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Nifemi Marcus-Bello Designs Objects with Empathy

Designers have spent lifetimes trying to distill the essence of what makes a well-designed object. Nifemi Marcus-Bello has an answer of his own. “The cornerstone of good design is empathy,” says the 33-year-old Nigerian designer, and founder of nmbello Studio. “But I realised early in my career that that also means empathy towards the overall ecosystem.”

Since it was founded in 2017, his eponymous practice has made empathy its cornerstone — informing objects and experiences that take into consideration “not just the end user, but the maker, designer and the planet. This of course can be tough,” he continues, “but it’s not impossible.” He makes it look easy. His pieces are moulded by their constraints, from idiosyncrasies in Lagos’s local manufacturing facilities, or the materials most readily available, to the needs of the people living and working nearby. For example: sheet metal is nmbello Studio’s bread and butter. Marcus-Bello and his team repurposes excess from a local factory that makes generator casings, and uses its machinery to manufacture their designs.

Nifemi Marcus-Bello nmbello LM Stool

The results of this approach range from the LM Stool, a slick, multifunctional piece inspired by the portable “kwali” confectionery stands that decorate road crossings in the designer’s hometown — to the Selah Lamp, a seat-and-lightsource that’s elegant, lightweight and easy to live with. In late 2020 the studio responded to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic with the creation of a moveable handwashing station, designed to answer a need expressed by medical staff working within the unpredictable architecture of Lagos’s healthcare facilities. From widely admired furniture pieces that you’ll have to be waitlisted to buy, to clever, accessible solutions to systemic issues, humility underpins everything that comes out of nmbello Studio.

We sat down with the designer to find out about his no-process process, the chaos and vibrancy that the Nigerian capital gives his practice, and the present and near future of his work.

What does your morning ritual look like?

I always wake up at 6am and say a little prayer. I tidy up my study, stretch for ten minutes, and go for a very quick 20 minute run.

Where do you sit down to work?

I work from my studio in Lagos — it’s only a ten minute drive from my home. I move my desk around at least twice a month so that I can have a different view: one view is of the off-white wall of my office, and the other is of a relatively quiet street, which is tough to find in Lagos.

How did you first become a designer?

I can't remember [the first time I felt like a designer]. To be honest, I’ve had this feeling my whole life. I made my first object at age 13. I recently met up with a friend who I hadn’t seen since high school, and he asked me what I do now. After I responded, he said, “Oh, so you’re still doing what you were doing in high school?” That felt really good. How many people can say that?

When was the first time the design industry sat up and paid attention?

Haha, are people paying attention? Thank you, I think that’s a compliment. When I started I always had people talk about wanting to buy products from me. I thought it was all bluff, and the products wouldn't move, but over the years I started to feel like there was a waiting list. Once I linked up with the boys at Lichen NYC, Jared and Ed, it was go-time. They made my life easier and I am forever grateful for them. They also introduced me to the NY market, and North America in general has been super kind to me.

You talk about the absence of a ‘process’, in the traditional sense. How do your products come to life?

I always make sure to embrace constraints — human, manufacturing and material — and to understand them before designing a product. This means parameters dictate the design process each time, so each brief and opportunity is different.

How does Lagos shape and inspire your output?

I have lived and grown up across the continent, but Lagos is my home. It inspires me as much as it frustrates me. It really keeps me grounded. Lagos is the heartbeat of my studio.

How would you describe the landscape of African design now?

Design is something that is constantly happening in Africa. The problem is, it might not fit the contemporary European look and feel for what design should be, so it’s swept under the rug. This year I am hoping to highlight some of the amazing design that’s happening across West Africa through a research project called Africa — A Designer’s Utopia.

The research aims to focus on and demonstrate how indigenous design thinking and the ingenuity of anonymously designed products caters to stakeholders across a unique supply chain. It will highlight how a design revolution continues to happen in Africa — but without the “design” label attached to it.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on the research, Africa — A Designer’s Utopia. I am also hoping to launch a series of prototypes and limited-edition items and furniture pieces. The idea is to take my time in creating these products, and to carry out a few material and systematic investigations dear to my heart.

What would you love to design, and why?

I would love to design a house. I feel like I’m a failed architect at heart.

Nifemi Marcus-Bello nmbello studio's Waf Kiosk

Who or what is inspiring you currently?

I get inspired easily; I’m appreciative of many people’s work. I am a fan of Samuel Ross, Sir David Adjaye, Francis Kere, Richard Sapper, Tom Chung, Mac Collins, Jean Somian and more.

What’s your idea of a perfect object?

It doesn’t exist, and that’s a beautiful thing.

What’s the future of design in Africa?

Design is and has always been at the forefront of Africa but has only recently been brought to the attention of the world. The future is now.

What has been your greatest life lesson and why?

You are enough!