Collaborations are nothing new for Ikea. Over the past few years especially, the company has released limited-edition products developed by external talent as a key part of its design strategy. Ikea gets a new perspective. Designers, many of them from Europe and the United States, get to sell their wares through the biggest furniture company in the world.
But the Överallt collection, debuting this May in the United States, marks new territory for the Swedish company. Its products are being announced this week, but they were created over two years alongside 10 architects and designers from across the continent of Africa. Överallt’s homewares and furniture were born from creatives in Kenya, Senegal, Egypt, South Africa, and Ivory Coast
“At Ikea, we were super intrigued about African design–this explosion at the moment with fashion design, furniture design, architecture design, and textile design. We really wanted to work more with these up-and-coming designers,” says James Futcher, creative leader at Ikea. “Normally, the starting points [designing at Ikea] are from a need or function in the home. But it was inspiring working with these designers, as they approached things in different ways than we would have thought about in the past.”
Inspired by urban rituals across Africa, the collection is full of rich and vibrant textiles, seen in everything from $8 cushion covers to a $90 flatwoven rug. Other items have an understated minimalism. A $50 plywood birch chair slides together like a few simple puzzle pieces. A $5 stoneware bowl has a stark simplicity that looks straight out of a Muji catalog. A $60 cast iron pot can hold 5 quarts of anything you’d want to braise, but its lid cleverly doubles as a skillet or baking pan.
“These aren’t things that are going to chip and grow old,” says Naeem Biviji, one of Överallt’s designers. “In Africa, we don’t throw things away. We hold on to things . . . We live in a [global] throwaway culture, and we need to change our attitude through versatile objects that are multipurpose but age beautifully.”
Biviji and his wife, Bethan Rayner, are the two-person team behind the Nairobi design partnership Studio Propolis, which is responsible for what may be the highlight of the entire collection. It’s a $130 curved bench made from solid eucalyptus, which can be paired with a matching stool ($50) or table ($160). The objects grew out of an old ritual–that at the end of each day, Kenyan families and friends will form a circle to have a conversation together.
“My family lives at the coast in Mombasa, and a bunch of 80-year-old aunts and uncles pull out their plastic chairs and sit in a big circle,” says Biviji. That was the initial point of inspiration–the circle. And as the idea was iterated upon, they realized a bench could be designed to curve along with a table–or, when you put two of these curving benches side by side, they can actually snake instead. This makes the design quite flexible for any sort of social space.
The legs have a midcentury modern look, but were inspired by traditional Swahili furniture (which exhibits a certain minimalism as well, as Biviji points out). Initially, the bench was going to be woven, but the geometries proved tricky to mass-produce. Studio Propolis is known for its custom, hand-crafted furniture rather than assembly line designs. But working inside Ikea’s prototyping lab, the designers realized that they could take the shape of string they’d developed, and then swap it out with many identically carved pieces of timber, making the bench simple to mass-produce.
Intriguingly, the weave Studio Propolis was experimenting with wasn’t a traditional African design in the first place. It was in the Hans Jørgensen Wegner style–a renowned Danish designer popular in the midcentury. So you have an African design studio, inspired by somewhat traditional Swahili furniture, using a Danish midcentury weave, but then ditching that weave for global mass manufacturing techniques. Oh, and it’s probably a good time to mention that Wegner’s designs were largely inspired by furniture from Japan.
So is the final result African? Yes. Is it Swedish? Also, yes. Of course, it’s a bit ironic for Ikea, which has done more than any other company to homogenize interior design, to suddenly embrace regional perspectives and distinctive sensibilities. But the value of Ikea’s first partnerships in Africa, and of promoting a rich source of design the company and much of the globe has ignored, speaks for itself: The work is fantastic.