In Conversation with Furniture Designer Jomo Tariku
by Andrew Veloz • Nov 13, 2020 | INTERVIEWS

It is often said that home is where the heart is and for some, there is no better way to share one’s home than with the art that best represents that home. Born in Kenya but Raised in Ethiopia, data scientist and furniture designer Jomo Tariku consciously makes an effort to represent his home and the African continent through the designing of stools and chairs. With these efforts, Tariku hopes to propel authentic African art and furniture in the predominantly white industry. With that in mind, we interviewed Tariku to help us better understand the creation of his furniture and illuminate issues regarding the presentation of African Art.

Andrew Veloz: Who are you and what makes up your work?
Jomo Tariku: My name is Jomo Tariku. I was born in Nairobi, Kenya but really I was raised in Ethiopia. I came here [to The United States] to study and go to college. I was first undecided but took a whole bunch of art electives at a small college. A professor said, “you’re good at this. I don’t know what you’re doing at this small college”. It kind of was an incentive. I had no plans to pursue that even though I had a passion for it ever since I was a little kid. I went to college and studied industrial design. I did my thesis on the modern line of African furniture or introducing to the market the concept of being able to buy a modern set of African furniture. This was way back in 93. There was nothing like that back then. I think, yes, there is an improvement, but there is still a long way to go even now; that tells you something about the market. That’s been pretty much my passion for introducing my own design language into the core concept of what you call African design. I’m doing my part, and there are others who are doing similar things. That’s where I am on this journey.

This year, more than any other, there’s been a lot of traction on my work which is great, but unfortunately half of it is happening because of issues related to Black Lives Matter and people forcing Blackout Tuesday on the market. It is saying to the design industry, at least in the areas I practice, where are your black designers? Why don’t you work with black designers? That question required an answer. Those are some of the highlights I’ve been getting, but I’ve been doing this for 20 years.

Andrew Veloz: What is your approach to design? A lot of your work is in stools for example. How do you conceptualize these pieces?
Jomo Tariku: That’s a good question, and I’m glad you mention that I focus on stools because I want to give you some context as to why I focus on stools and chairs. As a small independent designer, one of the things I needed to do is to create something I can manage. When doing these things, you end up generating lots of prototypes, so doing larger things from the get-go is out of the question. But also stools are a curiosity. Stools are things that I grew up with; we had few of them inside the house. They’re objects that you venerate. I remember my grandfather on my mum’s side used to have a stool. It was his stool. You’re not supposed to sit on it. Aboi means grandfather. That’s aboi’s stool… don’t do this…don’t do that either. After he passed away, that stool ended up in our house. No one sat on that thing. It just sat there, and I’ve noticed there are traditions like that in different parts of Africa… In Western Africa.

There is that story component of things that fascinate me about stools then there is the design element… the simplicity. For example, the five or six stools that were just in our living room. We don’t know who made them because it’s a craftsman in Ethiopia who made those, but you don’t know who it is. There’s no branding… There’s no specific thing that I as a western-educated designer get to[decipher] that. There are these components of the design then there is my approach. When I take the time to say I want to build a series of something, I try to avoid looking at a stool to design a stool. The Ashanti was one of those where I looked at it. I’ve been looking at an Ashanti stool, and asking is there anything that I can extract and input into it? On the flip side, I try to look at various objects, mostly from the Sub-Saharan parts of Africa. On the last series of stools that I did, it was mostly looking at the silhouette part of the object. I didn’t get sucked in by the patterns of things on it. What does that silhouette tell me? I did a whole bunch of sketches of objects: houseware, pottery, simple patterns, landscape. Once I got to the headrest, that was a signal. I said, this I can make into the stool I’m thinking of…do I really just want to trace that scale it up and call it a day? I didn’t want to do that. This is the part where the industrial designer side kicks in and says It’d be nice if they [stools] were height-adjustable… not everybody’s the same height… is this an end table or a stool ?… can we blur the line by making it height adjustable if you want to use it as an end table. Those three unique pieces; the three height-adjustable ones: the Dogon, Ashanti, and the Boratii are the child of that type of thinking. If you’ve seen the Nyala chair, the same type of thinking has gone into it- wild animal being interpreted into a chair. When possible, I try to do my research by looking at different things. I really believe looking at a chair you end up drawing a similar chair-maybe just raise the armrest or something like that. I don’t mind doing that if I think there’s a design that deserves that type of attention. My goal right now is to try to create new things. I don’t focus on taking a pre-existing chair, adding two lines, and calling it my own.

Jomo Tariku MeQuamya Chair and Nyala Chair | Photo credit: Jomo Tariku

What defines Ethiopian design?
Jomo Tariku: Someone else asked me something similar. I grew up in Ethiopia. It’s kind of natural to pick things from Ethiopia, but I on purpose make my design approach to be wider than that. When I do sketches, when I buy books to look at, when I do my research I just type Africa. I don’t purposely do Ethiopia because I really want to be able to tell people that there is a rich heritage within this continent and there is a lot to from others. They don’t have to be from my own culture or my own part of the country but saying that design language is what makes us universal. All these things that have been contributed by our ancestors, we generally are not the beneficiaries. When and if curators, even companies want to base their work on African patterns and designs, they generally tend to send Eurocentric designers like European, American, or white designers to Africa to do their research and put their signature. I want to be able to say look there are designers from the continent. Why don’t you ask them? They grew up with it. They’ve internalized it. It’s probably much easier for them to spit it out, put it on paper, and into a product; it is actually authentic. There are all these advantages of using people who know about their own culture to design new things for you. It’s not like I don’t look at Scandinavian furniture and all these things that I enjoy on my shelves behind me. I don’t care these furniture pieces are coming from. My only argument is, just like I did in my thesis 20-something years ago, the market has not created the space or is not even willing to look at it or maybe calling it crafty, touristic looking.

Those are the only things we can contribute. if it goes upscale or higher it has to be somebody else. It can’t be someone who looks like me doing the work. Ethiopia has a rich culture. I get a lot of inspiration from it. As I said, since I grew up with it and have internalized some of it, maybe it comes automatically to me. Maybe I don’t notice it as much when I look at other countries’ cultural contributions, but if you look at the hair braiding that we do and the afro. All of these things are inspirations to me, but I try my best to not be an Ethiopian designer but mostly an African designer. This is just doing the Sub-Saharan part of it. I can’t wait to get into the northern part of Africa. There are amazing works done from there. Carlo Bugatti got his ideas for his chair from northern Africa that got flipped around and ended up in Black Panther the movie. You can see a clear cycle of this whole thing; there is more. One thing I want to do and be happy if I accomplish it is putting as many of us black and African designers and let the industry know there’s a lot we can contribute to enhancing this. It’s not a very eurocentric market anymore. You can’t do that, it’s monotonous; it’s boring. I go to a lot of trade shows, and sometimes I feel like I am seeing the same thing I saw last year. Why am I here? but because I’m in the industry I enjoy going to it. But, at the end of the day, it makes me say only a few new interesting things, but I don’t see a leap. I think we’re the ones who bring the leap. At least design-wise, I am within the bigger African context or I love to see myself within that context versus narrowing down where I grew up and what I extract from it.

You’ve mentioned before that there that design tends to be Eurocentric, Why is that?
Jomo Tariku: There’s the obvious stuff because I would go to trade shows. And I’ll just say, even just seeing one black person in the booth will make you happy because you’ll probably want to stand at the show, also walking the floor. So, that is like, the emotional part of it. You want people who look like you when you go to a school that will. You know, when you go to events that will make you say, or I can be like him, I could be like her. Okay. When I was a youth, it mattered. The reason I did the thesis partly is that I would go to our art library and I would go through all of these books and magazines. And I wouldn’t see anything about Africa unless it’s a mask, you know? So I, you know, this kind of say to me, this is what you know, curators and people in the industry; when you tell them about Sub-Saharan Africa, this is how they define us. We can’t do any more than this. If anything other than that, then like I said earlier, it has to be somebody else.

So for me, going to events was kind of like a reaffirmation of these issues that I keep seeing. It’s not only the design that was not there, the designers were not there. You know, our culture was not there. If and when it happened, it wasn’t us doing it, so what I knew was a Eurocentric view. Recently, I was looking at Atlas of Furniture design for research, and they on the back of the book have 80 something plus design styles and trends listed. There’s nothing about anything related to either black culture or African culture in there. Absolutely not. Half of futurism is not listed. There are movements that I’ve never heard of listed there, so at least for the authors of this huge book, 70 something plus our authors, this is not clear to them. This is where I see issues. It should have triggered in one of them that said, what? We’ve talked about everyone here. How about a whole continent, you know, of 1.4 billion or something, plus people in and in their culture and maybe their design thinking. How do we categorize that? So there was nothing about us there, but in the same book, I’m telling you about, there’s a page about how the world is Eurocentric. I didn’t make that up. The authors of that book talk about that saying they’re looking at the global South. Finally. But the global cells, looking from my point of view they’re talking about, is sending European designers to go to Africa, to do their research and to extract something out of it. Well, that’s still Eurocentric to me because you could get a lot of things wrong at the same time; you could do your research. That’s fine. But like I said, how about using the authentic designer that is sitting in Senegal or Mali or in Kenya or South Africa to do this?  IKEA, to its credit, went through this exercise maybe about two years ago, purposely hiring people based out of Africa and African designers. I think that’s in the right direction. That is preferred. That that will bring a different design language that may be in five years or 10 years, we’ll say it’s is it was worth it or this is what we should fix or something. But do something right. I think I think that was the right approach.

How do we fix that issue?
Jomo Tariku:  Depending on who you talk to and who in the design industry, I think you gotta have different answers. And again, as an independent designer trying to swim in this shark-infested game we’re playing with,  it is really hard to tell you ‘this’ is the solution. But I think if you ask me, what’s your biggest challenge? Capital. It’s capital. It’s networking.  Having access to manufacturing. I’m the one who invests in all of my fabrication. I get to deal with showrooms recently. With showrooms, and I don’t think showrooms understand, I get treated like I’m Herman Miller. I’m not. I don’t have that kind of capital. when I do 10 prototypes of the same thing, trying to fix something, that’s all coming out of my pocket. Sometimes it pauses for a long time because there is no capital to do all of that. Showrooms and catalogs, they’re approaching us lately, black designers, saying we want to carry your work, but I think you need to understand you cannot approach us like a multi-million or multi-billion-dollar company.You know who can handle a lot of the pain that comes with it. If my item shows up in your showroom. You know the theme, the margin, the return policy you’re talking about. All of these things have to be palatable for a small guy. Unless, of course, you wanna invest upfront, but that’s not happening. There will be difficulty in this economy right now to get that. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but people gotta understand as challenging as it is, you know, as an independent designer.

You can add all the other issues that this country is facing race wise and everything else to be able to go up the ladder. But one of the things that most should be assured of is we’re just as capable designers as everybody else that you’re either promoting, licensing, pushing forward. So it’s not about the matter of skill and know-how. But until the day someone is willing to take the fabrication and I’m talking about is a furniture designer, The fabrication issues are the biggest challenge that needs to be solved. PR issues, right now, I would say that the least on my side, I don’t have any PR issues anymore, but that could die down, but next month it could be a different story. So getting Exporter was one of the biggest problems in that 20 something plus years that I’ve been talking about my work. The whole idea that African designers and African design can contribute the same thing with black designers and what they can contribute by getting exposure, getting the features we needed at trade shows, and all that. These are things that larger distributors, companies, showrooms can actually sit down and say, what can we offer other than giving you the space to show your work? What are they gonna take as a hit? You know, don’t bring the same margin that you do with everybody else because it is just not gonna happen. Our work will stay the way it is. Yes, you’ll see me more in magazines, which means the cost of running a business is still left to me, so nothing has changed on that one. To become a real partner to come in and say yes, I love your design. But what else can we work on? Other than telling you, I’ll give you the space in my catalog. It has to be more than that. It just cannot be a regular approach.

Jomo Tariku Ashanti | Stool/End Table Photo credit: Jomo Tariku

What are your plans for the future?
Jomo Tariku:  Design-wise, it is doing what I’ve always done. I’ve always been passionate about the family of building a prototype, which is the last 3-4 weeks. I’ve been working on a few things and getting preoccupied. Whenever I have free time, I do my sketches, or I do my book. So the future, other than adding more to the library of work, I have is hopefully getting my work into galleries, showrooms. Hopefully, in curated shows and museums, there are artistic pieces that I’ve done that are less productive-ish, that I need to distinguish which way to go with my stuff. I think some of my stuff should be driven, you know, headed to galleries instead of regular showrooms. Sometimes trying to make a decision on those is difficult. But these are challenges I would like to have in the future that hopefully, I’ll figure out, but design-wise, you know, there’s more coming. That’s what I could say.

Thoughts on the reclamation of arts from various countries?
Jomo Tariku: It needs to be returned, but what I want on our side, you know, I remember as a child going to the museum and others and being just shocked by the shape it was in. I’m saying we have an extremely rich history. And I can’t believe the government has not invested in doing this thing the right way. Now, things might have changed you know, items as large as that. I don’t know if you know about the Axum Stelae, or it looks like an obelisk because I guess there is a slight difference between the two. You know, the Italians, when they invaded Ethiopia, for example, just cut up one of them and just took it. So that got returned, that one that reinstalled. I haven’t physically gone and seen it. But, you know, they did the best that could be done because they cut it up. There was a crown that was recently returned that got returned to the right place. There are more of these stories coming out of the western parts of Africa. Because when colonizers, you know, first started no invading and taking and enslaving people. They also took care of a lot of art, took care, they stole it. France has decided, at least in words and maybe in some action, to return this. But on our side, we really need to get ready to take these and preserve them very well because this is our heritage. For me, this is what I based my work on. This is, you know, something we really need to pay seriously. Personally, if you ask me, the people who stole them need to build the museums to put it back in the funds are not available to do it back home. You’ve capitalized on it, you’ve done shows with it. You’ve done the books with it. You sold some of them. You’ve made money out of them. It is about time. You want an honest return, build the museums, and put them back. But just don’t build it. Engage the people that you’re returning it to. So it is done in the most, you know, the right way of putting it back. Just don’t throw it there and leave it. I’m in pretty much a full agreement. It’s just that how do we put it back so people that are being returned to get to enjoy it finally in their homeland? That is my question. Other than that, I am in full agreement.

Interview conducted by Andrew Veloz for AKO.

Visit Jomo Tariku’s website by clicking here: Jomo Furniture

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Written by
Andrew Veloz
Contributing writer on Fashion, Culture, and Creative Features.
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