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The designer sees scarcity as an opportunity.

By Sandiso Ngubane

Dec 22, 2022

Nigerian architect and product designer Tosin Oshinowo is set to curate the 2023 edition of the Sharjah Architecture Triennial. First established in 2019 and taking place once every three years in Sharjah—a city in the United Arab Emirates—it is the first major platform for architecture and urbanism in the Middle East, North and East Africa, and Asia regions.

In her official curatorial statement, titled 'The Beauty of Impermanence: An Architecture of Adaptability', Oshinowo writes that issues of scarcity in the Global South "have created a culture of re-use, re-appropriation, innovation, and collaboration." She goes on to suggest: "These practices propose a new model of thinking—one that is borne out of scarcity rather than out of abundance.”

Tosin working in her office. Photo: via Tosin Oshinowo.

Sustainability and creativity as a necessity

It’s an idea that speaks to sustainability as something that cannot be separated from Africa’s historical context and important for the future of design in general. But it’s also something Oshinowo has understood since childhood, way before she could come up with the words to articulate it.

Growing up between the United Kingdom and Lagos, Nigeria, Oshinowo recalls a childhood she describes as unremarkable. “My dad was training to be a gynecologist in the UK, so we were there, but we moved back to Nigeria when I was six. So, my conscious memories of being a child in Lagos and living with my cousins; I’d say it was a happy childhood—very simple. Nothing overtly important happened. I mean, I think we probably felt like we were very bored.”

Out of said boredom came a lot of creativity, she adds. “Creativity because growing up in the ‘80s in Nigeria, there was a lot of restrictions. We were under a military government. We had embargoes on a lot of imports, but we had television, and you could see what was happening outside. We only had two TV channels, but the point is, you could see toys that you knew you could never get. So it forced you to be innovative.”

Tosin with her daughter. Photo: via @tosin.oshinowo.

Tosin poses for a portrait. Photo: via @tosin.oshinowo.

Tosin standing in front of one of her architectural designs, Sencillo Beach House for Architectural Digest. Photo: via Tosin Oshinowo.

Tosin wearing the NKWO Omo Shirtdress. Photo: via Tosin Oshinowo.

Through space and time

Now the principal at Lagos-based CmDesign Atelier (cmD+A), which she founded in 2012, Oshinowo’s work is an embodiment of a contemporary perspective on African design. Her practice is grounded in a deep respect for her own Yoruba culture and prioritizes sustainability, resilience, and poise. One of the most recent, revered examples of her work is Coral Pavilion. Accessible only by boat, Coral Pavilion sits on a verdant coastal landscape southwest of Lagos, Nigeria. The linear building, as observed by dezeen.com features "a rooftop terrace for sunbathing and a series of open living spaces that connect seamlessly with a coral-colored pool terrace". It was completed earlier this year.

Speaking of her decision to go into architecture, Oshinowo says she realized at an early age that she had a flair for space. “My father was having a house—a holiday home—built when I was about 11 or 12. I remember he brought the floor plans home, and first of all, no one else was excited about it but I had picked my room. I would go with him to the construction site. I realized that I understood space easily. This is something most architects have.”

She adds: “Usually the tension that exists between an architect and a client is being able to guide the client to understand what you are creating with the space. So many people are not spatially inclined, and it's architects who do well at communicating that have very good relationships with clients. It's not uncommon that you design a building, and then the client comes and they’re like, ‘oh, it feels small’. That’s when you say ‘don't worry, it will feel bigger once we’ve painted it’. Being able to communicate that is very important.”

When she founded cmD+A, Oshinowo had already acquired experience as a young architect working in Europe for firms that were pushing boundaries in terms of design. These include Skidmore Owings & Merril in London, as well as the Office of Metropolitan Architecture Rotterdam, where, in 2008, she was part of the team that designed the proposal for the yet-to-be-built 4th Mainland Bridge connecting Lagos Island.

On her return home to Lagos soon after, she found herself working in an environment that ‘wasn’t about design’, as she puts it. “I didn't feel very challenged. I had been to a strong design school in London—the Architecture Association. I just felt like the skills that I had been exposed to working in Rotterdam and then going into this, I wasn't able to use in this practice. I was starting to get restless. Let's just put it that way. I was at a job doing residential buildings for the oil and gas industry. It was just box houses—nothing exciting.”

She wanted to explore materiality and make work she could be proud of as a designer, which is what led to the founding of cmD+A. As a product designer, Oshinowo primarily focuses on the design of chairs. Her brand, Ilé-Ilà, which means ‘house of lines’ in her native Yoruba, is a luxury, made-to-order line designed and handmade in Lagos. 

Bird's eye view of Coral Pavillion. Photo: via Tosin Oshinowo. 

The pool terrace at Coral Pavillion. Photo: via Tosin Oshinowo. 

The beach-facing facade of Coral Pavillion. Photo: via Tosin Oshinowo. 

A portrait of Tosin Oshinowo Photo: via Tosin Oshinowo.

Looking back to the future

Through Ilé Ilà, Oshinowo was able to honor her heritage by using aso-oke fabric—a traditional staple for the Yoruba. “My interest in aso-oke came from this yearning and seeking identity,” she explains. “I was given some aso-oke when I got married. I'm divorced now. My ex-husband's mother was late and I was just told that this is fabric that had been passed down for generations. Nobody explained to me what it actually was.”

Years later, Oshinowo had just completed an interior project for which she had made chairs, and a friend had started a business repurposing aso-oke to make handbags. “We had made this chair and it hadn’t gone well. I said to the client we’ll make something else. I started thinking about those handbags.”

She got in touch with said friend’s fabric supplier and when he came to see her, she showed him the aso-oke she had been given when she got married. “He got really quiet. I asked what was wrong, and he goes: ‘who gave this to you?’. I explained,” she says. It turned out the aso-oke is over 100 years old. Certain Yoruba families understand its value and it is passed down through generations as a result. She would soon come to realize that this fabric carries clan colors: “Our history was being encapsulated in these fabrics and fashion pieces,” she says. 

She further explains that depending on the period the aso-oke was made it would have certain colors and threads. “In the 80s, for example, everything had a metallic shimmer and a lot of what you get from the 50s had a very natural cotton. Even when I look at what we had after the noughties, it’s changing because people are having weddings and they want to look current, so you can see history being encapsulated.”

The ADUNNI OSAN chair designed by Tosin. Photo: via Tosin Oshinowa

An aso-oke cloth from the exhibition, "The Woven Fabric" by Tunde Owolabi. Photo: via Design Indaba

Aso-oke textile in the process of being handmade on a manual loom. Photo: via @k.adex__asooke

A portrait of Tosin Oshinowo Photo: via Tosin Oshinowo.

A New Model of Thinking

“For a country where we haven’t done a very good job of documenting, the irony is that so much of our history is preserved in these fabrics. I think this is powerful. The possibilities are endless,” she says.

She adds that the fact that colonization meant Africans could not industrialize provides an opportunity. “The industries that support aso-oke continue to evolve. I can get any color thread I want in aso-oke because I can speak directly to the weavers. All of a sudden the fact that there is no large-scale industry gives me the flexibility of control. That’s the beauty of it. It lends itself to creativity.”

It is this kind of thinking around sustainability and creativity, as conveyed in both her work and the curatorial statement for the Sharjah Architecture Triennial, that positions Oshinowo as an afro-modernist whose voice is of undeniable importance in a world where sustainability must define future innovation.