It is one of the more unexpected sells for September's London Design Festival (LDF), yet potentially one of the more intriguing too. The furniture retailer Habitat is staging an exhibition of African design and launching a textile collection developed in collaboration with the Malian designer Boubacar Doumbia.
The exhibition, Graphic Africa, has grown out of Design Network Africa (DNA), an Africa-wide design programme funded by Denmark's DANIDA overseas development policy. Overseen by the South Africa-based design agents Trevyn and Julian McGowan - who will also curate the Habitat show - DNA is a business-based programme in which African designers may mentor one another, discuss how to gain access to the international market and begin to assemble a coherent design industry across Africa.
"The problems in African design are largely of disconnection," says Trevyn. "There are issues of reaching market, shipping costs, transport, bribery and corruption. Work can sit in a port for three months. There's a lack of infrastructure and a lack of materials. But what if you group together and share those problems?"
The programme, which remains in a pilot phase, groups together 16 design studios from across West, South and East Africa ("finding a designer in North Africa isn't easy," says Julian. "Design in Africa is still locked to certain pockets like South Africa, Mali, Senegal, whereas certain countries like Nigeria have very little") for what are described as "therapy sessions": group discussions and workshops across Africa in which participants discuss their individual needs and potential solutions to their problems.
The studios involved in the programme range from social projects - such as Gone Rural, a collective of 750 Swazi women working with indiginous grasses - through to more traditional designers such as the Bauhaus-inspired Doktor & Misses and the ENSCI-trained Cheick Diallo.
A central aspect of the DNA programme are masterclasses, where industry figures guide and advice the studios. At one such event in Ghana, attended by Habitat's senior designer Rebecca Hoyes, the Graphic Africa project began to take form.
Hoyes began a collaboration with the Malian textile designer Boubacar Doumbia ("From a price perspective he made sense for Habitat and we trusted him to get product fairly quickly"). The pair decided to work with bogolan, a traditional dyed cotton that Doumbia uses heavily in his work. Created through a combination of fermented mud-dyes gathered from riverbeds and a chalk resist that defines pattern, bogolan creates linear, monochromatic textiles.
"I’m a print designer, so was fascinated by someone working with cotton using river mud rather than the chemicals we use in Europe," says Hoyes. "You can create something so beautiful from something so simple and I was intrigued and inspired by that. It was an opportunity to play with the technique."
Hoyes and Doumbia's designs are based on Doumbia's existing work ("It’s important you don’t come in and completely change the aesthetic of the craft"), adapted into commercial cushions. Having produced the designs in a period of 72 hours, Hoyes placed an order for 80 cushions from Doumbia, who will now create the textiles from his base in Mali where he runs a cooperative and workshop.
Alongside Doumbia's textiles, the remaining 15 DNA studios will also exhibit work created or adapted to fit Habitat's theme for the coming season: linearity. "Which is actually a really valuable experience for African designers, many of whom aren't used to working from a brief," says Julian. "One designer said that the theme didn’t fit his remit and didn’t feel African enough, but we don’t want that: We want the African aesthetic to fit a brief, which is what all designers have to do."
"African design is often inspired by nature, it’s very soulful and it’s got narrative,” says Trevyn. “These are all qualities to pursue, but it still needs to fit with an international market. There’s no point designing beautiful things and then not selling them. That's not sustainable."
The resulting lamps, chests of drawers and chairs designed in the programme will be displayed as gallery pieces during LDF at Habitat’s Platform space on the King’s Road. The exhibition is the latest indication of a growing interest in African design, following in quick succession to Beatrice Galilee's Afrofuture, an exhibition speculating on the future of design in Africa staged earlier this year in Milan.
"Maybe everyone is a little bored with places like Indonesia and China," says Trevyn. "We’ve seen the output of those places for a long time, but because Africa is quite difficult to access, people have been nervous to look there too. Craft is centuries old in Africa, but design is relatively new, not more than 10 or 15 years, and people are starting to see that there’s an opportunity there.
"In fact that newness is the reason why we need to speak of 'African design'; it's still in its infancy and it needs to be held by the concept of the continent."
Alongside furthering DNA’s aim of exposing its designers to the international scene, Graphic Africa also hopes to act as a counterpoint as to the negative stereotypes of roughness and jerry-rigging that have become associated with some African design.
"There is perhaps a tendency for things to get to the end user without things being ironed out and certainly European design is on a trajectory that will be hard to catch up with because there simply aren't the facilities in Africa,” says Julian. “But that doesn’t mean we need to go down the route of playing on sympathy for that.”
"We're very aware of that view of African design as a little rough and a hard weld, but that’s what we want to move away from,” adds Trevyn. “Projects need to be viewed on a like-for-like basis, not 'this is bad, but good for Africa.’ Design should be judged on its individual merits. Hopefully Graphic Africa will do that."