Tosin Oshinowo, principal architect at cmDesign Atelier awed her peers with the launch of her latest project, furniture line Ilé-Ilà. Translated to House of Lines from her native Yoruba, Tosin’s new brand and its second collection celebrats her approach to architectural design – minimalist, clean and culture-rich. The heart of the armchair collection is its Așǫ-Oke upholstery, a nod to Tosin’s heritage. Așǫ-Oke is a locally weaved cotton fabric worn during joyous celebrations and often handed down mother to daughter on their wedding day. Ultimately after several generations it may find its way to a secondhand market in Ibadan which is where Tosin began her love affair with the cloth. “People can see a pattern and reminisce that their mother wore it in the 1960s. I can tell by the metallic threads in the weave that certain ones are from the 1990s because older ones from say, the 1930s are made of pure cotton. Așǫ-Oke is a precious, historical and cultural record,” Tosin explains. She sources customized fabrics for her clients as well. “We had a client who ordered six chairs for her beach house and the color scheme was tan, so we found beige and gold Așǫ Oke for the upholstery. The chairs sit so beautifully in her space. The building is white, the rooms are fair-faced concrete, against the teak wood and cream metallic Așǫ-Oke…I am so excited about how it turned out!”
With furniture maker added to her list of accolades, Tosin joins a new class of African architects who find themselves drawn to making everyday objects. This league of multi-disciplinary artists range from fellow Nigerian Olubunmi Adeyemi of DA, a new kitchenware brand, to Issa Diabate of Cote d’Ivoire recruited to help design IKEA’s 2019 Africa collection, to the newly knighted icon David Adjaye who collaborated with Knoll to produce accent chairs and a fabric collection. Tosin says of the trend, “Most architects will dabble with product design because it is all about how people interact in space. The main difference is that the rewards are immediate in product design, the gratification comes a lot quicker. Ultimately, it is a beautiful notion to be able to take an idea and turn it into a physical form along your aesthetic preference. To leave your mark and be immortalized, hopefully impacting positively on people long after you are gone. There is something very poetic about that.”
Nigeria seems to be the epicenter of the product design renaissance and interior design has become quite big in the country over the last decade. For the first time in Africa, the International Federation of Interior Designers and Architects (IFI) will hold their World Congress in Lagos last year. The Interior Designers Association of Nigeria (IDAN) won the bid to host the event back in 2015 and held the pan-African festival under the theme 100 Years of African Design in November 2017 to emphasize the continent’s longevity in design despite a world that only sees African design as a trend. Tosin was one of 19 artists participating in the design pavilion. “We are forward thinking in Nigeria, and we want the best things. I am quite happy to say a lot of the growth in the interior design sector has come from locals. You will always get those high means clients that import furniture and fabrics but there are middle class people willing to use homegrown talent. With the recession recently our money value internationally dropped. This made people look inwards and appreciate that there is a lot of good quality locally and good design, and that uptake in demand can push the sector forward even more.” Even, then she believes more can be done in her country. (Listen below).
Tosin is a successful architect having completed the Maryland Mall and several retail spaces across Lagos. Yet the journey to launch Ilé-Ilà was not easy despite her past experience. Her advice to other creatives? “Have a vision of what you want to achieve. Who is your target market, what are you trying to create and how do you get it out there?”
Tosin explains that one of the hardest parts about becoming a product designer was raising awareness of what she had created. “I am very good at designing but I am not great at marketing. As an architect you are not even allowed to commercially advertise your work, professional bodies frown upon that. The finished building is the basis for a referral job but in product design you need to showcase your product. The society in Nigeria is such that, security is a big issue so people will not let just anyone into their home to be able to see a chair and say oh where did you get that? So one of my main challenges was how to get my product out there.”
Tosin credits blogs and Instagram for initiating buzz, but it was associating with influencers like popular Nigerian singer Adekunle Gold (first collection) and Chidinma Ekile (second collection) that made the difference. She actually worked with the CEO of Ecleftic Entertainment and popular media mogul OAP Do2dtun Kayode to help with product placement and exposure. “We also try to get our product in places where there is high foot traffic like the Lagos Polo Club. Our chairs were used in a music video, and as set design in a video trailer for the 2017 Etisalat Literary Prize. Furniture is not something young people necessarily think about but we also want to appeal to people who might be moving into their first apartment.”
Despite the success of Ilé-Ilà, Tosin is not resting on her laurels and already launched her second collection in early 2018. Once her schedule clears, she does hope to travel soon to South Africa. “It is almost shameful that I have never been especially because we studied urban design in school, looking at how Johannesburg had emptied out in the middle, at the flight of people and the history of how certain areas developed given the different demographics, economic and social factors. It would be interesting to see what that looks and feels like physically or if those elements still exist at all,” she says.
In between finding the free time to vacation, she settles for R&R with a chilled Cosmo or glass of red wine in front of an episode of Genius on National Geographic. “Learning about Albert Einstein’s life rekindled my interest in physics. I think it is easier to understand now, not because I am older but because of the medium in which it is presented. I am a visual learner.”
During those rare nights off Tosin also ponders her achievements. “The most rewarding thing is a client saying thank you. At University studying architecture, we were told not to expect to be thanked because we were just doing our job, after all, a silent client is a happy client. So with my furniture line, hearing an excited ‘thank you’ is so fulfilling and it makes everything worthwhile.”
Follow Ilé-Ilà and hear more from Tosin on her journey on BPA Bytes on Soundcloud.