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Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello

Nifemi Marcus-Bello

Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello

Lagos: I think I first met industrial designer Nifemi Marcus-Bello in Accra during the now infamous ‘Year of Return’ celebrations that took over Ghana at the end of 2019. I had come across the work of his Lagos-based, eponymous studio online in 2016, when I was working as a PR for an architecture practice in the Netherlands and consuming all things architecture and design. I began to ask good friends on the Lagos design scene about his work as I was compelled to find out more about his innovative use of industrial and locally sourced material, born of a real engagement with his context. 

nmbello Studio, led by Nifemi, centres on core values of innovation, usability, and sustainability, which he views as critical to good design. Design exists in plain sight, all around us, even though it might not readily present itself in the formal ‘westernised’ sense or definition. For instance, take the studio’s flat-pack Tebur (pronounced tay-boo, which means ‘table’ in Hausa, a North-Nigerian language) that stores its own legs elegantly beneath its own base for easy transport, while the Selah Lamp 1.0 reimagines the familiar, industrially produced sheet metal used for encasing the many generators manufactured in Nigeria as a sleek, hybridised chair and lighting object. 

Marcus-Bello’s designs adopt local processes to produce affordable design for all. This has seen the studio garner both local and international recognition with works presented at Venice Design 2018, coinciding with the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale, and the Paris edition of Copenhagen International Fashion Fair 2019. Most recently, the studio’s For The Community By The Community, a portable handwashing station responding to the global pandemic, won the Wallpaper* Design Awards 2021 Life-Enhancer of the Year award. 

Nifemi is a true Lagosian, born and bred. The city has inspired him since his childhood spent living across different neighbourhoods and during his first design encounters, via street-side welders and carpenters. The interview below is edited from over two hours of conversation and a long-overdue catch-up that took place over the phone between Lagos and Warri, Nigeria.

Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello

I think the last time I saw you was in Accra at the end of 2019 when you did that project with LVRN, the pop-up store. You also spoke about heading to Kigali to work on a project with MASS Design Group. How did that go?

I actually saw you after that Accra trip. My colleague and I came to visit you at that modernist house from the ‘60s you were staying at in Ikoyi.

That’s true. At the Alan Vaughan-Richards house with your assistant designer, Jaiye Oduyoye. I remember.

Exactly. We caught a flight to Kigali, Rwanda, a week later but then Covid hit so our trip got cut short and we had to come back to Lagos.

What happened with the project? 

It’s funny you bring Rwanda up as I visited last year. We were commissioned to design outdoor furniture for the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture, funded by the Buffett Foundation.

I remember during that Accra trip you also spoke about your mum enabling your initial introduction to design. What was your childhood like and where did you grow up in Lagos? 

You’re asking the wrong question. Where didn’t I grow up in Lagos? That’s the right question. I’ve lived in different parts of the city. I’m Lagos born and bred. The first place I remember growing up is in Maryland, and I wouldn’t even say it was a middle-class environment as it had such a diverse mix of working-class people as well. It was a very dope place to live because back then, as kids, we were all free to go into the streets, play football, and generally just interact with other kids in the neighbourhood. From Maryland, we then moved to Gbagada, which I also remember having that same integrated, mixed vibe where we always played outside. I was so curious growing up and would always go out into the neighbourhood, scavenging for things to take apart and rebuild. I did things like take the swings apart, remove the seats to see how they were assembled, or open up discarded footballs to see what was inside. Growing up in Gbagada really allowed me to explore my curiosity, especially because I had a lot of freedom.

Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello
Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello

Everything you describe sounds great.

My dad trained as an architect in Italy. It’s weird because now, I find myself asking myself: ‘Did I get into the field of design because of my curiosity, or was it an unconscious influence from when my parents were together?’ Growing up, our home was filled with architectural books because my dad was obsessed with design in general. There were also design objects present that had stories attached to them or that we weren’t even allowed to interact with because they were so precious. 

What kind of objects were these and how easy was it to tread around them as a kid trying not touch or break them?

My dad studied architecture at the Politecnico di Milano and, from what he told me, he was in a class of very talented designers. He brought back pieces created by his peers and collected other objects during his time in Italy. He knew back then, of course, that some of these pieces would be very expensive to ship back to Lagos as they were imported, and if anything happened to them, he wouldn’t want anyone local to repair them. For him, they had sentimental and emotional value, so a vase wasn’t just a vase you could replace if it got broken. He’d have to save up so much money to collect things and I think that’s one of the reasons why we weren’t allowed to interact with them. It was OK to sit on his designer chairs though, but we had to be very careful. When I was eight, my mum and dad separated. It was kind of tough, especially on my mom—it would be for any middle-class woman who had to raise three kids by herself. I remember, one thing my mum would always say to my brothers and I is that she’d make sure we were happy finding whatever it was we wanted to do in life. She always gave us this freedom growing up. From Gbagada, we moved to Ikeja GRA, which was where I ended up attending a secondary school called Grange. It was a bit of a culture shock because, coming from a middle-class family, it was my first time interacting with upper-middle-class kids.

I think I recall growing up hearing about how posh Grange was. What was it like?

Yes, I’d say Grange was even posher than the average. My mum would tell me, at the time, entering this new education environment: ‘Remember where you come from. Remember whose son you are’, and, ‘Interaction with all sorts of people is crucial to your personal development’. This was something instilled in me from a very young age.

Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello

What impressions from your teenage years would you say stood out?

In the summers, most of the kids at school would spend their holidays out of the country, but I remember one summer when I was 13, due to my ongoing curiosity for making and unmaking things, my mum took me to a very informal gathering of welders under the bridge in Ikeja and announced to them that I intended to design a bath for her at home and needed to learn how to make one. That’s how I ended up being an apprentice for that entire summer. I ended up designing that bath. It was an existing bathtub that was held by metal frames and legs. I wish I had the pictures now actually. I carried on working with the welders, even after designing the bathtub, staying longer than anticipated, enjoying the experience of working with them, and also picking up some welding skills. I think the whole experience lasted for about three months.

What was it like day to day with this group of welders?

The first few days, I was really seen as the new kid on the block, the ajebutter [privileged] kid that just got dumped here to watch what they were doing. I remember everyone eating a lot, so I’d just eat a lot of street food, like fried yam. That was it, the highlight of my first few days was eating fried yam. They eventually warmed up to me because I started asking questions. They would demonstrate how things were done and were very accommodating in showing me tap welding, how things should be placed, and how to measure dimensions here and there as well. I felt like as time went by, they became more open and I was allowed to contribute to the discussion, young as I was. I don’t think they took in any of it, but they’d ask me anyway. This is how we interacted. I don’t remember sketching as it was mostly about communicating through conversing.

That’s just the most incredible experience to have at that age.

I know. It’s weird because even when my dad was around when I was younger, I didn’t know if Nigerian design existed. I didn’t have a language for it as such, but I just knew for certain that I wanted to make things. Back then, I wouldn’t say: ‘I want to design this’, I’d just say, ‘I want to make you this, I want to make that’. My mum caught on to this as well. Sorry, the welding thing happened at the age of 14, not 13. OK, I need to go back a year. Actually, at 13, the first thing I remember doing that changed my mindset on Lagos was my mum taking me to Lagos Island to work with her sister. So there I was, going to this posh school every day and then going to Lagos Island on the weekend, which was like the biggest culture shock you can ever imagine. You had to pay ₦20 to pee in the toilets, and blend in really quickly so that the other kids in the market wouldn’t pick on you.

You mean the lace section in Balogun Market?

Yes.

Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello

Amazing. Your formative Lagos experiences just get more and more interesting.

There’s a main section of the market where mostly women sell lace. I can’t remember the name of the street now.

I’m sure my mum knows it and I’m also certain I’ve been there too, during my childhood.

I used to be on the street just working. I think it was just for a summer. So it was the following summer that I did the welding apprenticeship in Ikeja. After the welding experience, my mum then also introduced me to a bunch of local carpenters, so I would sometimes go to their workshops to basically just watch them work. I picked up tools here and there. I didn’t have the opportunity to make as much as I wanted to as they were always so busy, but I did a lot of watching and learning. Fast forward a few years after all of this, I find myself in England—later than most of my peers because I didn’t quite know what I wanted to study at university after graduating from secondary school. During my A-levels, I enjoyed design and technology but I didn’t see myself, as a Black person, represented in the field. I’d seen a lot of white people design but never seen a Black person design before. I worried about how I would survive as a designer. I ended up setting my mind on architecture even though I didn’t have the exact courses to get me on a programme. An open-day visit to Leeds University—which didn’t actually have an architecture department—led me to the School of Mechanical Engineering by chance. I was blown away by their Product Design department and that’s essentially where my formal design story began. Sorry, this has been quite long-winded.

Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello

It was long but so rich and has led my mind in so many directions. As you were speaking, I was thinking of the parallels in our experiences. I also left Nigeria and went to the University of Leeds. I had a great time studying History of Art for three years and I’m still fond of the city. What a coincidence, but this is a whole other conversation. I think your mum is just extraordinary and amazing, especially to have encouraged you to have these experiences learning how things are made by people who are making them for everyday use as opposed to any sort of formal or high-brow interpretation of design. Let’s not even call it design, as this harks back to what you said about describing this process of ‘making useful things’.

Yes, when I think back to those times, it was quite extraordinary.

I’m also curious about how your friends at secondary school responded to this.

Oh, I kept that experience to myself back then.

Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello

So you left Nigeria and ended up studying Product Design. When did it become clear you’d return to Nigeria to set up a studio?

To my surprise, when I graduated from Leeds, I got a few job offers. I was very tempted to take them up and stay in the UK, but I hadn’t been to Lagos in years, and at the time, my mum worked in Zambia so I’d bypass coming back home and go visit her there instead. I missed Lagos so much during that time. I was also very sceptical of staying in England. My gut just kept telling me to leave, so I did. When I left and came back to Lagos, I thought to myself, ‘I’ve made the worst mistake ever’. I studied design which, in my view, wasn’t present here. I would always have to pitch myself to the closest thing I viewed as good design, which at the time was with architects.

Which practice was this with?

Kunlé Adeyemi of NLÉ. I approached him with an industrial design mindset and ended up working with him for almost a year and a half, then we started designing furniture together.

I’ve met Kunlé. Small world.

That’s crazy. Yes, so I worked for NLÉ and began working for Alára. This came about by pitching to them, but it was a short-term role that involved working on the design arrangements for the restaurant NOK. After Alára, I returned to freelancing but it got to a point where I realised that there weren’t that many people who understood what I did or even really cared for it. I started designing stuff myself, and one of the first products that I designed was this flat-pack, portable, and easily assembled table called Tebur. I just put out the prototype and realised people were gravitating towards it. I made a few batches with two of my friends and it sold out quicker than I had anticipated, in a week. Through this, I learnt that I loved design more than I loved the business side of it.

Following your gut again I see.

Absolutely! I just carried on designing to see if anything would come out of it. By chance, a friend of mine reached out to me about a job with the Nigerian headquarters of Tecno Mobile, the Chinese telecommunications giant. They were looking for industrial designers, I applied, I got the job, and within the first six months, I was promoted to Lead Designer for their emerging markets: Africa and the Middle East. 

Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello
Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello

I want to go back to some of the things that you mentioned about trying to navigate being back in Lagos and figuring out where to sort of insert your design vision, ethos, and perspective. You said that people weren’t getting what you did. Why do you think that disconnect was happening initially?

I think a lot of it was my fault. The design process and approach I had was far removed from the context. I came from an education system that purported a more clinical design process of how things should be done. What I didn’t realise at the time was that while that works in Europe, it didn’t translate here on the continent.

Context specificity was needed.

Yeah, because things are already in place and there’s a design language that exists here. It might not be recognisable as design in a Western sense, but it’s here. Design and production happen here daily. You just have to find out what’s available locally and embrace that and design around it. When my thinking shifted and I began designing in this manner, I found that I was having better conversations and being informed by them.

I had a conversation with Dozie Kanu a while back and he spoke so eloquently about a ‘ruggedness’ to design in Nigeria and a disregard for this clinical aesthetic you mentioned. This ruggedness that he talks about comes from a lot of things like not having time, having to produce things quickly, having to be resourceful, and having to eat. So it’s quite interesting how constraints become an aesthetic. But it’s also really about functionality and prioritising function. Would you agree? I’m thinking here specifically of your project case study for Kwali, and the Selah Lamp 1.0.

My sentiments exactly! Kwali was inspired by observing how good design exists in Lagos. The kwali acts as a portable shop, weaving through Lagos traffic. It’s affordable, sustainable, and functional enough to allow vendors to move through the streets easily.

Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello
Sketch Selah Lamp 1.0, 2019.
Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello
Selah Lamp 1.0, 2019.

How did you begin to engage critically with the kwali as a design object?

It began with my journey into trying to find an example of a well-designed and mass-produced product in Lagos from a contemporary standpoint. I soon realised that what I was looking for was all around me. I decided to start creating case studies for products that were, in my opinion, fantastically designed and don’t necessarily have that design label attached to them but are part of the social fabric of Lagos. One of the first things I identified was the kwali. It’s a recognisable object used by street hawkers to display and transport goods like gum, sweets, and cigarettes. I struck up a conversation with someone carrying a kwali and asked him to tell me more about the product he was using to sell his goods. He was initially sceptical, but he gave me the number of another guy who actually made them for hawkers around the Oniru area. In Oniru, I encountered this man who was also, at times, a street hawker, but for years had made these kwalis for people for ₦500, less than $1.50. I was blown away at the cost and I asked him to make one in front of me. He did, right there, in under 15 minutes, while I watched and documented with my phone.

The skill and speed in making are staggering.

I feel like there are so many of these products in Lagos and even across Africa that no one talks about because they don’t have the design tag on them. The reason why you can buy goods in traffic is because of good design. The reason why some people have the option to earn a living informally every day, that can help their family sustain themselves, is because of this product. 

Do you know why it’s called kwali?

It’s the Hausa word for box or carton.

With the Selah Lamp 1.0 it seems to me that you’re really pushing this idea of turning an industrial material into something more desirable, and also playing around with form and function as it’s a stool/chair as well as a lamp.

The original idea was to design a lamp and explore lighting, given how precarious the electricity supply is in Nigeria in general. The Sela Lamp 1.0 was birthed from the design that created the LM Stool, where I was trying to understand and explore electrical power generators’ manufacturing processes in Nigeria. The lamp is made of thin sheets of metal used for encasing generators, which is then bent in demarcated angles.

For The Community By The Community, your portable handwashing station, won the Wallpaper* Life-Enhancer of the Year award last year. It was great to see this democratising design process in action. How did this notion of designing with the community arise?

Designing with the community allowed everyone to interact with an actual problem: in this case, hygiene in a pandemic. I also wanted to address the fact that people tend to design products and just forget about the makers involved. Designers don’t realise that they’re actually co-creating. It was important to also address the economic impact of the pandemic, in the sense that lots of people lost their jobs, so for the project, welders, ceramicists, medical staff, and designers all came together in the design process.

Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello
nmbello workshop in Lagos.
Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello
nmbello workshop in Lagos.

We’ve talked so much about your really interesting trajectory, but I’d like to know about your personal space. What’s home like? 

I’m an extreme minimalist and I don’t have a lot of stuff personally, but now that I share my personal space with my wife, I’ve learnt to accommodate more. So, I’d say I’m a minimalist at heart because even the studio is very minimal.

What’s your relationship to nature and the natural world, seeing as Lagos is not the easiest place to navigate for this?

That’s a good question. And yes, you’re right, accessing nature in this city isn’t easy. I make up for it by being a major plant addict, and I also try to make every environment I’m in as relaxing as possible to counter the external chaos of the city.

Once you step outside, right? You just can’t find calm.

Agreed. Once you step outside, it doesn’t exist.

What music are you listening to at the moment, and what are you reading? 

I’m listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar and to slow down—I have to listen to the right music, especially in traffic—Miles Davis works very well. Literature-wise, a book my cousin Fola Fagbule co-authored, Formation: The Making of Nigeria from Jihad to Amalgamation. It maps out Nigeria before colonisation and the decisions that made Nigeria the country it is today. I’m excited to get into this book, I’ll see if I can send you a copy.

Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello
nmbello workshop in Lagos.
Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello
nmbello workshop in Lagos.

This sounds right up my street. Thanks. So tell me, how do you start your day? With routines or rituals? Are you at the studio daily?

I go to bed at 11pm, so I’ll get up at 6am on a good day and I try to go for a run as often as I can. Once I’m back home, I shower and just get to work immediately, to be honest. Before getting into my new studio space, I worked from home so have always been comfortable working there. Even though there are very few Covid restrictions in Lagos, I still try to work from home as often as I can because it’s also my sanctuary and haven. I have a lot of clarity here. I have to add that even while working at home, I’m fully dressed as if I’m in the studio. People say I dress better at home than when I step out.

That’s hilarious. We’ve spoken about you working in Rwanda, and it struck me how much more dialogue needs to happen to lead to cross-continental collaborations. When you think about the diversity of this continent, it’s really staggering.

I love collaborating and it’s really second nature to me. This could be with writers, photographers, other designers, and architects—everyone really. I think that it’s important that this happens because we can get to wherever we want faster as a collective. I would love to move more around the continent to collaborate with as many people as possible, but with a consciousness of how different places and people are working with whatever issues and constraints encountered. I see collaborating as a way to share knowledge and skills, and I also don’t want to box myself in by just thinking of design in terms of Nigeria as I’m also an African. I’ve lived in Rwanda, Zambia, and Nigeria—so the West, East, and South of Africa. It’s also important that we’re able to tell our stories outside Africa because there’s a huge diaspora population out there to engage with.

Apartamento Magazine - Nifemi Marcus-Bello

 

 

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