space of the week

A Design Warrior

Malene Barnett’s Black Artists + Designers Guild champions representation within those fields.

Malene Barnett in Jaipur, India. Photo: Courtesy of Malene Barnett
Malene Barnett in Jaipur, India. Photo: Courtesy of Malene Barnett

It all started with a powerful post on Instagram. Malene Barnett called out a lack of diversity during a day of panel discussions at one of the design industry’s esteemed centers. Her comments weren’t just about the panel, but about the pattern of exclusivity that still permeates the design world. Barnett took action by founding the Black Artists + Designers Guild in November 2018. She describes it as “a curated collective of black artists and designers throughout the African diaspora.” To date, the Guild has enlisted 80 designers and artists, many of whom gathered for the first time on February 12 at the Décor NYC showroom to celebrate the Guild’s launch with an exhibit of their work. Here’s a primer on seven artist and designers you should know.

Malene Barnett

Malene Barnett, founder of the Black Artists + Designers Guild.

Malene Barnett, founder of the Black Artists + Designers Guild, started her design career in the rug industry before creating her own line of bespoke carpets in 2009. Since then, her company, Malene B, has grown to include her painting and ceramics. Her recent work in clay led to an artist-in-residence program at Greenwich House Pottery, where she created hand-built vessels inspired by mud-house designs in West Africa.

“I have been traveling solo ever since I was in my 20s,” Barnett says of her global adventures, which started with a graduation gift she gave herself — a three-month-long trip to Gambia, Ghana, and India. Since then, she has touched down in over 20 countries, most recently in Dubai, Nepal, and Senegal. Barnett’s decision to found the Guild was based on her desire to change the conversation with her friends and design colleagues, which kept harping back to the lack of diversity in the design industry. “I decided to use my voice and resources to create an online platform to showcase the work of black artists and designers,” she says.

Eva Sonaike

Sonaike with a sampling of her textiles. Photo: Courtesy of Eva Sonaike

Eva Sonaike worked as a journalist in London for a glossy women’s magazine for six years and “never came across any African homeware or fashion in the premium segment of the market that spoke to me.” So she did something about it and started what she describes as a “high-end interior brand that was unapologetically African in its aesthetic.” Selfridges, Liberty, and Fenwick snapped up her designs in her first season.

Sonaike’s designs are heavily influenced by the colors, architecture, and fashions of West Africa. Photo: Courtesy of Eva Sonaike

Hadiya Williams

Hadiya Williams. Photo: Courtesy of Hadiya Williams

Hadiya Williams runs her design practice, Black Pepper Paperie Co., from her native Washington, D.C.; it offers everything from paper and branding designs to art direction and ceramics.

Williams describes this hand-built vessel she built with coils “as sort of a 40th-birthday gift to myself.” There are more where that came from on her Instagram, all beautiful. Photo: Courtesy of Hadiya Williams

Olubunmi Adeyemi

Olubunmi Adeyemi.

Olubunmi Adeyemi, the founder of Afrominima, convinced his architect father that he was serious about his commitment to design and went to Inchbald School of Design in London before returning to Nigeria to work as a designer in his father’s firm. Fast-forward to his being selected for a two-year Creative Enterprise Study program by the British Council and University of Glamorgan, where Adeyemi learned entrepreneurial skills and was inspired to create his own brand style, “Afrominima,” as in Afrocentric minimalism.

Photo: Courtesy of Olubunmi Adeyemi

The Da Brand’s first collection features wooden kitchen utensils, seen above, including a mortar-and-pestle set, a big serving spoon, and a handle spice bowl. (Da is the Yoruba verb for “to make or create.”) Adeyemi is currently living in London, where he is working in the master’s program at the University of the Arts and pursuing his design vision “to bring a new African design language and narrative that connects our past, our present, and our future.”

Nasozi Kakembo

Nasozi Kakembo.

Nasozi Kakembo’s American and Ugandan heritage has inspired myriad interests, culminating in the founding of her company, Xnasozi, in 2011 in Brooklyn, where she lived for 12 years until recently relocating to Maryland. Before starting her company, she graduated from Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and worked for a decade in international human-rights and social-justice organizations, all while designing textiles on the side. Today, Kakembo describes her company, with its fabric, furniture, and fine-art offerings, as a “lifestyle without borders.”

Kakembo’s signature Butterfly chair in black mud cloth can also be ordered in indigo. Many of her designs are done in mud cloth, a traditional fabric made in Mali by soaking cloth in boiled tree leaves and then dyeing the cloth with fermented mud. Photo: Courtesy of Nasozi Kakembo

Dana Baugh

Dana Baugh. Photo: Courtesy of Dana Baugh

Dana Baugh, who started Baughaus Design, creates her beautiful pottery in a shipping container she uses as a studio in Savanna-la-Mar, a rural town in Jamaica where she was born and raised. Baugh’s designs of ceramics, furniture, and lighting are all inspired by the natural beauty of the sea and vegetation of her island home.

A sampling of Baugh’s ceramics, including the Box Drinks jug and the Sea Biscuit bowl, spoon, and small plate. Each piece is hand-painted and glazed so the colors are unique. Photo: Courtesy of Dana Baugh

Jomo Tariku

Jomo Tariku. Photo: Courtesy of Jomo Tariku

Jomo Tariku established his first design studio in 2000 in Alexandria, Virginia (he closed it in 2008). Before that, he studied design at the University of Kansas and did his thesis on contemporary African furniture design. His pieces made a splash at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York in 2017 and were cited by Interior Design as having “caught our eye.”

Photo: Courtesy of Jomo Tariku

Jomo’s Ashanti adjustable stool, seen above, is a modern take on a centuries-old object familiar to people across the globe. “Things have truly picked up after joining BADG in 2018,” Jomo says. “And I finally feel I will get a fair shot at introducing a series of African-inspired original designs to the market in the hopes of also licensing some of the designs to capable manufacturers.”

This New Group Champions Representation in Art and Design