Tola Akerele on Contemporary Afrocentric Design

Tola Akerele on Contemporary Afrocentric Design

Well known as the owner of African-themed boutique hotel and restaurant, Bogobiri, Tola Akerele is also the founder of leading Lagos-based design firm, iDesign. After attending the KLC School of Design, London and Parsons School of Design in New York, Akerele established her firm in 2006 and since then worked on several commercial and exclusive residential projects, hotels and corporate offices including DSTV Mobile, Agence France Press (AFP), Pagatech, Adlevo Capital and VANSO. In this interview with Omenka, she discusses her work process and her recent showing at Fusion of Real Estate and Interior Design and Art (FREIA).

Congratulations! You recently exhibited at the Fusion of Real Estate Interior Design and Art (FREIA). How would you describe the experience, and can you please tell us more about the pieces you showed?

It was a great experience. We displayed 2 pieces the Ileke Chair and the curved back three-legged chair. We chose them to showcase the high level of craftsmanship available here in Lagos. Many were surprised that the 3-legged chair was made locally.

You have a strong background in finance, as well as own Bogobiri House, a sixteen-room boutique hotel in highbrow Ikoyi, Lagos. How did you make the career switch and how would you draw a relationship between the three?

Certainly my financial background has helped me in running the businesses, but that’s where it ends!  Returning to Nigeria after 20 years in 2003 allowed me to have a much needed career change and unleash my creative energy.  Bogobiri was a great opportunity to do something more creative, it was wonderful to create a space where almost all the pieces were handcrafted. I loved the process of designing the rooms and general areas. This was my first design project and it is where the journey started.

What is your underlying philosophy and the themes that inspire your work?

The iDESIGN philosophy is to design spaces that function for the client and produce something aesthetically stunning. Function is important to us. I am inspired by what I see on my travels, but this is balanced and translated into how we can make such designs our own. I would say our design is contemporary with a mid-century and Afrocentric styling.

Your beautifully crafted Ileke Chair features traditional beaded chairs from Oyo palaces. Do you draw your inspiration from your royal lineage?

Yes, I am from Owo and Ife. The beaded chair is prominently used in the palaces of Oyo State and what is now Osun State. I saw a lot of beading while growing up, particularly on footstools and chairs and often in traditional dresses and headgears.

Please take us through your techniques and process, as well as what goes through your mind while conceptualising the design.

The inspiration for the Ileke Chair was from the Oba’s palace as mentioned earlier.  I thought the beading was beautiful and intricate, and how stunning it would be to have a wooden hand-crafted chair frame combined with traditional furniture beading. So what did the frame look like? The result after many sketches was a curved frame giving more fluidity to the traditional bulky shape. One can see this in the curves in the arms and at the back of the wooden frame.

What can you say about the quality of design education and craftsmanship in Nigeria with regards to building prototypes, as well as finished products on a large scale?

We have a small workshop because our plan is to make unique hand-crafted pieces, it works for our target audience. There would be many challenges if the plan were to produce furniture on a larger scale.  We simply don’t have enough vocational schools and the technical capacity to scale up efficiently. I know manufacturers, but they face several challenges. This is an area we need to work on if we are to grow our industry.

How do you feel your work fits into the contemporary design and product landscape?

iDESIGN is an interior design company that works with clients to interpret the direction that will work for them and the space. We can work in many different styles including contemporary design, which is popular but broad in this environment. The skill is to understand the exact style and look clients want,and add the ingredients that make it theirs whilst ensuring it is functional. That is the value add from iDESIGN.

What are the challenges that designers working in Nigeria face today and what can be done to alleviate them?

Local interior designers face limited options in terms of finishes and furniture styles.  The cost of bringing in such items can significantly increase the cost of the project. Many companies are now realising there is a market here and are setting up locally. Another problem interior designers in Nigeria have, is that there are no barriers to entry for international interior designers wishing to work in Nigeria, unlike for architects.

What are the major distribution points for your work?

We are first interior designers; the furniture we currently produce are bespoke pieces for our clients, and so are specific to each project. However, this year we are planning to have a range of furniture that will be available in some stores.

Please tell us about your major projects, as well as a few forthcoming ones.

We are presently working on a large residential project in Banana Island, the UK and Abuja. Last year, we completed hospitality projects in the east and north of Nigeria.

Photo credit: Punchng


Oyindamola Olaniyan is the Digital Communications Officer at Revilo Publishing. She holds a in Botany from Lagos State University. Broadly experienced in this area, her core expertise includes social media management, content development and brand identity.

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