Dear Africa – Where is Our Parson School of Design?

As Africa continues to develop and grow its middle class, challenges in the built environment quickly move beyond architecture and urban planning. There is a longstanding joke that as an African you can only have one of four careers: doctor, lawyer, banker, or disgrace to the family. As such, interior design has been slow to emerge as an independent and respected profession or desirable career choice. There will also be the need to perfect retail, corporate and residential interior spaces. Unfortunately, if you happen to be that unicorn with African parents who support your choice to pursue a career in design, you might find yourself faced with the following obstacle: where do I go to school to learn the trade?

Architect does not an interior designer make…or does it?

Admittedly, the title of my article is a bit misleading. There are a number of traditional art schools in Africa. There are African institutions of higher learning that teach building and city design. The Copperbelt University in Zambia offers a Bachelor of Science degree in Real Estate. The Democratic Republic of Congo boasts of l’Ecole Supérieure d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme (ESAU) and Togo is known for its Ecole Africaine des Métiers d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme (EAMAU). All are schools dedicated to architecture and urbanization. Egypt alone has over 20 Departments of Architecture scattered across numerous universities. However, separating out interior design as its own field of study has not been of major importance.

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Shuttle buses on the campus of Togo’s architecture school

In the United States, Frank Alvah Parsons created the first interior design curriculum over 100 years ago. On our side of the world, outside of South Africa, interior design as an educational course is scant. Liberia’s much sought after interior designer Miata Jones is responsible for designing the Hyundai showrooms and other high-end properties in the capital city of Monrovia. The Western educated Jones says, “In Monrovia, we do not have interior design as a course anywhere.  Not colleges, not vocational schools. I believe this is holding the industry back. Once you have courses on a subject, then curiosity grows, demand grows. More people will want to do it, to know what it is about and will no longer be so hesitant to hire a designer to pursue their property dreams.”

The reality is that the differentiation between architecture and interior design is weak, even in more developed regions of the world. In Africa, interior design also carries sexist undertones that may deter men especially from pursuing it as a career. Many prefer the rigorous “manly” technical side of architecture and construction to the “frivolous” study of traffic flow, lighting, textiles or flooring material. The lack of a standalone interior design discipline in Africa could be more a result of gender politics and perceptions than a lack of need for a distinct curriculum.

school, university, lecture, african, students, urbanization, design, archiecture
Photo from of the Architecture and Urban Planning School in Lome, Togo (EAMAU)

Specific degrees on interior design are largely absent in many African countries outside of South Africa. In Tanzania, the Ardhi University School of Architecture and Design (SADE) offers a Bachelor of Architecture in Interior Design (B. Arch. ID).  I found no other degrees in my research that explicitly mentioned the word ‘interiors’.  Thus, an African hell-bent on an actual education as an interior designer, product designer or industrial designer will likely need a valid passport.

Interior Designer, Nana Effiansah Korsah researched universities in Ghana before settling on a course in Scotland. “I believe KNUST had a few classes as part of their Architecture program but that was it. I ended up looking at other countries and made my decision based on course content, duration, accreditation and tuition.”  Indeed many African interior designers are forced to pursue their design dreams as part of an expensive worldwide tour.

Interior designer Natalie Anderson, based in Accra as head of corporate design firm Design Express Ghana described how to she ended up in four foreign cities before completing her design education. “I originally wanted to design cars and went into mechanical engineering but while in school, I discovered that perhaps this was not the right course if I wanted a design career. I found an Interior Architecture academy in Marbella, Spain. There I discovered Industrial Design and had my aha! moment. Finally, I moved to Cape Town, South Africa to study at a university that offered this course. In my third year there I was chosen to take part in an exchange program in Malmo, Sweden. There I took a course called Body & Technology and it changed my life. It was a very bizarre course with a heavy science fiction ideological backdrop. It forced me to be introspective and innovative as a designer.”

vodafone, office, design, natalie anderson, accra, ghana, interiors
Images of Vodafone Corporate Offices, Ghana by Natalie Anderson

Truth be told, the challenge of education in Africa is a deep-seated one for all fields of study. However, in the case of other disciplines the pursuit of education abroad is more so due to questions of quality or prestige rather than a total lack of courses.

Edutainment, Workshops and Networking – The new way to teach design?

In Nigeria, a new web series “Interiors by Design” is bringing attention to the industry.  The competition-style reality show follows a dozen contestants vying for prizes including admission to a design course at Décor & Rainbow Design Academy. In addition to trying to make education in design fun and mainstream, Titi and IDA recently worked closely with the Architecture Department at the University of Lagos to create a specific interior design curriculum. This curriculum has been submitted to the local Senate in-charge of Universities for consideration. In the interim of such a curriculum being approved. Titi said in a recent interview that: “If you can’t afford to go abroad it doesn’t stop you from succeeding. Take a closely related course, go online, there is a lot of information about space planning, color theory…start learning the building blocks, investigate what makes one an interior designer. Learn the business aspect of it because that’s another thing creatives tend to ignore.”

Also recognizing the dearth in skill development, Natalie launched the Akesedesign Workshops as a means for attendees to enhance their creative skills. During her workshops, she calls on respective industry leaders in interior and floral design, photography and fashion to give 1 to 2-day lectures on their area of expertise. The lack of education is thereby creating large business opportunities.

Africa’s interior designers need to be inspired and educated at home, to solve the continent’s urban planning, rural-urban housing and population challenges. To reverse brain drain the continent must facilitate education in all industries – including the creative ones at home.

The American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) defines the field as “the total creative solution for a programmed interior”. An education in interior design embodies a wealth of technical knowledge relevant to achieving the desired lifestyle function of the space. ASID says, “interior design concerns itself with more than just the visual or ambient enhancement of an interior space, it seeks to optimize and harmonize the uses to which the built environment will be put.” Michael Adumua, an architect turned interior designer and lighting specialist, now based in Accra agrees that the continent must stop looking at buildings for their exterior aesthetics. He adds, “Design should be from the inside out. We should design around an activity rather than design the space and then force an activity into it.”

Only the right education can teach you that.


Are you an interior designer of African descent? Where did you go to school?


  1. Let me add my two cents here……the latent talent is there, just need help with finishing and polishing. I am speaking from an East African experience. In Kenya there is burgeoning demand for interior design with an African aesthetic. To date that market has been cornered by Western/South African trained interior designers because of the lack of top notch design schools. So yes it has hurt local talents’ capacity to compete however many local interior designers are self teaching by observing and trying to replicate the caliber of work they’re seeing and/or a few lucky ones have the opportunity to be apprentices in big interior design firms then strike out on their own. My point, most middle class Kenyans are starting to appreciate a sophisticated African aesthetic in both interior, fashion and architectural design and so there is a growing demand for local designers. My hope is that more of them get the opportunity to refine their skills and make up the lost ground. I suspect also that due to the demand, more high caliber professional design schools and degree programs will emerge.

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