By Alia Akkam
The first time Nana Quagraine googled “African design” was in 2018. She had just launched 54kibo, an online retailer of contemporary African home decor, and noticed that unlike “Scandinavian design” and “Italian design,” searches that predictably elicited Wikipedia entries, this one yielded zero results. But it wasn’t until this past April, buoyed by reading Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood and Toby Green’s A Fistful of Shells: West Africa From the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution while in contemplative lockdown mode with her family in Brooklyn, that she typed in “African design” once more “and decided we needed to do something about that nonexistent Wikipedia page,” she explains.
Born in Ghana and raised in South Africa, Quagraine has spent much time exploring the continent, surrounded and inspired by African design. When she moved to New York in 2008, after graduating from Harvard Business School, she was baffled when she couldn’t find one store that showcased modern and luxurious African objects. So, with the birth of her twins in 2017 “and my desire to instill in them an understanding of the beauty of their African heritage,” she says, she launched 54kibo, a nod to Africa’s 54 different nations and the highest summit on Mount Kilimanjaro.
On the website, customers can peruse one-of-a-kind collections of sustainable-minded lighting, rugs, furniture, and accessories, such as an intricate Maasai beaded wall hanging from Sidai Designs in Tanzania, bright indigo-dyed midcentury-style armchairs crafted in Nigeria by architect Tosin Oshinowo, and sunburst-pattern sisal baskets woven by Tintsaba in Swaziland.
With such craftsmanship top of mind, Quagraine got to work on the African design Wikipedia page, collaborating with fellow African creatives like Ethiopian American furniture designer Jomo Tariku. “From the beginning our goal was to create a road map for the definition of African design and to outline a structure that would encourage others to contribute. We took a holistic approach that would lay the foundation to tell the full story of African design,” Quagraine tells AD PRO.
She was eager to go all the way back to the first century C.E., when cotton was imported into Ethiopia. “That knowledge created an anchor for our research. From there we decided to understand how each design discipline has evolved through time and how it continues to change today,” she adds.Become an AD PRO Member
Architecture, art, furniture, metalwork, goldsmith work, basket weaving, and beadwork are all covered, as are textiles, which have a particularly compelling link to the past. “We did a deep dive and found it fascinating that wealth generated from trading fueled the demand for elaborately handwoven textiles, and that there are records of cloth being used as a form of money since the 14th century,” Quagraine explains.
Although the African design Wikipedia entry does offer great insight into a remarkable legacy, it isn’t meant to serve as a mere recap. Instead, it aims to help catalyze a dialogue between, say, Great Zimbabwe architecture, West African strip-weave techniques from the 11th century, and current design techniques, while emphasizing the continued prevalence of locally sourced materials like raffia and bark cloth.
Africa’s profound impact on other regions is also a focus of the page. For example, Quagraine points to modern interpretations of Kuba designs from Cameroon and their ubiquity in high-end U.S. design stores, or more generally, how the 210 million people of African descent across the global diaspora in the U.S., the Caribbean, and the U.K. are shaping culture. She wants to capture the forces propelling these movements as much as the facts. “African design is not static,” says Quagraine. “Lots of questions remain to be answered.” With the help of a like-minded design community, she will slowly piece them together for the public.