Ones to Watch

On a Deeper Level

Anna Carnick

Rising star Lani Adeoye crafts future-facing objects by honoring her West African roots

Rising star Lani Adeoye sees design as a vehicle for empathy. Her Lagos-based studio reimagines everyday materials and traditional production techniques with the aim of creating objects that go beyond functionality to connect with users on a deeper level. Frequently inspired by her West African heritage, Adeoye’s sculptural, narrative-driven pieces shine a light on stories that are too-often overlooked in design discourse, ranging from stools inspired by African talking drums to an elegantly minimalistic walker for the elderly (inspired by her own grandfather’s experience).

The Nigerian-Canadian talent launched her practice, Studio Lani, just five years ago following a stint in the corporate world, and her clear-eyed approach is quickly turning heads. Earlier this year, Adeoye won First Prize for the Designing our Future Selves Award at SaloneSatellite during Milan Design Week. “I switched careers from the corporate world because I was quite interested in exploring new ideas of beauty and design as a tool for social transformation,” she explains. “I want to use design to share authentic modern stories of cultures like mine that are typically left out of the conversation.”

Read on for more in Adeoye’s own words.

Designer Lani Adeoye; Photo courtesy of Studio Lani

Beyond their functionality, your designs are imbued with stories that celebrate modern African culture. Please tell us a bit about the narratives you explore through your work.

My work is inspired by Nigerian culture while honoring universal values like human dignity and empathy. My practice is about discovering and sharing stories that elevate the overlooked, stories that elevate common materials in an elegant manner, stories that reinvent forgotten traditional techniques, and stories that uplift cultures like mine that are often portrayed in a one-dimensional way.

EKAABO Collection by Studio Lani, which debuted at Salone del Mobile 2022; Photo courtesy of Studio Lani

In my work, I want to show Nigerian culture in a dignified manner, as opposed to the typical trauma-related media depictions. With my recent EKAABO Collection, for example, I was intentional about presenting my work in scenes with Black models at ease—for example, relaxing and playing board games, living the “soft life” as we say in Lagos. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the danger of a single story, and in my work it is important for me to tell stories that differ from the “struggle life” we often see in the media.

Empathy for all of humanity in general is also a motivating factor. I recently designed a walker inspired by my grandpa, because he would hide the walkers we bought for him as he was discouraged by their clinical appearance. My objective was to create a piece that didn’t look like a traditional walker; instead, it’s a sculptural design that conveys a sense of warmth through its materiality, a piece that empowers the user and uplifts their spirit.

The award-winning RemX Walker reimagines the typical walker as an elegant, sculptural piece; Photo courtesy of Studio Lani

Your practice is also known for reinterpreting common materials and traditional techniques to create forward-looking designs. Tell us about this aspect of your approach.

Yes, creating forward-looking designs is something that’s really important to me. I’m quite curious by nature and my imagination is constantly working to envision what the future—and in particular the objects of the future—will look like.

Reinvention is central to my practice for many reasons. There are a lot of dying arts and crafts all over the world that are connected to various communities, which hold cultural values and are quite sustainable. I believe it is important for us to learn from the wisdom of the past, while looking forward to create more innovative pieces.

Studio Lani’s Talking Stools were formally inspired by African talking drums; Photo courtesy of Studio Lani

Transforming common materials into elegant products is something I really enjoy doing. For example, with the Talking Stools collection, I wanted to work with a community of female mat weavers. Back in the day, mat weaving was very lucrative and offered a reliable livelihood; unfortunately mats are now often seen as too traditional. So I started exploring how to extend these pieces’ longevity. After some experiments, I decided to reinterpret the mats as upholstery materials for some modern hourglass stools we designed. I also incorporated woven leather to the top, to give the pieces a global and timeless appeal.

Tell us about your studio’s approach to collaborating with and empowering local communities and artisans.

In addition to creating jobs, giving back, and helping to improve livelihoods through production, I’m also interested in the long term aspect. Empowering mindsets by challenging the status quo and exploring new possibilities together is also important.

Our approach is disruptive. Our process is immersive, iterative, and flexible, as we have to constantly adapt to various local constraints whilst working to push the boundaries.

We spend a lot of time in the studio first, researching existing materials and production techniques. Then we explore multiple options through sample making. Most times we work with artisans in product categories different from their standard practice, which creates an opportunity for knowledge exchange and innovation.

For example, when I was interested in exploring alternative metal finishing techniques other than painting, I had to create a framework and find a system to tap into. If you’ve ever seen a Lagos lady’s braids fresh out of the salon, you will quickly understand that hair making and finishing braids is serious business and an art form in Lagos. So I reached out to hair braiders and stylists because they use different techniques to meticulously and neatly finish various intricate hairstyles. After a couple of material and process studies with them, we were able to take the learnings from that to figure out which materials and processes would be most effective for the furniture I was designing.

The woven Kini Lounger; Photo courtesy of Studio Lani

We have also created a lot of collections that fostered cross-collaboration, amongst different artisans that don’t typically work together. For example, our new Kini Lounger was created by a master shoemaker who has experience working with leather and a master cane weaver who has extensive weaving experience. Our studio team spent a long time side by side with the makers, working together to develop synergies with their different skill sets to produce something new.

How do you see your role and or responsibility as a designer?

As a designer and educator, I feel a sense of responsibility to add a different perspective to the global design industry.

I switched careers from the corporate world to design because I was quite interested in exploring new ideas of beauty and design as a tool for social transformation. I want to use design to share authentic modern stories of cultures like mine that are typically left out of the conversation.

In sharing my perspective, I’ve received really touching messages from people from different parts of the world. People have expressed that my practice encourages them to tell their own authentic stories, reinforcing that we are all worthy.

The KAABO Collection; Photo courtesy of Studio Lani

What do you most hope people take away from your work?

I hope to spark people’s imagination and curiosity, to intrigue them with new narratives of beauty. I hope people feel a sense of West African warmth through my work and positive associations to Nigeria. I hope it promotes universal values like human dignity for all and encourages people to imagine new futures on a personal and global level.

What advice do you have for young creatives just starting out?

Dream like an artist. Let your mind wander. But also create flexible structures that allow you to create tangible results.

Show up to do the work, even if you don’t feel the creative juices flowing. Consistency is key, so trust the process.

Be conscious of your mental and creative health. Work hard, but find healthy ways to disconnect when you need to reset. My walk with Christ recharges me spiritually; dancing helps me physically; and watching a lot of comedy is a helpful mental release for me.

ONU Stool, from the EKAABO Collection. Onu means joy in the Igbo language. Photo courtesy of Studio Lani

What’s up next for you?

I’m currently working on some new product designs. I’m also excited about working across the board, in different creative sectors like fashion, interiors, and scenography. I love a creative challenge, so I’ve been enjoying connecting with various global dreamers, thinkers, and doers. So stay tuned! ◆