By Emily Bihl
In this age of Amazon Prime, same-day home deliveries, and global online shopping marketplaces, we tend to think we can get anything from anywhere (and fast). But as Nana Quagrain discovered after moving from South Africa to New York, that’s not *truly* the case.
Commuting back and forth between Brooklyn and Johannesburg for years while working in infrastructure finance, Quagraine realized that the contemporary African design she loved was conspicuously absent in retail-obsessed New York. Creating 54kibo was a way to fill the gap.
This cultural moment in particular is ripe for the resurgence of these styles. “In a pop culture context, the excitement around Black Panther was incredibly validating of Afrofuturism, and the pride that both Africans and African-Americans share has helped give rise to a new interest in learning about Africa and dispelling the myths that have proliferated about it,” says Quagraine.
Access to decor from across the African diaspora was the main focus behind creating 54kibo, but throughout the process the opportunity to shed light on narratives around African art that are often ignored in the media emerged as well. “There are [already] a number of beautifully curated import marketplaces on- and offline. However, we’ve noticed that they have a very persistent narrative when it comes to their raison d’être: one around empowerment of craftspeople and charity,” Quagraine says. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, as both a black- and woman-owned business, we’re committed to helping people see beyond the narrative of Africa being a charitable beneficiary.” Instead, 54kibo focuses on a more diverse approach with their wares. “We want to look beyond the typical crafts that are generally associated with goods from African countrie,” she says. “Our focus is on showcasing the expertise of African designers, who are incredibly educated, skilled, and talented artists and are creating exquisite works items that belong in any high-end design store.”
“The beauty of contemporary African design is that it’s versatile, because it represents a continent — or, really, an entire diaspora. There is a breadth of options to pull from,” Quagraine says. “Recently, in both fashion and home decor, there’s been an interest in African design beyond ‘tribal’ — a concept that has historically been a loose proxy for suggesting African design.” 54kibo’s buzziest products range from statement-making, geometric pendant light fixtures to ceramics with dizzying kinetic prints to reimagined wingback chairs that would look at home in any mid-century space. It’s clear that there’s something distinctive to suit every taste and style. “We think that people are interested in broadening the scope of their design options, and for some, having design that better represents their individual culture is even more empowering,” Quagraine tells us. “We want to help better contextualize contemporary African design, improving access and ensuring that African designers are included in the conversation.”