Dubai Design Week: Destination… Addis Ababa

The Ethiopian capital furniture traditionally designs for utility, with look and feel almost secondary but recently designers are pushing the boundaries of form and aesthetics

In recent years the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa has been going through something of a boom.

International investment is on the up and the construction sector is growing fast. Demographically the city is changing too as an increasing number of the Ethiopian diaspora are returning home to participate in the country’s economic development. And with the African Union and the headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa based in Addis, the city, which is known as the diplomatic capital of Africa, is home to a large number of cosmopolitan residents. A youthful population – the median age is 25 – adds vibrancy and energy. Add in a temperate climate, a plethora of outdoor cafes and restaurants and a vital social scene and you have a forward looking and confident city focused on the future.

Growing local wealth has also seen interest in design beginning to rise as people become more concerned about the quality of the spaces they occupy. In response, Addis Ababa Design Week was launched in December 2015 by Metasebia Yoseph and has now established its place on Ethiopia’s cultural calendar, taking place in the middle of January every year.

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The diplomatic capital of Africa, by contrast offers plentiful creative inspiration

Joseph says the design scene in the city is still small by international standards. ‘Although there are creative acts taking place everyday, the creative industries are only just beginning to become appreciated for their economic and innovative value. The Design Week festival offers a way to promote the economic viability of the creative industries while also being a platform to showcase local innovators,’ she says. 

She points to several of the Ethiopian designers exhibiting in Dubai as an example of the growing potential of the sector. ‘In Ethiopia, furniture has been traditionally designed for utility with look and feel almost secondary, but recently designers have begun to delve into and push the boundaries of form and aesthetics,’ says Yoseph.

‘Hamere Demissie of Actuel Urban Living is bringing refined, modern silhouettes complimented by bold colours with her collection of furniture, while Jomo Tariku of Jomo Design Furniture has taken familiar Ethiopian motifs and reintroduced them through his handcrafted wooden chairs and stools that are so sophisticated they border on fine art.’

Tariku (jomofurniture.com) will show a number of pieces at Dubai Design Week, including Birth Chair II, which is inspired by the African birthing chairs that are still in use in some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and Stacks, a contemporary spin on the traditional African stool.

‘I like simple geometric designs that flow well,’ says Tariku. ‘The design motifs found in my work echo the geometric patterns commonly found in African cultural artefacts.’

Now primarily based in Washington DC, Tariku acknowledges there are challenges to working as a designer in Ethiopia. ‘Simple things like access to materials and fabricators is difficult, which limits your ability to build or prototype ideas,’ he says by way of example.

But that is offset by the creative inspiration the country provides. Despite the distance between his base and his homeland, Tariku says Ethiopia and Africa remain his key inspirations.

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Locals are becoming more concerned about the quality of the spaces they occupy

‘Most of my design ideas are a synthesis of multiple things I saw when growing up, like traditional hair styles, the mido hair pick designs, einsira pottery, mesob basket weaving and church iconography and so on,’ he says. ‘I find Africa a limitless and wonderful resource for ideas and inspiration and I have barely touched the surface.’

Also at Dubai Design Week is Actuel Urban Living, which will feature its L’Afrique C’est Chic collection, which consists of home accessories made with wax print fabrics sourced from across Africa along with handwoven wool rugs and wood furniture.

‘I’m a designer with a close affinity to the modern design school from the '60s and '70s, says Actuel Urban Living designer and co-founder Hamere Demissie. ‘I’m also very influenced by the functional simplicity of African design and the way it uses and reuses materials, both natural and synthetic, to create objects with simple lines.’

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Jomo Design Furniture's handcrafted designs border on fine art

Demissie sees real potential for designers working in Addis Ababa. ‘Ethiopia is still wide open for designers,’ she says. ‘The market is dominated by traders who don’t necessarily have a great deal of knowledge about design, especially in furniture, and you can find talented small scale artisans and small and medium size manufacturers to work with. 

'There are challenges in regularly sourcing raw materials and prices tend to fluctuate, which can make it difficult when you’re running a business, so generally we have to be flexible and look for opportunities. Although it can be difficult, it is also an exciting context in which to operate.’