Sustaining Traditions

Jadesola Folawiyo is a product designer who makes home ware using materials like ceramic, glass and metal, which have their origins in traditional artisanal craft. She likes the qualities of individuality and the hand made feel they give to the finished products. She hopes to contribute to preserving traditional craftsmanship for the next generation through contemporary re-interpretation. Jadesola Folawiyo is widely known for her collection of metal lampshades. She has recently been named among 50 celebrated designers who are creating sophisticated and innovative products and interiors. In this interview, she shares with Oliver Enwonwu, her inspiration and plans for the future…

How and when did you decide to study design?

Throughout my primary and secondary schooling I was always drawing and showed great interest in art, design and technology. Initially, I was set on becoming a fine artist and took every opportunity I could, to sit and draw in the Tate Britain, one of the oldest art museums in London. It was conveniently situated round the corner from my primary and secondary schools, and I subsequently chose to study this subject at college. Though I later parted ways with my passion for painting, one thing I was absolute about, was studying at Central Saint Martins, University of Art and Design in London. I knew that it was (and still is) known as the best university in the art world and boasts alumni such as artists William Morris and John Ruskin, as well as designers John Galliano, Hussain Chalayan, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen. Having been advised to study a more industrial subject than fine art at university, I got into, and enrolled on a foundation course, which allows you to try three creative subjects throughout the year. I chose graphics, fashion and product design and chose to specialize in product design after finding it to be the one I enjoyed the most.

You come from an important Nigerian family, and draw from a rich cultural heritage. How did living and growing up in London shape this decision, and how do you resolve these varying influences in your work?

I do feel that whether I had grown up in Nigeria or in London, I would have chosen a career in design, even though my pathway to this goal would have been slightly different. My family and culture are very important to me and mixing traditional techniques and concepts with a contemporary feel heavily influences my work. Growing up in a Nigerian household in London has taught me how to mix two seemingly opposing cultures and make it my own. Take for instance, one of my first manufactured designs, the Stick Stack Vase. This is a vase made up of test tubes that are ordinarily found in the laboratory. However in this design, I decided to take scientific test tubes out of their usual environment and place them in the context of a decorative piece for the home. This thought process resulted in a vase that is made up of individual hand blown test tubes that are connected together with small pieces of glass, arranged in a cascading tower. This design was first showcased in Paris, where it received positive reviews for the fact that it is unusual. People hadn’t thought of arranging test tubes in this way before.
I have lived in one of the most multicultural cities in the world, where I have watched many people mix differing cultures together. London is full of Britishborn Nigerians, Portuguese, Russians, Ghanians and so on, all of whom mix their culture with the culture of the environment they were born. The things that come out of this combining process can be very interesting. This way of living influences my work in that it has now become my method of working. I combine differing subjects to come up with something new. It has been a successful method for me so far. So I am glad about the opportunity to witness how two seemingly opposing entities can create something wonderful. It all depends on how you look at it. I do presume that this may still have been one of my influences, if I had been born in Nigeria as we too live with differing tribal cultures that are interconnected and must learn to live harmoniously together.

Renowned painter and sculptor Demas Nwoko was for many decades, a solitary voice on the design scape in Nigeria. Recently, there have been several emerging talents in this discipline like Ifeanyi Oganwu, Yinka Ilori and yourself. What do you think is responsible for this development?

Since the time of Demas Nwoko in the 1960s the global design industry has grown and become more prevalent in many societies. It is more widely studied in academia, practiced as a profession and considered by other industries as a tool that can add value to our communities, generate jobs and consequently add to the growth of our economy. As the design industry grows globally, many more creative individuals are using it as a means of creative expression and a channel to support the economic development of their countries. Like Demas Nwoko, Dieter Rams a German designer born in 1932, was also a solitary design voice in his country. Now, Germany’s design industry is globally renowned, steeped in a strong history of good quality manufacturing and Dieter Rams “less is more” philosophy.
Each year a new fleet of designers emerge from Germany onto the global platform. The emerging design talent in Nigeria can be assigned to the global development of the design industry as a whole. As German designers now stand on the shoulders of Dieter Rams, we stand on the shoulders of the likes of Demas Nwoko and the many craftsmen that produce beautiful and intricate works throughout our country. The aim now, as I see it, is to build on our global presence in the design industry. You hear people talk about Italian, British, Japanese and American design, even South African design is praised globally. I look forward to a time when people in Australia will be talking about Nigerian design. Let us be known for much more than the corruption story, since we are so much more than that. We have a lot to harness and to offer that other countries do not have. That makes us unique; namely our skill in storytelling through objects. It is now for the emerging designers; both home and abroad to pave the way for forthcoming generations to ensure they have strong shoulders to stand on in expressing their creative voices to the world.

Despite this, you and several of your contemporaries were educated, as well as work outside Nigeria and the African continent. Does this stem from the quality of educational programmes for design or the availability of opportunities for designers here in Nigeria?

The design sector is an emerging market in Nigeria and so we still have a long way to go to match the standard of education and opportunities provided by other countries with more established industries. Take the Japanese and Oriental community for instance, they made up 40% of my product design class at my university in London. They aim to learn what is known as one of the longest standing product design courses (it has been running for over 70 years) then go back to use their knowledge to develop their own country. Marrying the knowledge of the diaspora with the knowledge of home-based designers will enable us to strengthen our education and creative industries.

In 2012, I was invited by the British Council to give a talk on design and traditional crafts and progression after university, to the graduating class of the Faculty of Art and Design, European University in Skopje, Macedonia. I have also taken time out of my working schedule to partner with the Design Musuem in London on their educational programme for secondary schools; various designers give their time to visit 2-3 schools a week over a 4-week period to present their work, run a workshop and inspire, as well as educate the youths about design. I would like to see this happening in Nigeria with the support of government, local businesses and museums. If the educational and work opportunities are currently lacking, we must do something to change the situation ourselves. Nigeria’s next top designer could be presently schooling for instance, at Our Lady of Apostles Private School in Yaba.
By making sure that our art and design courses are stable, appealing and have the right infrastructure and support, we will be more likely to recognize and unlock our children’s God given potential. I do have to say that many people might state that we first need to ensure we have more basic facilities like 24-hour electricity for everyone (not just those that can pay for it) before we look at course structures.

You work with a variety of media; metal, ceramics and glass, which is your preferred medium and what properties of each, make it suitable for your design process?

I do very much enjoy working with metal; its material properties are a constant source of inspiration to me. Metal, ceramics and glass have been my preferred media because each of them have their origins in traditional artisanal craft. Before the industrial age, manufacturing anything in these materials had to be done by the hand of a skilled artisan. I like the concept of products that have a hand made feel. Using these materials allows me to convey this in my work. I believe that the handmade feel is especially important now, in this age of mass production and globalization. The goal of mass manufacturing to democratize design has made us lose a lot of individuality Arms Family VaseStick Stack Candelabrain our products and has contributed to the decline of traditional techniques and craftsmanship. Working with these materials helps me maintain these qualities by feeding them into my design. It is very important for us to keep traditional craftsmanship alive for the next generation. I hope that by making the choice to use traditional techniques in my work, I will be contributing to their preservation.

Please tell us about your working methods, your source of inspiration, as well as the phases in conceiving a product, from design to function?

Culture, traditional techniques, material properties and creation are all sources of inspiration to me. Nature, with it’s differing colours, patterns and shapes is my biggest source of inspiration. My design process starts with research on what I have been commissioned to design, as well as the likes and dislikes of my client. If the project is self-initiated, I will usually just focus on the subject that I want to develop, be it a vase or lighting piece, and look into opportunities to come up with something new in this area. Research will be followed by many pages of sketching the design ideas that come to my mind. Research is about decoding the subject that I want to work with to give me ideas to draw from. Clients are looking for something unique they can bring to the market. So if I am asked to design a new set of cutlery, I will analyze each item; can I change the handle, the material or patterns? Each element that I analyze will usually output five pages of sketches as the ideas flow. From these sketches, I will choose three of the best concepts or the client will choose depending on his involvement. These three sketch ideas will each be developed to the point that they become viable designs. The client or I will then choose the best design out of the three and then begins another phase of further sketches to develop and perfect the design then work out how it will be made and the cost. Thereafter, I will follow a prototype to test that the design works and analyze any changes to be made. The final product will then be produced.

Africans have a long history of working with metal in a variety of techniques including embossing, welding, punching, engraving, incising, polishing and inlaying. Do you also imbibe these techniques as part of your design process and if so, how do you combine them with more contemporary digital methods to achieve a balance in your work?

Since primary school age, I have been fascinated by the metal works from Ife. Our history of working with metal has definitely inspired my use of the material today. My metal designs are cut using the latest Waterjet cutting technology and finished with the traditional technique of patinization, where natural acidic solutions are used to colour and pattern the metal’s surface.

You took a gap year from your studies to work at Fabrica, Benetton’s design communications research centre at Treviso, Italy. You have also developed new product ranges for the internationally acclaimed porcelain factory, Vista Alegre as a member of the International Design Pool. How have both experiences impacted on your future direction?

Working at Fabrica in Italy and at Vista Alegre in Portugal offered me the opportunity to work directly with highly skilled craftsmen. In Italy, I worked with the famous Murano glass blowers in Venice, and in Portugal I worked with and witnessed the manufacturing of products in crystal glass and fine porcelain. Both experiences taught me about the importance of good craftsmanship and the depth of knowledge held by craftsmen that have been working with a particular material for generations.

Where and how do you source for materials and do they hold any particular history for you?

My line of practice is usually to design a product and source a good quality manufacturer. For instance, my metal lampshades are produced in High Wycombe, the popular manufacturing district just outside of London. Though the metal is imported, it is important to many of my clients that I use local manufacturers to support the trade and ensure top quality craftsmanship. The material I decide to use is always determined by the nature of the product that I want to produce and its design features. In my case, the quality of manufacturing is usually more important than the source and history of the material. However, in some projects like my tableware collection called `Ile`, which mixes calabash with porcelain, the source and history of the materials used in this design were of particular focus. Though gourds (calabashes) also grow in both Asia and America, this project was specifically about creating a narrative around the idea of mixing British and Nigerian materials. The porcelain used in this tableware was sourced and manufactured in Kent, United Kingdom and the calabash was sourced and manufactured in Oyo, Nigeria. I mostly source materials and manufacturers from places that have a long history of working with a particular material, and are famous for their good quality. Having a particular focus on quality materials and fine detail in manufacturing is important in my line of work.

A recent residency at the Design Museum, London may have led to your experimental approach in accelerating the rusting and tarnishing of metal with acidic substances, to create unique surface finishes for mass produced objects. Do these patterns contain hidden meanings or are they largely accidental occurrences?

The rusting and tarnishing of the metal surface takes place through a natural chemical reaction. The patterns are all organically produced, however, the colours that the metal changes to, are determined by the acidic solution it is treated with. The process of colouring the metal is largely accidental; this is what gives each lamp its unique features. Once the colouring process is complete, a geometric pattern is stencilled onto the surface of the metal to give the lamp an added dimension. The stencil pattern is inspired by the geometric patterns found in ankara fabrics.
This approach also imitates life’s processes of ageing and decay. Are these aims reflected in your work and how do you determine when a work is finished? I believe the end user finishes a work. A design is created and manufactured into life, but it is with its use over time, that it begins Ile Tableware to take on different qualities that become important to the end user. The rusting and tarnishing of my metal lampshades display the beauty that can be produced through the ageing process and time.

Will working with a design gallery not offer better opportunities to create bespoke pieces?

I have worked with design galleries in Rome, New York and Paris, to create bespoke pieces. Working with design galleries usually provides the opportunity for greater creative freedom because they look at a product from an artistic point of view, rather than focusing on the products commerciality. Secondome Design Gallery in Rome commissioned me to come up with a unique design for a glass dome. I designed it with a rope handle to express the different characteristics of each material, one tough and one fragile. This design piece was later sold at Selfridges in London and la Rinacente in Milan. Working with the Design Museum is a great example of creating bespoke pieces for a gallery or museum. The lampshades I designed for them were later selected to be presented to the Queen of England in 2012, as part of a special exhibition for her by a private curator, who had seen them exhibited in the museum. This might be a line of practice that we can follow in Nigeria, for galleries here to commission bespoke pieces based on a subject of their choice.

What designers inspire you?

Some of the contemporary designers I am inspired by are Bisel + Steck, Doshi Leiven, Diallo Design from Mali, the Dutch Hella Jogenerius, as well as my fellow Nigerians Yinka Ilori and Ifeanyi Oganwu. The designs and creations of our Creator are my greatest source of inspiration.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

As well as designing my own products, I also do work for an interior design company in London. We designed the interiors of villas and palaces in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. I select the accessories that will be bought for each space and design bespoke pieces where they are needed. I am presently designing the arrangement of the accessories that will be used to adorn the interior of our client’s lift lobbies. Our client is a very specific VIP, who has strong taste. The challenge is to design new arrangements on each project whilst working within the client’s specific requirements. This work enables me to widen my breadth of knowledge and experience in the luxury design industry, ultimately bringing greater value to varying projects for my clients.

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