Out of Africa: Ikea's upcoming range is a collaboration with the continent's designers
Ikea's upcoming range is a collaboration with cutting-edge designers from the continent
The world is getting smaller - and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Design doesn't do well in a vacuum. Twentieth century Ireland learnt that one the hard way.
In the 1950s, Irish manufacture was protected by tariffs. If you wanted a chair or a teacup, you were stuck with buying Irish or paying the premium for something fancy from abroad. Isolated from the wider world, Irish design was almost universally poor. In the end, the Irish Export Board called in some Scandinavian experts to advise. The outcome of their visit was the Kilkenny Design Workshops (1966-1988), which brought in talented European and British designers to help pull Irish design up by its bootstraps. A bit of cultural crosspollination did us a power of good.
Fast forward to 2019 and the Design Indaba Festival in Cape Town, South Africa, where Ikea has just launched its Överallt collection, designed in collaboration with 10 African designers. In terms of multi-cultural collaborative design, it looks like the Scandinavians have done it again! The Ikea spin doctors describe it as, "a limited-edition collection that is all about building bridges and not walls, ultimately creating room for better habits together. Including larger pieces of furniture, tableware, textiles, and a fashionably sustainable tote bag." The collection is expected to hit the shops in May.
What's interesting about Överallt is that is showcases the cutting edge of African design. And it's not just about craft. Unlike projects designed to create sustainable trade in indigenous communities, Överallt was made with input from 10 high-profile professionals from five different African countries. Many of these already have an international profile.
This sets the Ikea collaboration apart from other initiatives like the TK Maxx sustainable trade programme, which aims to help Ugandan families send their children to school by marketing their traditional woven baskets.
"This is how design makes the world smaller and brings people from different cultures closer together," says Bibi Seck, who designed the Överallt rocking chair (€70) and footstool (€40) with Ikea designer Mikael Axelsson. The furniture is designed for indoor and outdoor use and, although it could be used in any country, carries the influence of Western Africa, where the pace of life is more reflective and less rushed. "I imagine people sitting in this rocking chair, rocking and reflecting. I imagine my father, who is in his eighties, sitting in it, smoking his cigar; my sister-in-law with her newborn baby; my niece and nephews playing on it," Seck says.
Born in Paris, with Senegalese heritage, Seck is a product designer based in New York. He was one of the designers, with Ayse Birsel, for the M'Afrique collection from Italian brand Moroso. Their Madam Dakar sofa, also an indoor/outdoor piece, is handwoven in Senegal using polyethylene cord normally used for fishing nets. It's a beautiful piece and costs €2,090 from Milia. The Överallt rocking chair shares the combination of a metal structure and a woven seat, but it's a fraction of the price.
Ikea is all about affordability. The Överallt Easy chair (€50; or €95 with cushions) is designed by Issa Diabaté, an architect from the Ivory Coast, and Mikael Axelsson. To my mind - and I haven't yet sat on it - it is a stunning piece of design. It's made from plywood and held together with wooden slats. This means that it can be assembled without nails, glue, or screws or even that bugbear of Ikea assembly, the Allen key. "I wanted to design a pleasant and functional object without using costly materials or sophisticated technology," Diabaté says. The range also includes a bookshelf (€45) designed with the same incredibly simple construction.
"Our dream is to have a blueprint and make the design open source," says Johanna Jelinek, one of the Ikea designers who collaborated on the project. This, were it to happen, would make the chair available to people living in Africa. At the moment, there's no Ikea store in South Africa, or any other countries on the African continent apart from Egypt and Morocco.
Jelinek collaborated with textile designers Renee Rossouw and Sindiso Khumalo on the printed textiles in the collection. Originally from Durban, South Africa, Khumalo studied in Central St Martin's, London, and works between the two countries. Internationally she's known for graphic patterns that draw on her Zulu and Ndebele heritage.
I spoke to Khumalo on Skype during the Design Indaba Festival. "It's not traditional African handcraft - it's contemporary - but you can see the colours coming through," she says. For her, the joy of working for Ikea was that the designs will reach a far wider audience. "It was an honest collaboration," she said. "Ikea didn't have a top-down approach." This part of the collection ranges from the bright bold graphic Överallt padded blanket (€20) to a cushion cover for €5. The trio have even designed a multi-coloured elephant patterned shower curtain (€7).
The woven textiles in the collection were designed by the Egyptian design duo Mariam Hazem and Hend Riad, who work together as Reform Studio, with Ikea designer Hanna Dalrot. Sustainability is the Reform Studio thing, and their contribution to Överallt was no exception. "We found this beautiful material, silver food package waste, which can be found in crisp bags and chocolate bar wrappers. Tons of waste come out of the production and it's hard to recycle because it is mixed aluminium and plastic so we wanted to find a way to use it," they explain.
"At first we thought that making use of this waste material would be really hard to achieve on a mass production scale but Ikea loved the concept and pushed the extra mile to make it come true in their production." The material is used, to a greater or lesser extent, in the Överallt flatwoven rug (€75), cushion (€8) and tote bags (€8 and €10).
It's hard not to see Ikea as an all-powerful, all-seeing roaming eye, observing design around the world and waiting for the moment to pounce. One day, maybe, the Swedish giant will turn its benevolent eye on Ireland.
In the meantime, Irish manufacture has already been discovered. Last year, Ikea launched the Omedelbar collection, a Gothic and slightly terrifying ensemble in collaboration with stylist Bea Akerlund. The mesh hands in the collection - a type of ornament that you could use to stash your rings - were made in Tralee by the 3D printers, Wazp.
See ikea.com, tkmaxx.ie, miliashop.com, lolaandmawu.com