Tucked away half a block from a busy intersection on the U.S.’ East Coast is an approximately 10’x14’ storage unit filled to bursting capacity with a near-global marketplace of items purchased from over 20 years of globe-trotting travel.
Artisan creations and authentic pieces that double as décor and souvenirs have always been a big draw to me when visiting somewhere new. I am known to ask the driver to pull over on the side of the road to talk and barter with merchants and vendors. I have bought a new pestel and mortar for a cook in exchange for her decades old, smoothed and deconstructed one, cast-off into a corner to collect dust. I have decorative rice scoops from Liberia and waxed fabrics from Cote d’Ivoire, accent pillows cut from hand-woven rug patterns of Slovenia, brass coffee spoons from Bali, horn and bone accessories from Haiti and gold-leafed tobacco leaves from Tanzania. Every item is a shining memory from a beloved adventure.
I remember clearly when Macy’s began selling papier-mache from Jacmel and West Elm carried a line of horn and bone accessories closely resembling what I purchased from an atelier in Petion-Ville. My pleasure from finding artisan products I recognized was offset by a bit of disappointment that the customer purchasing horn and bone napkin rings in West Elm’s 14th Street location in Washington, D.C. would not share my own experience of meeting the artist, exploring her workshop and identifying a place with a name, a craft, an experience. How could a customer connect with an artist or artist colony and the local traditions manifested in a piece? How could a customer understand the labor of love sewn, molded, painted, or woven into a garment, accessory, painting, or tapestry?
My penchant for online shopping is nominal at best, but when 54kibo.com was introduced to me by Haitian designer Valerie Louis, of Yaël et Valerie, who sells a selection of her prints and designs on this online retailer’s collection of luxury designs infused with stories of Africa and its diaspora, I wondered if this site would change my mind? In fact, it did – 54kibo’s online retail space is a dynamic space where shoppers engage with the artists and their lands of origin.
Over the course of multiple calls and e-meetings with the team from 54kibo, Nana Quagraine, founder and CEO, explained the intention behind the online platform in relation to the shopper-artist experience that won me over.
“Our goal is to bring products to the market that will connect with our customers, not only because of the time-honored beauty and skillfully crafted aesthetic of each piece, but also because we take our customers on a journey, the artist’s journey. We are all storytellers; our medium is art and design work – to share in the discussion of time-honored stories from Africa and its diaspora seen through the lens of design,” she said.
“We do this through including the designer’s story on each product page and regularly profiling the product designers. We build connections beyond that by asking our designers to curate trips for our customers, providing them insider tips on how to travel in their homelands – much like the ideas you’d get from a close friend.”
This is reflected in the travel blog section of 54kibo’s online store. For example, there is a travel guide to Jamaica based on recommendations by Baughaus, the designer of the philodendron salad plates, just one of the many products on the site created using time-honored handmade techniques and respectful and sustainable design practices.
“A key moment for 54kibo was a conversation addressing the future of our world and doing our part to consume less, produce less waste and decrease disruptive manufacturing processes,” said Quagraine. “We build relationships with designers who incorporate sustainable practices in their work, and we continue to partner with artists who keep sustainability and the health of our environment top-of-mind as we develop new collections down the road. The Ndebele Necklace Lampshade, for example, uses upcycled wood as the base material. Woven towels by Sabahar use locally sourced and grown cotton and silk.”
While 54kibo can and should celebrate its commercial success – their products are featured at the Design & Decorating building in New York City as well as in the Brooklyn Heights Designer Showhouse – Quagraine and her team consider gaining the trust of the original 30 inspirational product makers who believed in the vision and entrusted their products to the online retailer/storyteller very early in the process. There is now a long list of product makers interested in participating in the next 54kibo collection. I wondered aloud how Quagraine and her team choose who will make the cut for the next collection?
“An artist does not necessarily need to fall into any specific category in order to partner with us. It is most essential that their work be based on beautiful design and quality craftsmanship. Our customers share their individual stories with us as they decorate their homes with our special heirloom pieces. There is a resonation, for example, between the work of Candice Lawrence, who created the Ndebele Necklace Pendant Lighting, named after the traditional female neck jewelry worn by Ndebele people, whose dress signifies age and status, and the customer who installs it above their kitchen island or work space. Recycled wooden rings form the shape of the lighting and the color wax cords specify its design, and to the customer, is a special heirloom piece, a conversation-starter with meaning, tradition and history.”
In addition to 54kibo’s online retail platform, the brand offers a trade program to interior designers, allowing them to shop for one-of-a-kind pieces for clients seeking the exceptional, like designer Lisa Hunt’s original motif work, deeply rooted in Africa, that is signed and dated by Hunt.
Looking forward, 54kibo’s next collection with add more product designers and categories that deepen their online offering in existing categories, such as lighting, decorative pillows and wall art. Keep up with @_54kibo on Instagram.
By Josh Jakobitz Editor-in-Chief Polo Lifestyles 2020 •