Postcards From

Postcard from Tosin Oshinowo

Design Miami

The Nigerian architect-designer on what the world can learn right now from West Africa’s creative community

In our Postcards From series, we ask future-facing design thinkers to share a short message about what’s on their minds right now. This time around, we hear from Lagos-based architect-designer Tosin Oshinowo.

A proud champion of the next generation of African design, Oshinowo is known for her socially conscious approach to urbanism, design, and architecture. In addition to launching Ilé Ilà, a made-in-Lagos furniture brand celebrating Yoruba culture, she is founder of cmDesign Atelier, an architecture studio focused on a range of civic, commercial, and residential ventures. The latter includes a project with the United Nations Development Programme to build a new community in northern Nigeria for a village displaced by Boko Haram. Most recently, Oshinowo was named curator of the 2023 Sharjah Architecture Triennial.

Read on for her thoughts on the ingenuity and strength that suffuse the West African creative community—and the timely, universal lessons that can be learned from their example.

Nigerian architect-designer Tosin Oshinowo. Portrait by Spark Creative

Dear Design,

Writing to you from Lagos, Nigeria, to let you know: keep your eye on West Africa. The design community in Lagos is a steadily growing force, and our greatest strength is our adaptability, born from conditions of scarcity and systemic breakdowns that have been our reality for decades. Put into perspective, scarcity is fast becoming a unifying global reality due to climate change.

In Lagos, we are rich in culture, traditions, and history, but often short on structure and the quick and seamless solutions most are accustomed to in the Global North. In an environment like this, you quickly realize that great things can be achieved, but only if you are ready to adapt, pivot, and strategize. The inspiration of this city is, in so many ways, the flexibility that it forces. After years of living and working here through frustrations and limitations, like electricity outages and supply chain breakdowns, I believe now, as a designer, that confinement is a necessary means to boost creativity. Working within these boundaries, it’s amazing what you can achieve—and it forces you to explore pathways you would have never considered if it had been easy. Lagos’ difficulty is her beauty, and it has birthed a creative scene across disciplines that is collaborative and enduring.

Ejika (meaning “shoulder” in Yoruba) Shop. Photo by Logo Oluwamuyiwa
Part of Oshinowo’s design for UNDP Ngarannam, a new community for a village displaced by Boko Haram. Photo courtesy UNDP and Tolulope Sanusi

It’s interesting how so many genres and industries are seeing this kind of renaissance all at the same time. In everyday life on the most basic levels you see design solutions that leapfrog traditional pathways of development or use simple materials in ingenious ways. From the mobile Point of Sales ATM providers in the Lagos informal market—which have created an entire industry that allows traditionally all-cash businesses to accept card payments without the formalities of the banking system—to the adaptive design solutions of Kwali, the mobile convenience stores weaving through Lagos traffic that tier shelving to maximize product visibility for customers, ground-up solutions influence our innovators across industries. And despite the difficulties that bred this boom, the commonality I see is a general positive energy and optimism, which is very much centered around a creative community that thrives on sharing ideas and has a realistic perspective on the challenges facing our world today.

Kwali, included in Africa: A Designer’s Utopia, an ongoing research project by 2022 Hublot LVMH Design Prize winner Nifemi Marcus-Bello that investigates anonymously designed objects on the African continent. Photo by Logo Oluwamuyiwa and Benson Ibeabuchi
Marcus-Bello’s kiosk design for WAF skateboarding company, inspired by Lagos vendors who’ve created an architectural archetype for selling bootleg and secondhand clothing. Photo by Jide Ayeni. Courtesy of nmbello Studio

Creatives in Lagos, across the continent, and through the Global South at large are thriving in conditions of scarcity and finding ingenious, beautiful solutions to co-exist on our planet. I urge you to take a closer look. The time for these solutions is now, and we come ready to build, create, and collaborate.

With love,