In Conversation with Urban Kraft’s Stephen Akai
Urban Kraft Studios, founded in Uyo and later relocated to Lagos, is an urban development company that finds ways to bring innovation to the design landscape in Nigeria. The company is exceptional at incorporating local resources to create appealing designs. In this interview, co-founder Stephen Akai tells us the journey so far and the impact of applying the tie-dye technique used with adire to wood, and what it entails to set up a design studio in Nigeria.
You established Urban Kraft Studios in Uyo, and then moved to Lagos. What prompted this relocation, and what unique opportunities and challenges does each city pose to your design?
Uyo is where I am from, and it was important for us to start up there. We saw great potential in the area and an opening in the market for urban development. Urban Kraft is about innovating lifestyle, whether in Uyo or Lagos. We want to change the design landscape by creating beautiful and functional spaces, products, and businesses. Uyo was a challenge in the sense that we were pushing the boundaries of the type of spaces (residential and facilities) that are found there and raising the standard. Lagos is for growth. To grow as a brand, you need to expand your business to reach out to a good number of people via commercial designs (space users, product users, and entrepreneurs). Lagos is competitive and has given us the reason to keep pushing beyond. Our innovated public spaces are appreciated and functionally used. We are pressured to innovate out-of-the-box spaces when we partner in any project, but so far, we love Lagos.
You express yourself in a variety of media, including wood, metal, and plastic. Which is your preferred medium, and what properties make it suitable for your design process?
I am drawn to wood, often combining it with metal, something you will notice in a lot of Urban Kraft designs. The fact is, we are attracted to all natural material—wood, metal, stone, aluminum, plastic, and sand. There is something about the mix of the warmth in natural materials with the cold industrial feel that metal can sometimes give. This combination brings a beautiful union. And to answer your question, I will say I express myself better with metal, as it is strong, flexible, and yet functional in implementing our designs.
Where do you source your materials, and does their history hold any particular significance to you?
“Made in Nigeria”—a lot of our materials are locally sourced. To us, it’s about using what we have and creating something beautiful. We use a lot of wood, all sourced locally. Historical significance often comes into play with fabric. We recently drew inspiration from traditional methods of colouring fabric, like the unique indigo tie-dye patterns of the adire. We plan to explore Nigeria more for the history and significance of materials in different areas of the country.
Kindly expatiate on your inspiration, themes, and working techniques, from conception to design and function.
First, our environment inspires us—and I mean everything around us, from space to people to style to sound, and most of all the conceived idea of a space or product, which, in most cases, is the brief of our client.
The Urban Kraft team often looks beyond the aesthetics in conception and pays more attention to the functionality of the product or space, with value checks on the ergonomics of products and strength of materials. Most importantly, we take a green approach to our designs.
Africa has a rich history of metal works, and you emulate techniques such as embossing, welding, punching, engraving, and inlaying. How do more contemporary digital methods enhance your work?
It is important to know and understand how all of this was done in the past; the understanding makes it important to embrace the changes that have evolved the industry into excellence.
Despite the high emphasis on originality in design, digital methodology creates room for more innovation and high efficiency in production. Our designs are now produced commercially, around the world. We realize that their production timeline and quality of finish is very high, thus we are working in our current expansion plan to have production plants around Nigeria.
What opportunities are available for young designers, and how do you think they can take advantage of them?
In the spectrum of architecture, design, and art, we are still far from the word “saturation.” There is a huge vacuum in processes and implementation. Young designers should take advantage of time, categorize their designs and products, and fraternize with other creative like-minds. They should also expand their horizon by collaborating and co-working to think of product design as a knowledge tool that will assist the country in its cultural and socio-economic growth.
We have actually gone miles in the building of a co-working space specifically for the young creative minds in our fields—creating a start up environment for them to innovate, design, and create, with the guidance of experienced facilitators who periodically play mentorship roles to enable them to achieve greater heights.
January 25, 2021