works. Photo: Courtesy of Hana Getachew

Eva Sonaike

Your London-based interior company, Eva Sonaike Interiors, specializes in luxury home interior design. Could you talk about the studio and work?

The story was established initially in 2000 and officially started in 2007, and I launched the company in 2009. I have a background in journalism, and I was specifically working in fashion journalism for over a decade at publications like Elle Magazine. The company's idea was born out of the frustration that I couldn't find any home decor products that I liked. I'm African; I aspire to high-end and luxury items and wanted something that represented that.

You could buy clothes from fashion designers who created beautiful high-end African-inspired designs, but there wasn't much in the interiors markets. So I came up with the idea back then, started with Ankara fabric, and came up with the collection. When I launched it, within a short time Selfridges, Liberty and Fenwick bought it. So I knew there was a gap in the market, and I think that was the right candidate to fill that gap.

My work in design is inspired by Africa and, as I would say, specifically West African culture, design, and way of life. You know the West African way of life; It's vibrant, very enterprising, bold, and our faiths represent who we are as a people.

I'm also really into colorful living. I know the impact color can have on the mind, spirit, and emotion. So it's been essential for me to create interiors and material products with colors, combining it with the West African way of life into my business. 

How did your background influence your creative career, from growing up in Germany, family artistic pursuits to studying at the University of the Arts London—graduating with an MA in Fashion Journalism?

Growing up as a Nigerian in the diaspora, especially in Germany, I was constantly confronted with two very strong cultures. Our Nigerian culture is very strong and very in your face. In my case, it wasn't just two strong cultures, but also in specific ways. They're both contrasting and very similar.

Growing up in Germany for me was excellent. It was paradise. I had an idyllic childhood. I grew up like any other German kid would do. Schooling, having lots of friends, and doing extracurricular activities. I was always interested in design and art. My father's job as an art historian and work in restoration also inspired me.

I was explicitly interested in fashion textiles from a very young age, and my parents allowed me to cherish and enjoy that, which was great. My parents always said to have a plan A and a plan B if that doesn't work. My plan B was to become a journalist. So I came to London and did my undergraduate in broadcast journalism and worked in broadcast for a few years. I then did my MA at the University of the Arts London College of Fashion in fashion journalism. My dissertation topic of interest was contemporary African fashion, even in the degree. It was what I specialized in. I traveled to Lagos, Accra, and many other places in West Africa and built up strong rapports with contemporary designers.

As a journalist, you have to be able to tell stories. Either tell stories or curate stories. That's what I'm doing with my work. I feel like I'm a storyteller. There's always a story. I always start my designs with color. I start with a story introducing the color, patterns, and everything else that follows.

Do you think barriers still exist for African designers abroad in the design industry? Or have things changed over the years?

Yes, these barriers definitely still exist, not just abroad, here, and elsewhere. As we say, if you're a person of color, you have to work twice as hard. An industry such as interior design is a very elitist industry. Interior designers usually have a very high disposable income and deal with a small proportion of society. I have overcome many barriers, and so have many other designers.

But, for me, it's important to stick to my principle of African luxury design and not derive from it. There are barriers, but I think things are improving. At the moment, there's a big African Renaissance happening. The continent has so much potential, and there is so much talent. It's incredible what's happening there. It's real creativity.

What do you consider specifically unique in the African continent regarding textile, design, and fashion compared to other places in the world?  

I think it's very subjective. For me, I'm biased because African design and the African continent are dear to my heart and my DNA. We have this specific spirit and strength. The continent is so massive. If you've ever flown across the continent, you know how long it takes to cross that kind of significant landmass and how diverse and different it is. Every region has its traditions.

Our traditions go back for thousands and thousands of years. This is still celebrated and part of our culture and, to a certain extent, also commercializing and bringing it to the global context.

Eva Sonaike is the Creative Director of the London-based interiors company. Check out her work here.

Eva Sonaike and works. Photo: Courtesy of Eva Sonaike.

Nthabi Taukobong

You wrote an inspiring book about decor and design titled 'The Real Interior.' What was the journey like reaching where you are today, and what advice would you give aspiring African designers?

My book was so revealing, not only to the reader but to myself too. I thought I was writing a memoir about my journey in design and all the various and esteemed projects I had the honor of consulting on. Still, it, in all honestly, turned out to be a book about coming right with myself and realizing the importance of being spiritually and energetically aligned with my INNER INTERIOR (Hence the book title 'The Real Interior') before embarking on any further career adventures.

When you have the privilege in life, and this case, throughout my 25-year career, of stepping into people's homes and chosen spaces of design, you become aware of the responsibility you have not only of designing that required interior but also of the energy you as an individual leave in that space. I write about it in my book that towards the ultimate peak of my career meltdown exhausted and drained after trying to please a particular client at the full cost of my sanity—when I felt those tears of pain roll down my eyes, I knew it was time to take a much-needed break and reassess my reason why.

I had been so busy designing other people's lives, and the person whose world I needed to be designing for first was myself. So I had to align with my purpose of becoming a designer before taking on any more projects.

Ditau Interiors' is inspired by the four elements of life: Water, Wind, Fire, and Earth, which are elegantly conveyed in your interior designs. So how do you go about creating designs that not only celebrate the beauty of nature and African cross-cultural aesthetics but also have a contemporary edge?

Through nature is where I found the most remarkable healing and the purpose of why I enjoy the process of interior design. I let go of my super designer ego and went back to the core principle of wanting to design healing spaces that would help my clients find comfort in the interiors I had created for them. I wanted to use the natural elements found and inspired by nature to assist them in restoring their souls. From then on, the design process became almost magical.

It's not so much an African aesthetics that I am pursuing. It just happens that the earth elements I like to bring into my interiors are most often found in tribal designs, yes predominantly in African pieces because we have a very potent, authentic, and deep connection to nature on this beautiful continent. But also, as far afield as tribal and earthy designs from Mexico, Peru or Bali, we are all connected by the thread of nature, which is what makes good design universal and globally relatable.

Has design and artistic practices changed in South Africa over the years? 

It took a while for us to be proudly South African and even longer to be proudly African, brainwashed by the idea that beyond our shores lay a better design language. But yes, the focus has significantly shifted to a more positive cultural understanding of who we are and our role in inspiring the rest of the world.

Now we are loudly and boldly African and proud in our music, fashion, and in the spaces we live in and create through the appreciation of designs that are local and art that is local too.

Nthabi Taukobong is the Managing Director of Ditau Interiors. Check out her work here.

Nthabi Taukobong and works. Photo: Courtesy of Nthabi Taukobong.