Meet Nifemi Marcus-Bello, an industrial designer from Nigeria who creates products around the people using and making them. You may know him from his internationally acclaimed Tebur (pronounced tay-boo). A flat-pack table that is functional, lightweight and portable. His prowess for user-centred design was recognised earlier on during his time at the University of Leeds in England, where he received his B.Sc., and Masters in industrial and product design.
In May 2012, he was presented with the Potential for Social Change Award at the Final Year degree show hosted by the School of Mechanical Engineering. Since then, he has launched the nmbello studio and has gone on to showcase at prestigious events such as the Venice Design 2018, 16th Venice Architectural Biennale in Venice, Italy. We caught up with Nifemi to find out more about his world of industrial design:
Did you always know that you wanted to be an industrial designer?
I accidentally stumbled onto it. Before I knew what product design was, I would use my hands a lot to take apart and make things. I had a carpentry and welding apprenticeship in Nigeria as well. So, I always knew that I wanted to create things. It was by chance, during an open day at the University of Leeds, that I happened upon it. and after visiting the department, I realised that this was definitely something that I would spend the rest of my life doing.
How would you describe your design style?
I tend to look at what is available around me, what can be done and then design around that. I don’t stick to one material. It depends on the brief and the user experience. It’s also about finding manufacturing processes that exist around me, then experimenting and exploiting them to see how we can later on create products that are effective. I try to make sure that everything is localised but also expand my horizons outside Nigeria, looking at where the best production is being done. Basically, speaking to people and seeing how collaboration can help with any product we’re looking to design.
I produced for use! I consider it a huge flaw if I design a product that can’t be used.
Are any of the designs concept art?
I produced for use! I consider it a huge flaw if I design a product that can’t be used. I am very user-centre driven, so the user always comes to mind when I design. Whether it’s chair or a table, considering how the user will interact with the space is extremely important. I like people to have an amazing experience with anything I design.
What are your thoughts on mass production?
I’m driven by it. I think that mass production is the future and that it should be considered when designing. It’s extremely important for African designers to be economically viable, and for overall economic growth and strength. At the moment, we actually produce in batches.
What is the response to your work locally and internationally? You’ve mentioned before that your work has called ‘not African enough’.
It does very well locally. I do get a lot of good feedback and some people comment that they can’t believe it’s made in Lagos. And now, internationally, the products are doing extremely well, I’m always called and ask to speak about the products. Even though some people would want to see an aesthetic that’s a bit more Afrocentric.
We are more than just the product, it’s about the approach and the thought behind it.
I was born and raised in Nigeria, I’ve lived all over Africa but it seems that people want to preserve this notion of what Africa should look like. And not realise that we are very music driven and modern in our way of living. For example, people say it’s more Scandinavian than African, I beg to differ. Because if you look around you, in Africa, functionality always remains the concern. And this is a product that puts functionality and the user first. We are more than just the product, it’s about the approach and the thought behind it. And I think that’s why it’s doing very well internationally.
Being user-centred, what main issues do your designs tackle and why was that important for you?
The main issues that it solves for now are user experience, and economic viability. it’s extremely important that people take into consideration ethnographic and cultural issues before designing. So thinking around who you’re designing for and what experience you hope they’ll get from the product. Economically, when we design the product, we have to make sure that they can be sold.
Let’s look at some of your designs in particular, starting with the Kofe Club Collection.
The idea behind this was a client that approached us looking to create a furniture line that they can expand on as their coffee shop grew. They also had a low budget. So after a lot of research and discussion, we realised that because of transportation issues in Lagos, like most metropolitan cities, it would make life easier if the furniture could actually be assembled on sight. We decided to go with locally-sourced, reclaimed lumber and steel; the reclaimed wood was crucial as Nigeria has a shortage of well-treated dry wood. Once we got the materials, we actually designed around a local carpenters’ workshop, taking into consideration what they could actually do with wood and metal work.
It was designed for a client who was really looking to make furniture for her child. She wanted to create a chair that was safe to sit on without any sharp edges. Light enough to carry around and durable enough to last. It’s also designed to act as a storage unit for small items such as books.
Well this is a first. A co-working space approached me to design furniture for
them. After walking into their space, I realised that there was no
consideration for introverts. Which meant that some people weren’t working as
effectively as possible. I personally wouldn’t be able to work in this space.
So the idea was to create a chair that you can sit in and feel a bit secluded,
actually concentrate and do some work. However, it also took into consideration
that user may suffer from Anxiety and Claustrophobia, so various weaving
techniques were used to allow the light to pass through the chair without
compromising the need for privacy.
chair – We need to delve into
this because Nigerian are known for being extroverted. We don’t think we’ve
ever met any introverts.
It was designed around a company that produces generator cases. After approaching them, I walked around the factory and I designed around the manufacturing and assembly processes that they have. This included bending, welding and laser cutting of metal. The rationale behind the LM stool was to create a multifunctional object whose form tests design limitations. It explores the question, “How much material does one need to create stability?” Once stability was established we began to toy with the idea of subtraction. Through the reiteration of this idea, we were able to create a unique and bold form that gives the illusion of instability but is extremely stable and capable of withstanding large weight.
This is still in work in progress but it’s a start up, a furniture company called Joko that’s looking to produce furniture pieces with production people around the world. This was the first product we design for them. The idea is to make affordable furniture for aspiring Nigerians / middle-class Nigerians who want furniture that is functional and easy to transport. It’s made out of laminated plywood and tubular steel with the aim of pushing and exploiting the properties of these materials. The result is a lightweight and durable chair.
It was a necessity design especially for young people who tend to move around a lot. And have issues of buying pieces of furniture. I think that it answers a lot of questions pertaining the way we live. our modern lifestyle in Africa is a scenario where we’re trying to get affordable spaces but they’re small and you’re moving every year.
What’s next, any sneak peeks?
In the earlier days of 2019 I had to do a lot of soul searching and try to take a different approach with the studio. So I slowed down a bit, said no to a lot of exhibitions and collaborations. Just to recoup and figure out the best way forward. I am working on a few projects right now. Unfortunately, they are very confidential so I can’t even speak on them yet. So we shall see.
If you had an unlimited budget what issue would you set out to tackle with your product design?
I’ve really been passionate about health care and education. I think, if I had the funds and the connections I’d definitely go into solving problems in these areas.