This article is part of our Design special section on how the recent push for diversity is changing the way the world looks.
In 2020, Jomo Tariku, a furniture designer who was born in Kenya and raised in Ethiopia and who had a second career as a data scientist with the World Bank, was preparing to give a lecture at Princeton University. Combing through the websites of 161 international furniture companies, he found that of the 4,399 designers that these companies employed, by his reckoning, only 14, or 0.03 percent, were Black.
It was a statistic heard round the world. Black Lives Matter activism had been catalyzing efforts to diversify design. After decades of designing handmade furniture in Springfield, Va., near Washington, and struggling for notice from manufacturers that could put the designs into production, Mr. Tariku suddenly became a star.
His Meedo chair, modeled on a hair pick, was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His three-legged Nyala chair, inspired by an antelope, is among the five pieces he contributed to the film sets of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Recently, he arranged his first licensing deal.
“It took me 30 years to get here,” said Mr. Tariku, 54, “and I don’t want it to die with me.” He said he is intent on boosting the careers of other Black designers, like those in the Black Artists + Designers Guild, a nonprofit platform and mentorship organization that he helped to get off the ground in 2018.
“We keep saying design is a global language. Well, it did not include us,” he said. “What’s the global part?”
The New York Times asked Mr. Tariku about the names he would like to see on those furniture company websites. From a compiled list of more than 80 designers, he chose nine, which are featured here.
His choices ranged across generations, styles, materials and geographical points in the African diaspora. Many of the designers have not received formal training. What they have in common, he said, is a powerful and inspiring spirit of self-fulfillment.
A 43-year-old ceramics artist based in Cape Town, Mr. Dyalvane is known for pieces that honor his Xhosa heritage. “He is using a material that you rarely associate with furniture and making it work,” Mr. Tariku said, pointing out the unwieldiness of shaping and firing huge portions of clay. Embodying a dream language that is unique to the artist in a substance he is gifted in manipulating, Mr. Dyalvane’s designs will never be confused with anyone else’s, Mr. Tariku said. “And I love that approach because I really believe this is where Africa shines,” he added. “It does not have to be an update of a pre-existing piece of furniture.”
A self-taught product designer with a background in graphic design and contemporary furniture sales (she spent five years as an account executive at Design Within Reach), BOA is the Caribbean-born founder of OI Studio, in Los Angeles. “She is an attention-to-detail person,” Mr. Tariku said about the matched patterns of her Drop daybed, which was covered in fabric by the Haitian textile company Yaël & Valérie. “But her true focus is sustainability.”
Charles O. Job
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Mr. Job, 62, was educated in architecture and urban planning and has lived, worked and taught for many years in Switzerland. Mr. Tariku, who studied industrial design at the University of Kansas, said he was enamored of his deceptively simple pieces, like the easy-to-assemble Sketch chair that was now in the Vitra Design Museum. Seeing the curves makes his hands ache with the memory of turning clamps to bend his own veneer. “I appreciate him the way I admire people like Eames,” Mr. Tariku said.
Cheryl R. Riley
A San Francisco-based artist, Ms. Riley, 70, has blazed a distinctive trail in furniture design. What especially sets her apart, Mr. Tariku said, is the multilayered nature of her objects, crammed with overt allusions to European and African art but also embedded with personal meaning. For example, her “Zulu Renaissance Writing Table for a Lady,” in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s collection, is supported by six carved sculptures of African women bearing the weight of the piece on their heads. The top is rimmed with painted eyes from Renaissance portraits, and the glass-covered compartments are filled with the artist’s mementos. “I selected her to pay homage,” Mr. Tariku said.
Metal gasoline drums painted in bright, eroded colors represent a starting point for Mr. Ouattara in his design studio in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Mr. Ouattara, 51, supervises the transformation of the vernacular drums into cabinets, chairs and tables while ensuring that each piece maintains its origin story, down to the peeling surfaces. He is relentlessly creative despite the shortage of tools, the frequency of power outages and the disruptions of civil war. “He contributes a lot within his community,” Mr. Tariku said. The shop is also a classroom, where Mr. Ouattara imparts his lessons of authenticity to young apprentices.
Jean Servais Somian
Based near Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, Mr. Somian, 51, makes sculptural pieces from palm trunks and other local woods. They are “not the easiest or most popular” materials, Mr. Tariku said. But Mr. Somian, who studied his craft in Ivory Coast and Switzerland, has learned how to process the wood to exploit its beauty, including the unusual grain patterns that are one of his signatures. Mr. Tariku said he particularly admired his totemic cabinets.
Born and raised in London, Ms. Shodeinde is the founder of Minimat, an interior and product design studio. The 28-year-old is equally comfortable in the language of Brutalism or of an Art Nouveau-suggestive organic style, embodied by her three-legged Omi D-3 chair. (She has a Nigerian background, and omi is the Yoruba word for “water.”) Mr. Tariku declared himself “always obsessed with three-legged chairs,” having designed a much-admired one himself. “When I see someone else executing it very well, I celebrate it,” he said.
“A bookcase is a bookcase because it has to hold a book, and how many ways can you approach it?” Mr. Tariku said of a specialty of Mr. Jeffrey, 54, a custom furniture maker in Phoenix. He produces library shelving that might flow functionally along a diagonal as it wraps around a wall, and sculptural desks that mix luxurious materials, among other unique pieces. His career took him from the armed forces to automobile design to a stressful period of low employment before he found his footing with his furniture company, Paul Rene. In 2021, he was one of seven people appearing on Ellen DeGeneres’s HBO Max series “Next Great Designer.”
Working in the studio craft tradition from a barn in New York’s Hudson Valley, Mr. Puryear, 75, is part of a generation that has given creative and emotional sustenance to younger Black designers, Mr. Tariku said. He has been widely recognized for furniture that combines Shaker and East Asian influences with references to his African ancestry. “He teaches everybody,” Mr. Tariku said. “I think there’s a lot to emulate from what he’s accomplished.”