Title: Designer Mark Kwami and his Africa collection by By Katja Winckler
Ecological and Fair
The German-Ghanaian designer Mark Kwami works with African craftspeople and promotes modern African design with his label, made in africa collection
Mark Kwami’s biggest hope for Africa is that it finds its way back to its creative roots. We meet the 44-year-old Berlin-based designer in the office of his design label “made in africa collection”, or mia for short. His sweatshirt bears a portrait of America’s new president, Barack Obama, and a single word: “Progress”, a symbol of Kwami’s aspirations. He holds a simply shaped Kenyan soapstone vase decorated with a miniature mask. The unique thing about it is that differently designed buttons can be inserted into a hole to vary the design as the owner wishes. Functional, modern, yet unequivocally African. The vase is one of about 200 home accessories and pieces of furniture which Kwami and his wife Susanne have been offering for sale at the mia showroom in the Berlin district of Tiergarten since 2003.
You won’t find the usual mass-produced African masks and sculptures here, but modern African design testifying of this continent’s rich craft tradition. It’s all based on the concept of “fair business”: mia collaborates directly with selected producers in Africa and pays fair prices. The producers are also given support in areas such as product development, product organization and corporate consulting. And in the last few years Kwami has been promoting the development of local design capacity in African and Latin American countries. “Because design is an economic factor that can play an important role in the sustainable development of these countries,” he says.
Kwami was born in Berlin; his mother is German, his father a Ghanaian mechanical engineer. When he was four years old, he moved to Ghana with his parents and lived there until he finished school. He then went back to Berlin to study African Design at the University of the Arts. Shortly before the end of his studies, he spent another year in Ghana focusing on the design culture there. He discovered that Ghana had originally had a rich design tradition but that, after colonization, it was gradually displaced by the subsequent “westernization” of African everyday culture. “Craftsmanship lost its role as the supplier of articles of daily use and was degraded to the production of kitschy, ‘airport art’,” says Kwami.
From 1996 he worked as a design consultant for various international development organizations in Africa. He became increasingly disturbed by the fact that many European designers were implementing their ideas of design in Africa. So it seemed all the more important for him to work with people on an equal footing and to encourage them to develop more creative ideas of their own: “That way they can really identify with the newly developed products,” Kwami says. In 2000, therefore, he founded his own studio, m.kwami design services.
A year later he was given a practical opportunity to show how much potential there is in modern African design: he designed and built an exhibition for the Berlin Import Shop trade show under the motto “Living Ghana”. With the support of the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), he worked on a new collection of design-oriented furniture and home accessories together with 20 producers from Ghana. With a specially designed trade-show booth, which was built like an apartment with several living rooms, they showed that it was perfectly possible to furnish a home in Europe in a contemporary and stylish way using African design. The show was so well received that Kwami was asked to organize the exhibition again in the two following years. He has since built up a broad network of contacts with African designers and craftspeople.
When the project was discontinued at the end of 2003, his wife Susanne decided to open a shop to meet the growing demand. In the meantime, a franchise system has evolved with shops in Hamburg and Karlsruhe. More are planned. Even so, several hurdles still need to be overcome before the permanent economic breakthrough is achieved. Quality control remains a major challenge. This is why Kwami travels to Africa several times a year to support companies with product development and organization – while his wife takes care of imports, storage, the wholesale business, and advising the franchise partners.
About a dozen groups of craftspeople are currently producing goods under the guidance of Kwami and African designers: original pieces of furniture, lamps, candlesticks, vases, mirrors and pillows from Ghana, Senegal and Kenya. The heavy ceramic containers are fired in kilns by women from a village in eastern Ghana according to ancient traditions. And the colourful collection of cushions, made of the cotton fabrics that are typical of West Africa, comes from a small sewing works in Accra.
Ecological sustainability is a top priority. For example, instead of wood, which has become a precious raw material, one of the designers, Selassie Tettevie from Ghana, uses sea grass to cover seats and tables. And the heavy-looking, but surprisingly light “wood core” stools from the Fritete company are carved from the cores of tree trunks that are left over from the manufacture of veneers in Ghana. The Berlin-based duo and their partners in Africa soon hope to use only certified raw materials. Starting in August 2009 in Kenya, all wood for export will have to bear the label of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which insists on strict social, ecological and economic standards in wood processing. “An important step in the right direction,” according to Mark and Susanne Kwami.
The Berlin designer is also active in the field of AIDS prevention. As part of a special teaching project at the University of the Arts, he and his Berlin students developed an easy-and-cheap-to-produce inflatable plastic cube for demonstrating to women how female condoms work – without making them blush. Later this year the cube is to be used as part of an AIDS awareness campaign in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. “Progress,” Kwami’s motto, evidently works on many levels – be it in Berlin, Africa or the United States. The End...
[Please see the post above for Mark Kwami's website and his African Collection]..