An ever-increasing list of projects, collaborations, and exhibitions are bringing world-class design made in Africa to the centre-stage of the global design industry. Long overlooked for either being the bargain buy creations churned out for local tourists markets or merely as a source of inspiration for designers around the world, design from Africa was something that was not seen to exist in the definition of developed western design industries. But the fact is that design in its most fundamental form has been an integral part of African societies for centuries, bringing forth iconic creations such as the reclining beds and birthing chairs, intricately carved headrests and stools and everyday utensils such as spoons, pots, and gourds, the products created continuously refined and adapted to meet the needs of each ensuing generation.
And it is from this foundation that the diverse expressions of contemporary design from Africa are now building on, after a long period of stagnation. For nearly two decades the African continent has undergone something of a collective creative reawakening that has resulted in the seemingly unstoppable outpouring of creative expression we are witnessing today. Across the continent from music to fashion to art to literature, creative practitioners are drawing from: the rich cultural heritages of their past; the vitality and dynamism permeating the continent of their present; the transformative pop cultures that shape global identities, along with a mindfulness to address current issues that will impact the future, and combining all these factors to form compelling narratives that are shaping modern African identities, and it is no different with design.
Alongside these energy boosting factors are the realities and expense of manufacturing in Africa, which forces many designers to seek innovative solutions to producing their designs. In a continent renowned for exceptional craftsmanship this has led to fruitful partnerships with local artisans, a sharing of precious skills that have been passed down form generation to generation. And it is this hands on aspect of Africa’s design that sets it apart in a world of mass-production. Contemporary design conceived and made in Africa carries within the forms produced a sophisticated soulfulness and individuality that no machine can reproduce. This characteristic can be found in furniture, ceramics, basketry, decorative products and textiles, products that are bringing the names of Africa’s outstanding designers and makers to global prominence.
“Contemporary design conceived and made in Africa carries within the forms produced a sophisticated soulfulness and individuality that no machine can reproduce.” – Tapiwa Matsinde
In recognition of the growing importance of design from Africa recent years have seen several major exhibitions dedicated to contemporary African design both internationally and on the continent, among them The Global Africa Project at the Museum of Arts and Design, Making Africa at the Guggenheim, Africa Now at Design Indaba. And as Africa’s dynamic design scene continues to draw attention, it is more importantly finding a consumer base locally on the continent with the emergence of retail concept stores such as Alara in Lagos, which retails the work of leading African designers alongside international luxury brands; Merchants of Long in South Africa; and the Designing Africa collective in Kenya. All this marks a significant step towards ensuring the development of a sustainable design industry.
Africa’s creative past has played a huge part in influencing the design we see today, but design is about more than just reinterpreting the skills and traditions of the past, design is also about new ideas and looking to the future and the ever-changing needs of the end user. And with many in the industry in agreement that what is happening in African design and creativity is only just scratching the surface this provides an exciting opportunity for Africa’s designers to permanently claim their place as equals actively contributing to the wider global dialogue.
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