In March 2015, I had the privilege of interviewing designer and artist Kossi Aguessy in which we discussed his work, career, inspirations, and aspirations to date. The exchange was both inspirational and an insightful look into the workings of a complex mind.
1. Tell me a bit about yourself: your background, how you came to design as a career, setting up your studio, and the motivation behind working for yourself as opposed to working for someone else?
I grew up in an environment, which was not as one might say truly inclined to favor artistry, a brotherhood of four more focused on classic studies and “mainstream” careers. Yet very early [on] I created my own personal bubble made of artistic references and visions, although I did not know back in these times what these references were related to. I guess I was “different”. First of all, I do not label myself as a “designer”, design as other visual arts fields happened to be entirely part of my creative process. Instead of holding it I do my best to improve it as I do when it comes to the others.
I never even considered all of it as a career. This was not a decision, [of] where I’ve got to be and what I’ve got to do, [it] was obviously natural for me ever since I am a kid. When you carry such a strong will, working for yourself is not one option among many, it is the only one you have, so one does whatever it takes to stick to it, and draws the path the best way possible. Especially when the work one had provided through others confirmed [to] them [that] they have a voice they cannot cover up.
The other matter was the fact that when I looked through history, when it came to engineering or applied arts, the southern hemisphere of the globe seriously lacked names and referents, we were in need of some changes, [and] I felt I had to go my own way to at least try to establish one of these referents as I do have one unconditional belief in this quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see”
[Image credit: Useless Tool, Chair, Kossi Aguessy – Yatzer]
2. How would you describe your design practice in relation to the type of work that you create and the types of clients that you work with? For example, your work appears to cross the boundaries of contemporary art (sculpture in particular) and product design, can you tell me a bit about the kinds of products you design, the processes and materials you work with and why? Do you use any special techniques that contribute to the distinctive aesthetic of your work? Also, are your products for mass-production or created as one-off pieces?
In the first place, I’d like to point out the fact that I do not feel like [I am] crossing boundaries, as I do not think these boundaries are real. It is more a matter of abilities than boundaries. The most incredible designer who ever lived painted the most famous painting worldwide: Leonardo Di Ser Piero Da Vinci. And centuries after he passed away we are still amazed by the advanced technologies behind the designs of the Artist who painted Mona Lisa’s portrait. I’ve always painted, sculpted… I just happened not to want to focus on this part at the very beginning for I have often been told back in the days that “we” Afro-descendants were not trusted when it came to technics and technology, which are, aside [from] aesthetics the very basis of design.
Talking of establishing new referents, I understood then where the challenge was, so I’ve on purpose put a spell on the most challenging one. I do things step by step, making sure whatever the field, I battle the best I can, and I provide the ultimate form of whatever my brain may generate.
Design for me is a solution based process wrapped in a layer of balance and beauty, exactly as a butterfly wing is. When it is innovative, [it] carries its fair share of technics and technology, works perfectly yet brings you an overwhelming beauty look, [then] I know it is balanced. Otherwise, I drop it. Here as well, I do not believe in boundaries, I am not into a particular sort of product. I believe and think this process may be applied to almost any kind of items, from automotive to electronics, from home appliances to furniture, gear or craftworks. Every new application domain is a new challenge I’m happy to confront. Yet there are kinds of products and materials I’ve chosen not to work on or work with, simply because my goal is not to produce the maximum of objects, it is far from being a contest, for me anyway.
Every manufacturing process has an impact on our environmental scheme, and instead of producing thousands of items for the only reason they’ve come across my mind, [and] instead of establishing hundreds of collaborations a year for the only purpose of spreading my signature and to cash in compulsively, I try each time to carefully select each one of them.
The first question I ask myself at the very beginning of this design process is knowing if this novelty is needed and what will be the human and environmental impact of it if the answer happens to be negative, I will not complete the process. I know for instance that I will never work in the military field, or work on oil-based energy only devices or materials. Out of these concerns, I have no favourite material; it is all about the final application, each material’s properties and the final result I seek. I must have done or produced nearly 15 % of everything I’ve designed so far. They are for now, as mass-produced products, [and] in some cases, as one-off pieces. There are no established schemes; it totally depends on the nature and the purpose of the items. Yet I’ve found out most of them in terms of materials and technics mix high technology and tradition or craftsmanship. It is a constant one may percept as well in my contemporary artworks.
Speaking of Contemporary arts, I must say it is a different process, it is more about raw expression, observing, being part of the society and an instant snapshot of it or an instant snapshot of one own thoughts, therefore the utility of it is quite permanent. I do sculpt and paint continuously, yet what is shown is once again strictly selected.
I am delighted the incredible diversity and talent from the continent is starting to be spotlighted. – Kossi Aguessy
3. What are the key influences behind your work, and what stories do you try to tell through your designs? Am I correct in saying that you are of Togolese/Brazilian heritage? How does your multi-cultural heritage inspire your work, and in particular how much of an influence does Togo/Africa have on your work? Have you worked on the continent, if so in what capacity?
I do not think I might be wrong saying I’ve got a strong “Sponge Syndrome”, meaning I do permanently ingest information that ends up being at some point influential. Yet as you mentioned, storytelling is one crucial point of every human establishment, items come and go, history lasts. Basically, if I have to pass on a story through my work, not only design, it will be a sparkling telling of high possibility, a story which started with traditions yet has a direct link with the future, a story written with a bright orange ink made of positiveness, a story happening in the 21st century.
I do believe in the very fact that whatever evil Mankind may face or generate, we are still capable of bringing the brightest greatness for the present and somehow pave a brilliant way for the future we pass on to next generations. And if only one of my works makes anyone feel this just for a second somewhere on the globe, I will be content.
I think my African-Brazilian background has a lot to do with this. I am a Newbian, African and Global. Global means I place Africa, its influence, and its history at the same level as the rest of the worlds. Our History is a mix of incredible achievements, powerful presence, and immeasurable dramas. In Africa, as in the Americas, at some point, we have been denied the right to be part of the world as we were with our greatness and failures. The only place we’ve been offered, the only story we’ve been told was a manufactured one. Fact is we were not allowed to be actors of the manufacturing process. It is exactly as if we’ve been offered a product we cannot mirror in, we do not have a use of, we do not like or sometimes even know, yet are forced to use and cherish.
When one carries such a background, they have two options: sitting, complaining and expecting the manufacturer to come up with a new product, which fits their expectations or work hard to design this product themselves whatever it takes. Evolution is at that price. Globally what my background seeds me with is establishing the changes I want to see, never complain about the History, but use every sparkle in it to create a bright light, and beyond all to never expect anyone else but us to spot the greatness we may provide today and tomorrow. I’ve tried my best to keep this in mind each time I work out of or on the African continent, although I did not get involved as much as I would have liked to in there. I’ve been called for monuments in Togo, have established a Fab-Lab (fabrication laboratory) in Benin, had worked in interiors in Cameroon, yet I still think they are way more prominent and meaningful projects and actions to establish. I’d like to establish more partnerships in the product, electronic, communication, automotive, energy or garment design fields. I’d like to be more involved with galleries and museums on the continent. This is only a beginning, I am certain of it.
[Image credit: Stool, Made of Brass Design, Kossi Aguessy, 2017 – 1stdibs]
4. From art, fashion, design to music African creativity is definitely having its moment in the spotlight. What are your thoughts on the development of contemporary design in Africa? What effect is it having in the global design world? And being based in the West do you see your work being a part of what is happening?
That’s a brilliant question. The fact is I am delighted the incredible diversity and talent from the continent is starting to be spotlighted. Yet I am aware of the fact that it had been first of all by Africans themselves thanks to 21st century’s communication technologies. And I am even happier the spotlight focuses on Individuals instead of a meaningless group label[s]. We are talking about a continent of 1.111 billion human beings, where technological and artistic expressions are as diverse and accurate as it might be everywhere else on the globe. I think it is the sum of these various individual expressions, which creates a movement. Each meaningful and beautiful voice counts. I know [that] the day the world will refer to Kehinde Wiley’s art as Kehinde Willey’s, not “African art”, or to Bibi Seck’s Design as Bibi Seck’s own way of designing without the “African Stamp”, I will be finding this battle won, although I know the war is not over. That is the next step I do battle for. As for my work, I always defined it as very personal, extremely global, so global it is from the very scratch. Africa as far as I know, is on planet earth, and I see no reason why what it provides should be kept African while everyone else is international or global. Human beings we are, and to human beings, we speak whatever their origins, colour or country.
Africa as far as I know, is on planet earth, and I see no reason why what it provides should be kept African while everyone else is international or global. – Kossi Aguessy
5. I note that you are part of the Making Africa exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum; where else have you exhibited your work, and what are your thoughts on exhibitions like Making Africa, and the role they have in promoting Africa’s designers to wider audiences? Do we need more exhibitions/events like this?
Making Africa is a platform bringing a spotlight on these individualities I was talking of above, although the majority of these individuals have proved their accuracy with their works for [a] long [time] now. We may salute the Vitra Museum for this project. I’d like to give credit as well to the Museum Of Art and Design in New York, which in 2010 opened The Global Africa Project, the first exhibition to date of that type, showcasing this diverse and bold expression of design. But I do sincerely hope that five years from now on not having another sequel of The Global Africa Project, or Making Africa, but solo exhibitions digging deeper into these individuals’ work. It is at the same time a call to Industrial groups on the continent. It is time we integrate the value of design and technology research in industry. It is time we understand what Apple, Samsung or Phillips did. It makes a difference. It is time as well; this industry invests on and benefits from these individuals. It is time they understand that supporting the promotion through museums and institutions while working on concrete applications in research and development is the best expansion option we have today. If Microsoft or Citroen do it, there may be some valuable reasons behind the gesture.
I am a Newbian, African and Global. Global means I place Africa, its influence, and its history at the same level as the rest of the world’s. – Kossi Aguessy
6. Other than the exhibitions mentioned above what have been your achievements to date, and what kind of impact do you want your work to have in the world?
I am not the sort of individual to think about past actions as achievements, I do think of them more as stages, each one of importance, but stages, the achievements are for today, in what is currently on track. Once it is done, it becomes a stage. So far, I’ve exhibited at the Museum of Art and Design in NYC, The Beaubourg Museum in Paris; The National in Beijing and have works in these museums and other permanent collections. But what is yet to be done as a task thrills me more than what has been done. I am quite focused right now on my next 2015’s exhibitions.
[Image credit: Gang Bang, Kossi Aguessy – Yatzer]
7. Have you collaborated with other industry professionals? If so on what type of projects, and what impact has collaborating had on your work?
Although today I’ve reduced the industrial collaborations to a couple per year, I have done quite a lot of them in the past, and in very different fields, from furniture, locomotion, home appliances to objects, set designs or interiors. I [must] say it is always good, anyway in the starting to do these sorts of joint ventures. It helps to canalise somehow the flow. Personally, I’ve learned a lot about marketing and precision, teamwork and questioning in doing so.
8. What kinds of projects are you currently working on, and where do you see your studio and yourself as a designer/artist developing towards the future?
As said previously, I [will] focus on my next exhibitions, from March to November this year, as I am on my presence in the contemporary arts field in collaboration with my main gallery. And for the mass market design part, we are in the starting block for the launching of LMNT A, a dedicated label producing and distributing a decade of mass market directed designs, ones [that either] have been manufactured before or still undeveloped.
As for the development, I see for the future, I’ve learned to keep to myself these sorts of visions, not because they are unachievable, but because, it is always better to do than talk. And once things are done, they are visible and conversable. So I may say, everything comes on time; let’s take care of today and share tomorrow’s menu and meal when the cooking is done.
…it is always better to do than talk. – Kossi Aguessey
9. Your final thoughts…
One thing, as beings, we are stardust, let’s not ever forget it and keep the sparkles on whatever it takes. It took nature too much to bring us at that very moment of our History to not keep that in mind, flip it, reverse it and flip it back. No doubts allowed.
10. Thank you
Thank you so much and May you carry the #OrangeVibe from Jo’burg to Helsinki, from Nairobi to New York, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, and Shanghai.
– Tapiwa Matsinde