Nifemi Marcus-Bello doesn’t understand where his curiosity has taken him. At first he thought setting up his eponymous design studio in 2017 would give him all the answers to his questions, but he admits he still has a lot to discover. On Zoom, there’s something soothing in his voice as we laugh about the poor network issues in his native Nigeria.
Over the past few years, the designer has been one of many to breathe new life into the country’s design scene, creating products that are not only unique, but eccentric in look. Marcus-Bello received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Leeds, where he studied industrial and product design. Then he worked for a few companies and returned to Nigeria to start NMBello Studio where he designs and collaborates with well-known brands at home and abroad. The designer takes pride in creating products with a historical perspective with a contemporary redefinition.
Interior design spoke with Marcus-Bello about his career development and the release of the M2-Shelves, which are on display at the Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne until August 22.
Interior design: Can you tell me more about M2 shelves? What inspired them?
NMB: I currently have a new project, which are shelves in two parts: the D shelf and the custom shelf and they are currently at the Tiwani gallery. The idea behind the shelves came from trying to design something sculptural and functional. I wanted to create a product that could stand on its own but also be a functional piece. I really wanted the object itself to be as intrusive as possible so that in the foreground of the space it occupies, it has a presence.
Right now where I am as a designer I have more questions than answers so whenever I’m approached to design an object I tend to ask more questions. Some of the questions I sought to ask were: What does old age African design look like? What identity did he have? How can we somehow look to the past to create something substantial in the future? I think I looked at a lot of sculptures and figurines and objects that have the same shape-silhouette as the shelves, which is functional but at the same time would give sculptural definition. I was looking for a way to translate these objects into a contemporary perspective. One of the main objects that I was inspired by and looked at was the 19th century Ogbom artifact from the Igbo tribe, which is actually a wooden sculpture itself.
ID: During the production of these projects, how did you obtain the material and with what did you work?
NMB: I wanted to create something from a fusion of old and new – all the materials were sourced locally. For my own design process, I tend to design around the production capabilities and manufacturing capabilities available in Lagos. This tends to drive and dictate the final shape as well as design direction. With most designs I’ve done in the past, this is the approach I take. Even though I have inspiration, I can only be realistic with the materials available and what can be done around me. So for these shelves, the metal parts were made by a generation manufacturer based in Ikeja and the wooden parts were also made by a carpentry company in Lagos.
ID: How did you launch your brand, the NMBello Studio?
NMB: I’m interested in industrial design. I studied industrial and product design at the University of Leeds. However, I designed medical devices and smart phones for a few years before working with a few architectural firms that design furniture. I started the studio to feed the curiosity I had basically to create objects and products that I thought could be fueled by production and manufacturing available across the continent. I also wanted to understand what it meant to design in Africa in a contemporary way. I think I had a lot more questions than answers and I was hoping my studio would actually answer some of the questions I had because I feel like I still have those questions.
ID: What do you think of the Nigerian designscape? Has there been any growth since the start of your career?
NMB: I think the Nigerian design industry is in the right place; it increases tremendously every year. There is raw talent everywhere you look in Nigeria when it comes to creativity, craftsmanship and even technology. The design is therefore not the backbone, it is in fact in the foreground. I feel like there’s so much going on. In a few years we will see what times like this dictated and how people created works in our society that would eventually be called masterpieces.
ID: Form and texture seem to be among the most important things for you as a designer, like the LM stool, can you tell me about that?
NMB: For me, again, I feel like one of the design approaches I take is that the materials available dictate the shapes. I don’t go with a pre-determined or soon-to-be-done type of form – materials and manufacturing processes dictate what forms end up coming out.
ID: It seems like most of your designs have a historical perspective but with a modern twist. Do you intentionally do them this way?
NMB: Yes, I love the saying: you have to know where you come from to know where you are going. I think it’s important to look back but also not to get too hung up on it. It is important to use and understand contemporary production and manufacturing to create products that take into account the way we currently live and the way we want to live.
ID: The LM stool was a magnificent piece of work on your part. Tell me about that?
NMB: The inspiration behind the LM stool is very difficult to put into words. I had quit my job at the time and started my previous job which was designing satforms for Tecno Mobile and started researching what kind of production and manufacturing capabilities were available in Lagos. While I was doing this, I came across a builder of build cases and eventually visited their factory, looked at their production and manufacturing line, and figured out what the constraints and capabilities were. Once done, I started designing around the production line and manufacturing capabilities. I think the inspiration to go with the stool was that I wanted to create something really simple but also intricately shaped to push the boundaries and open their minds to the possibility of what they could use from the production they already have to do. I think that was the premise for the birth of the LM stool.
ID: As a product designer working in Lagos, what has been your biggest challenge?
NMB: For me, I would say it would be the lack of mainstreaming of design or interpolitics or decision-making as a hope for Nigeria because I think what’s happening is that a lot of our employees and even members of government take design for granted. . And I’m not just talking about product design – I’m talking about architecture, home design, landscaping and the like – I really feel like that’s a given. And aside from the economic viability of these practices, I think one thing that people take for granted is the emotional side of these practices, how can design somehow help us to live better and longer, to to have a better day-to-day experience, to improve daily interactions with ourselves and also how can we contribute to improving the mental states of our citizens with the spaces that they occupy and with which they interact. So I see that as a challenge because for me what I’m trying to do is try to think about design holistically, even if I’m designing a product, I try to have a design view. ‘together.
ID: Tell me about the Waf kiosk. What inspired the design?
NMB: The waf kiosk was designed for the skateboard brand Waf. The idea was to design a modular installation that will be used when they are activated across the city. The modular design is both modular in form and experience, so each activation is different from the last with the use and assistance of an architectural system. The design direction was inspired by a series of events while exploring manufacturing techniques and materiality in West Africa.
ID: As a designer, what do you hope for your creations in the years to come?
NMB: Integration and understanding of what it means to be a designer in contemporary Africa.