Five East African Changemakers in the Interior Design Industry
Given that such a diverse set of countries makes up the region of East Africa, it is only fitting that each of these five style maker’s unique backgrounds and aesthetics is reflective. For these figures in the interiors space, each brings something different to the design world, whether as a corporate decorator, design adviser, or textile artist.
In any interior, the smallest details can make the biggest impact, and when done right, the result can be a pretty magical space. Still, the process can be much harder than it looks, and the right person is needed to help draw out the client’s taste preferences, as well as to create the pieces that will truly bring out the life in a space.
This is where these masters of interiors come into play, each an expert in their respective fields. Some play the role of an interiors curator of sorts, such as Kenyan designers Jordan Awori and Eugene Ngugi, who help discover the style of individual or corporate clients who may need guidance to determine what they are looking for in a space.
Others have found their calling as a designer of home textiles or furniture to bring something special to an otherwise simple space, like Ethiopian-American furniture designer Jomo Tariku of Jomo Furniture or Nasozi Kakembo of textile company xN Studio.
Beyond their distinctive design touch, what weaves these creatives together is their entrepreneurial spirit and desire to highlight the artistry of their cultures, on their terms. They have found unique ways to connect with their audiences, and are self-starters who have independently launched their businesses.
Strongly connected to their African culture, each designer incorporates it into their interior styles and pieces as they remain mindful of their purpose to continually bring awareness to the contemporary interior design of the continent.
The Folklore highlights five changemakers from East Africa leading the way in interior design.
Jordan Awori, known as @theinteriordecorator on Instagram and her blog, is an interior designer and writer from Nairobi, Kenya. Up until this year, Awori headed her Nairobi-based design firm Aba Design Creations, which focused on interiors in both the residential and hospitality arenas taking inspiration from modern-day Africa. Awori’s talent drives from her ability to flesh out the taste of even the most unsure client and create the perfect space from someone’s subconscious likes and dislikes. The result is clean, but inviting spaces with touches of color and interesting textiles. Awori has now moved full-time into her work as what she refers to as a “design journalist,” where she aims to explore the cultural influences behind unique interior spaces through her work. Still a design professional at heart, Awori offers many tips on her Instagram and blog to help her viewers select the proper rug, make the most of a tight space, and create a flexible space for young children, as well as reviewing interior spaces and interviewing forward-thinking interior creatives from across the African continent.
Ethiopian-American designer Hana Getachew is the founder of Bolé Road Textiles, Brooklyn, New York-based design studio inspired by Getachew’s childhood in Addis Ababa surrounded by beautifully made textiles, whether it was a new dress or living room rug. After working for a prominent architecture firm in New York for over ten years, Getachew felt a stronger desire to connect with her Ethiopian roots and decided to return back to a practice close to home. Getachew’s line of textiles can spice up nearly any space, with a collection ranging from curtains, to bath mats, to coasters. Rich colors and graphics prints are mainstays of every piece, and Getachew doesn’t shy away from mixing multiple patterns at once. For Getachew, Bolé Road was founded with the intention to maintain the tradition of Ethiopian craftsmanship: Getachew often takes inspiration from traditional Ethiopian textiles that have played an important role in her life, and though each product is designed in Brooklyn, she employs Ethiopian artisans to make her designs come to life and support their craft.
Interior designer Eugene Ngugi is behind the award-winning interior design firm Planning Interiors based in Nairobi, Kenya. As Chief Executive Officer of the design firm, Ngugi is keen to demonstrate Africa’s enormous potential in the design space to garner greater investment and global attention. Though interior design has begun to trend more towards the clean and modern, he and his team celebrate the liveliness of East African design and celebrate their local materials and colors. They have proved to be nimble in business as well, working across a variety of sectors as well as outsourcing a handful of the design work to specialists while still maintaining a strong core team. A commitment to their aesthetic and innovative thinking has clearly paid off: they are one of the most recognizable design firms in Kenya and have notably designed spaces for some of the most prominent businesses in and out of Kenya, including corporate offices for IBM, Microsoft, and Kenya Commercial Bank, sleekly redesigned airport lounges for Kenya Airways, and several luxury resort hotels in the country.
The pieces from Jomo Tariku’s namesake furniture line are nothing if not jaw-dropping, though they are equally functional as they are visually appealing. Born in Kenya and raised in Ethiopia, Tariku originally moved to the United States to earn his undergraduate degree in industrial design, a background that is evident in the functionality of his pieces. After exploring various design pursuits, Tariku returned to his love of contemporary furniture and founded the Virginia-based Jomo Furniture in 2017. While Tariku certainly takes inspiration from his heritage in his designs, he aims to expand the definition of African interior design and typical associations surrounding what it is supposed to look like. This has led him to his signature design aesthetic which encompasses his collection of pieces, which are graceful, full of motion, and practically standalone works of art. Yet each piece is carefully constructed, with thoughtful elements that add to the appeal. One example might include Tariku’s Birth Chair inspired by a birthing chair for mothers in labor, but with a creative twist where the backrest can be swapped out depending on the mood of its user.
Nasozi Kakembo launched xN Studio in 2011 as an outlet to feed her artistic interests, while maintaining her day job for a nonprofit. Originally from Kampala, Uganda, and based in Brooklyn, New York, Kakembo always loved visiting home and exploring the markets to find beautifully-made and inexpensive fabrics, a passion she eventually decided to turn into an evening gig. With a sewing machine and fresh pattern, Kakembo selected her favorite fabrics and began whipping up pillows, chair covers, and aprons from her house. As she began to offer the pieces online, her fan base grew, and NxN Studio has now transformed into Kakembo’s space for all of her various projects to live. Not only can you purchase her Brooklyn-made pieces, including the popular mud cloth and indigo pillows, Kakembo has also partnered with select artisans from Uganda to sell their wares on her site, such as woven baskets or accented wooden spoons. Many of the portions of Kakembo’s sales go to additional construction for the Suubi Primary School, a fast-growing school for orphaned children in Kampala.
Words by Olivia Starr