In Conversation with Olayinka Dosekun
Olayinka Dosekun is a Lagos and Abuja-based architect and urban designer, well experienced in the residential and commercial sectors, as well as cultural and public spaces. Prior to setting up leading firm Studio Contra Mundum where she serves as creative director, Dosekun worked as a financial analyst in London and at foremost architectural practices like Barkow Leibinger in Berlin, Sheppard Robson in London, MASS Design in Boston and MOE+ in Lagos. She holds a BA from Oxford University and an M.Arch from the Harvard Graduate School of Design where she was awarded a Kennedy Scholarship. Olayinka Dosekun also participates on fora for affordable housing in Lagos, in collaboration with the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Arctic Infrastructure. In this interview, we learn more about her initial interest in architecture, inspiration and work including The Atelier, a boutique hotel in Abuja and Workstation, a company that provides shared co-working and office space for start-ups, entrepreneurs, as well as small and large businesses in Lagos.
“Contra mundum” is a Latin phrase meaning “to defy or to oppose everyone else.” How did you come about this name for an architectural, interior, and furniture design firm, in relation to your work, clients, and competition?
Studio Contra Mundum (SCM) is about standing out and striving for a higher standard of design and execution than what might be typical or expected. At SCM we often question and redefine ideas to challenge accepted norms. We seek new ways of building and fabrication, as well as new ways of communicating through design. In doing so, we hope to inspire others to follow. “Contra mundum” is a rallying cry for like-minded people who are equally passionate about design and the process of design, because we don’t expect it to be easy. In fact, we know that we will have a struggle on our hands.
An Oxford and Harvard graduate, you have also garnered experience as a financial analyst in London, and in some of the most recognised architectural practices in Europe. What impact have these influences had on your career?
My first degree was in classics at Oxford (ancient Greek and Roman history, philosophy, and literature). My second was in architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. In between both degrees, I worked as an investment banking analyst in London. As an architectural designer, I’ve been fortunate to work at a number of firms in different cities: London, Berlin, Boston, San Diego, and Lagos. I absorbed as much experience and culture as I could from each place. There are ways of thinking and ways of working that are peculiar to these places. So I try to see the field of architecture from many perspectives: theoretical, historical and philosophical, as well as cultural, material, practical, and commercial. Each brief requires me to draw consciously from all of these perspectives, and the opportunity often arises to emphasise one or the other through the conceptual framework of the project.
How did you make the decision to return to Nigeria, what difficulties did you encounter in building a successful practice in Lagos, and would the challenges and results have been different if you had remained in Europe or the United States?
I was very eager to come home because Lagos is now an epicentre of contemporary African art and culture: fine art, film, music, and fashion are all enjoying something of a renaissance. I wanted to be part of this movement and to make a contribution through architecture and interior design. Architecture appears to be lagging behind other creative disciplines. And I think that is because we are yet to clearly articulate a language for architecture and urban design that is contemporary and also African. We need a vision for architecture and urban design that is appropriate for our economy, climate and cultures. I find this challenge exciting and crucial, because we consciously shape built environments and cities, which in turn, shape many things about our lives.
It is possible to design for Africa from abroad (and some architects do this), but it can be more effective to embed and situate yourself in the local context to seize opportunities and draw inspiration from around you. That is what I have chosen to do. As for the challenges of working here, I’m afraid that these are well known to most people operating in Nigeria. We all have to contend with them as best we can and look for ways to turn challenges into opportunities.
Studio Contra Mundum designed Atelier, the boutique hotel in Abuja. Please tell us the thinking behind it, your underlying concept, and what you set out to achieve.
Atelier recently launched in Abuja, offering an experience that combines hospitality with art and cuisine. And the spaces revolve around a gallery with an associated boutique hotel component and garden restaurant. The project required thoughtful reinterpretation and renovation of an existing colonial-style building. Choosing not to go with a minimalist approach, we did not deviate far from the style of the original building but juxtaposed this with moments of disruption and surprise. For example, we cut away a large part of the ceiling in the upper gallery to give a view straight through to the timber roof rafters, which gives the gallery a dramatic feeling, like a mini cathedral. In the interior, we tried to blur the lines between gallery, hotel, and restaurant, and between interior and exterior by allowing expansive views of the exterior gardens through large windows and by curating all spaces with equal attention. We infused them with elements of tropical horticulture, art, and custom furniture pieces, most of which were designed by Studio Contra Mundum and fabricated in Nigeria.
You have also successfully completed several commercial projects. Please tell us about some of the most recent and how we can infuse sustainability into our everyday lives, considering the complexities of travel, energy, and work today.
We recently completed a new location in Maryland, Lagos for Workstation, a company that provides shared co-working and office spaces for start-ups, entrepreneurs, and small and large businesses. It’s a project which challenged us to think about the design of workspaces and how they influence collaboration, productivity, and creativity. The average person spends most of his or her time at work, so it’s important that these spaces are given special design attention. With this project, we had the opportunity of thinking holistically, custom designing and fabricating not only the interior architecture but also most of the furniture and some of the lighting to suit the needs of the user. We are also working on a few other commercial office projects, as well as on another boutique hotel and some luxury retail spaces.
What new strategies should design-led companies employ in dealing with current economic trends and the challenges of sustainability?
We can design more sustainably by producing and procuring materials for building and fabrication as locally as possible, rather than continuing to rely on importation. For example, timber and timber-based products are highly sustainable and versatile building materials that can be used for many elements of construction, from the structural components to cladding and finishing. Timber is a renewable resource and a natural carbon sink, but sadly, it is barely used for high-end construction in Nigeria. Despite the abundance of natural wood species, we have not yet developed a proper forestry and timber processing industry. There is huge untapped potential here, as well as gains for more environmentally friendly and affordable construction methods. Sustainability is also about basic design thinking and simple principles for how spaces should be arranged to be as naturally lit and passively cooled as possible to save energy and promote comfort.
In your opinion, what are the big emerging markets in the design world, and how are Nigerian architects and designers spearheading these movements?
Nigerian and African designers are doing very well in couture fashion, and there is emerging talent in product and furniture design that is garnering attention across the continent. IKEA recently released a new collection of contemporary African furniture in collaboration with African designers. There is a huge interest now in the African voice, and it’s becoming more mainstream. I’d like to see more Nigerian architects also on the world stage, but that would require significantly more investment in time, energy, and money from the concept to execution stages. Architecture can only happen when there is a direct and specific need, and we rely entirely on clients to set the brief and budgets before our work can begin. I hope to eventually see more ambitious briefs and budgets from clients here who are enthusiastic about design and are interested in helping to create locally developed work that can resonate at an international level.
In what ways can design and architecture interface with digital and analogue technologies in the 21st century?
At our studio, we value the analogue as much as the digital and use both methods to test and develop ideas. Personally, I have found that physical model making and hand drawing are as important as digital modelling and computer-aided design, because there is a haptic quality to the process of making and reviewing ideas that cannot be replicated through a digital interface. Architecture—and indeed all forms of fabrication—is a testament to the fact that even in an increasingly virtual world, the physical realm will always hold importance to us as physical beings.
What would you say is responsible for the growing interest in furniture as an expression of the contemporary that crosses boundaries between art, craftsmanship, and design?
In Deyan Sudjic’s “The Language of Things” he observes that objects and designed “things” are a rich visual vocabulary. A simple object is densely packed with meaning and able to express the culture or history of a society in a direct and striking way. A chair, or even a spoon, can describe the nature of an entire society to the observant and curious user. I think people are moving away from the wholly generic, globalised expressions of design and responding more to objects that can also tell a story about where they are from and how and where they were made.
Design is not just about styling but also about making better products and services. How can Nigerian designers compete in emerging economies?
When it comes to products, we have some strong designers here, but they often struggle with execution and consistency. Good craftsmanship and attention to detail are key to making our products competitive in a global market.
How can craft values be brought to mass production scale in Nigeria and Africa?
I’m not sure I have the answer to this, but I am certainly interested in finding a medium-scale, third way between the economic benefits and precision of factory production and those of hand-made craft. This is something we will be testing for ourselves in the coming months.
Oliver Enwonwu is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Omenka magazine, Director, Omenka Gallery and Chief Executive, Revilo. He holds a first degree in Biochemistry, advanced diploma in Exploration Geophysics (distinction), Post Graduate Diplomas in Applied Geophysics and Visual Art (distinction) and a Masters in Art History, all from the University of Lagos. He is the founder, Executive Director, and trustee of The Ben Enwonwu Foundation. He also sits on the board of several organizations including the National Gallery of Art, Nigeria and the Reproduction Rights Society of Nigeria. Enwonwu is also president of both the Society of Nigerian Artists and the Alliance of Nigerian Art Galleries.
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