Tosin Oshinowo on the Cultural Influences in Design

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Cultural influence comes across in many ways. It is deeply rooted in our personality, the language we speak, in the way we dress, as well as in our values and our behavior. In design, cultural influence holds the weight of our past and steers the wheel into our future.

Design is a cultural matter: it’s not limited to questions of aesthetics or trends, but rather an integral factor for constant personal expression. Design claims, creates, and deconstructs social conventions, playing a significant role in the ongoing construction of our identity.

For Tosin Oshinowo, cultural influence in design is a celebration of our present.

Tosin Oshinowo

Oshinowo is a globally-recognized Nigerian architect, product designer, and creative entrepreneur based in Lagos, Nigeria, “I would consider myself first an architect before a product designer, maybe because that’s how I have come to find myself in this space, and it’s really been instrumental in my growth story.”

As the lead of her collaborative design practice, cmDesign Atelier, she brings visionary medium-scale ideas to life. Their characteristic human-focused approach to design falls in the Afro-minimalism realm. “Materiality plays a lot in my work, as an architect and also in my work as a product designer,” she explains to us while catching up via Zoom.

Coral Pavilion Resort. cmAtelier. February 2022.
Coral Pavilion Resort. cmAtelier. February 2022.

Oshinowo is also the founder and creative mind behind Ilé-Ilà, which means “House of Lines” in Yoruba, a lifestyle brand that produces furniture and home accessories using traditional and vintage African fabrics. The brand encapsulates the idyllic harmony between tradition and modernity, something very close to Oshinowo’s heart: “I’m very interested in creating elements of culture.”

Arm Chair Collection. Ilé-Ilà.

In recent years, driven not least by the 2020 global pandemic, design became increasingly visible in the physical and digital universes. What was immediately apparent, was the restriction it imposed on all levels of movement—individually and globally—thus weaving a new chapter into the collective culture: country-wide lockdowns, extended periods of social distancing, and the introduction of face masks into our everyday wear.

In the midst of COVID, Oshinowo joined forces with acclaimed textiles and furniture designer, Chrissa Amuah in Freedom to Move, a conceptual design project commissioned by Lexus that took inspiration from the changes that the pandemic brought worldwide.

Freedom to Move, ‘Pioneer Futures, Iteration I’. Tosin Oshinowo & Chrissa Amuah for Lexus. 2020. As seen in Style Cards Vol. 2.

Freedom to Move also joins our curated selection for Style Cards Vol. 2, under the Future Is Now theme.

Freedom to Move explores the themes of human protection and celebration: the dichotomy of functionality and adornment of garments. “It’s a project that I hold so close to my heart,” Oshinowo admits. “It came about when I got contacted about a potential project that Lexus International was going to sponsor for Design Miami/. The idea was to produce an object of our times.”

Freedom to Move is composed of three uniquely designed headpieces—Egaro, Pioneer Futures, and Ògún—each representing the collective desire to move freely and confidently together once more.

Camron PR – Lexus

“Clearly the biggest thing that came up since COVID was the mask, but we didn’t want to do an obvious mask. We started to think: Chissa is from Ghana, I’m from Nigeria, we’re both West African, how can we create something that is about the continent, about cultural identity, or something that would be global?”

Freedom to Move, ‘Ògún, Iteration I and II’. Tosin Oshinowo & Chrissa Amuah for Lexus. 2020.

With the help of 3D modelers, bronze casters, sculptors, and artists in Nigeria and the UK, Oshinowo, and Amuah fused innovative and contemporary technologies with elaborate craftsmanship rooted in cultural diversity and history.

Each headpiece follows Japanese design principles and uses a variety of materials, like brass, leather, and bronze, in combination with traditional West African craftsmanship techniques.

“It was very important to us to be able to honor our cultures. If there was no vaccine found, and we had to walk around with masks, wouldn’t it be best for [our headpieces] to be a celebration of our reality? I think that was how we thought about it. If we’re going to have to wear masks, let’s make them elaborate.”

Additionally, a transparent panel strips the wearer of any communication barrier; an issue that regular face masks present.

West Africa also lends itself to the central narrative of the project. “We started to think about this idea of the African mask, which is quite synonymous across West Africa in particular,” Oshinowo explains. “And then we started to think about the importance of the human head and the mask, the idea that the human head is a point of celebration. In our culture, we wear a king with a crown, these very flamboyant headdresses at parties.”

Freedom to Move, ‘Egaro, Iteration I’. Tosin Oshinowo & Chrissa Amuah for Lexus. 2020.

Freedom to Move imposes new notions of embodiment amidst the tumultuous reality of the global pandemic. Within this framework, Oshinowo and Amuah’s imposing headpieces, as much as face masks once did, are inseparable from society. They represent a second skin, a helmet, and an extension of our self-fashioned selves in the new world.

Needless to say, lockdowns and social distancing measures affected the world in different ways, which Oshinowo agrees with.

“What was particularly challenging in Lagos was the reality of a lockdown. There are so many people here who live on less than a dollar a day; they live hand to mouth. You are telling them not to go out—how are they going to eat? We don’t have a social security system that can provide this. It really brought home the reality that the solutions or the mandates that were being imposed in the West can’t really work in this kind of context.”

Tosin Oshinowo & Chrissa Amuah. Photo: Spark Creative.

Oshinowo and Amuah’s collaboration with Lexus for Design Miami/ allowed Freedom to Move to reach audiences worldwide through a dynamic digital experience amidst global restrictions, which involved content creators interacting with their headpieces, such as Nigerian singer and songwriter, Tiwa Savage.

Futuristic objects encapsulating bodies, moving freely around space, fashioning the self, and protecting our curious nature… Is this what the future looks like? Is the “future” finally our “present”?

Freedom to move begins with ourselves, but just in case it all goes down (again) twenty or thirty years from now, remember to tell the world that your helmet is an original Freedom to Move: designed in Lagos by Tosin Oshinowo and Chrissa Amuah, molded in transparent acrylic and trimmed with a knife-pleated leather suede collar, and made by numerous hands of all walks of life.

“It was a really beautiful project because it was also about community. There were so many people involved. And everyone did it with so much joy and happiness. I don’t think any of them could appreciate the exposure that the project would’ve gotten. But I think our name suggests that the masks would allow you the freedom to move.”

New world, here we come.

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To learn more about Freedom to Move, click here. Check out Tosin Oshinowo’s cmDesign Atelier, Ilé-Ilà and give her a follow on Instagram.

The future is here. Take Style Cards Vol.2 with you and explore the universal language of design.


    Style Cards Vol. 2

    Use this set of 135 design cards to explore visual trends, define a brand’s look and feel, gamify design workshops, and enhance moodboards. These cards contain works of modern designers and are curated into 10 themes that reflect the world’s visual trends.