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Ada Umeofia Interview

DesignNigeria

Ada, since this issue of Art Base Africa focuses on design, I'd like to  start by discussing your approach to design as a young and contemporary designer. In your work, you embrace the idea of ‘oscillation of scales' which, I think, hints at a design approach that is based on the ideas of discovery and experimentation. Can you tell us how the idea of ‘oscillation of scales’ informs your design practice? What kind of designerly capacities does this idea prompt?

I use the term 'Oscillation of Scales' to define my design process which is essentially a plethora of medium, resource, reference and a conscious zooming of in and out - alternating between the macro, mini and micro scale. It allows for a somewhat limitless approach that ultimately results in what I deem a 'thorough' architecture. 

I believe that the act of oscillation refers both to the design process, and also to the user experience. How do you envision the act of oscillation as a design process translating into the user experience? 

I design instances than piece together to form a whole or just a collection of multiple instances: either way, I'm driven by the urge to feed multiple experiences at the human scale by causing the body to converse/interact with an object in varied depths and vice versa. I'm possessed by maximizing the potential of an object primarily in the design process which inevitably then translates into a multifaceted user experience. In essence, an oscillated design process breeds an oscillated experience.

How would you describe the kind of design aesthetic that such a process results in? When I look at Crawl, the temporary architectural pavilion to be used in public spaces; or the CarryGo bag that you designed for mobile vendors, portability, modularity and temporality immediately come forward as the underlining principles of your design aesthetic What are the prominent design elements that you would describe as characteristic to your aesthetic in these projects?

The conscious oscillating of scales as a design process often results in a varied response to a host of factors - tangible and intangible. Context fuels my design  process which then becomes apparent in the aesthetic result. Lagos is a city on wheels, fueled by sound, density and moving bodies, a city constantly morphing in and out of things. My designs are birthed as a direct and indirect response to this constant morphology as a means to aid, combat, or rationalize it. Crawl strives to combat this morphology in an indirect way by isolating the human body and causing it to morph independently within designed boundaries. Carry-go (mobile stalls) attempts to aid and rationalize this transition via direct means by easing the baggage that plagues the moving bodies thus, catalyzing the pace of morphology.  

How can concepts like portability and temporality change the relationships that we have with objects? I believe Crawl stands out as a project that not only oscillates between different scales, but also encourages the user to explore and experiment with the object, and the space around it. What was the idea behind Crawl? How does your background in architecture inform your approach to ‘human-object relationship’ in this project? 

I have learned to think deeper about space. As I dissected the meaning of Architecture over the years, my mind grew increasingly obsessed with stretching boundaries of the in-between space - the instance that separates an object or a built form and the human form. Crawl is one of many experiments that attempts to satiate said obsession by cultivating new relationships within space and inhabitant as a means to foster an almost familiar but foreign connection to the architecture. I strive to humanize object, form and space through dissecting these in-betweens. 

How does your work with WeBuilt: Africa fit into your idea of ‘scales’? Can you tell us a little bit about the idea behind WeBuilt? 

WeBuilt: Africa was birthed from being confronted with an experiential and contextual chaos resulting from the collision of scales in the informal market and deciding to propose a design alternative - reinterpreting the human scale (vendor and stall relationship) and the market scale simultaneously where one directly informs the other within its designed form so that scalability is organized, seamless and rational. These informal markets for the marginalized majority are spaces that form the core of this city, I believe they should be rationalized and simplified by design to keep up with this wave of modernity. 

How does Webuilt: Africa fit into the African everyday? How does it approach the concept of ‘everyday’? 

The informal market is common ground in everyday life for the marginalized majority roughly 70% or more of Nigeria's X million population. These markets are currently plagued with chaos and barely stable stalls that scale organically often without foundational logic. This inevitably breeds a combative psychology between vendor and consumer as a subconscious often conscious response to their immediate chaotic context. WeBuilt: Africa strives to resolve this combative psychology through the redesign of individual stalls that populate rationally as a means to simplify everyday life in the informal markets.  

I believe WeBuilt: Africa has a strong focus on creating design awareness within local communities, especially the community of vendors in informal markets. Why markets? 

The informal markets are populated by the marginalized majority who thrive in these spaces to survive. It's in these markets that mothers trade to feed their kids, where fathers hustle to sustain their homes and where kids are forced to haggle as the run because the trading and hustling isn't enough. In these spaces where survival is primary, the concept of design is essentially secondary although significantly imperative to success (the existing stalls are fabricated to simply stand, joined with some degree of deliberate and designed intention). The focus of WeBuilt: Africa is to fuse and prioritize both elements (survival & design) into an object that recognizes both as one in the same and not two separate entities.  

Can you tell us about the design process behind the Bi Table that you designed for butchers in the local market? How did you research on the field? And with such projects in general, what kind of research methods do you use?

The  Bi-Table unit is a stall design birthed from aper-vendor design approach where issues relating solely to a butcher are resolved through the wrapping of two table surfaces around the vendor (one as a cutting slab and the other for display) as opposed to one single surface for both activities which I, as a consumer and designer observed to be chaotic and limiting of productivity. The process of observation from a consumer/designer perspective and conversations with vendors is crucial to design generation and fabrication.  

Is Bi Table being actively used by vendors right now? Or have you had the chance to test its potentials and capacities inthe market environment? 

One Bi-Table unit has been fabricated and situated in the market environment with which I was able to gather feedback from a few butchers after they had used it for a day. Based on feedback from said butchers,I have refined the design now making it ready for mass production. In many design projects realized in differentparts of the world, the main problem with design appears to be the top-down imposition of design ideas, which eventually results in the community’s rejection of the designed product. I think your approach is quite low case (in a good way) and promising in terms of building novel ties within the community. From your experience on the field, how do you think the members of local community react to design solutions? 

Based on the implementation of case-study stalls and discussions with vendors and consumers in the informal markets, I have gathered that the concept of designs and its immediate effect on the psyche is deemed foreign and thus inconsequential in the grand scheme of their everyday lives. I have had to informally educate users on the importance of design through actual use and implementation of design solutions which has served to actively dispel reservations about the impact of design. 

What would be the next step to disseminate the use of the units you designed for vendors? If these units are to be produced serially, what other parties/stakeholders are you planning to involve in the project? 

Throughout the years, I have gone through several iterations and finally concluded on a design for the 'ideal market stall'; a singular unit embedding elements from the existing context, designed to accommodate variety within its form that dictates a system for seamless, organized aggregation in an open space. I intend to enter the design proposal into the 2014 NAC in hopes of being funded for mass production, I then plan on proposing the design solution as an urban planning strategy to parties responsible for the revamping for informal markets. I hope to then catapult this onto an international level if I am accepted into the Echoing Green Fellowship program as a 2015 fellow (fingers crossed) 

Can you tell us about the organizational structure of WeBuilt? 

Currently, WeBuilt:Africa is fueled by my hands alongside a band of willing volunteers. It is registered as a nonprofit/social enterprise with revenue streams ranging from furniture design to boxed calendars and wooden greeting cards. I do hope to implement a subsidized payment system with the aforementioned design ones mass produced. 

Based on your experience with WeBuilt: Africa, what are your thoughts on the relationship between the design community and the local communities in general? How do you think it is possible to create design awareness and employ design’s capacities to catalyze social change on a grassroots level?

Based on my experience, the simple and perhaps only way to prove design's capacity to catalyze social change in the context of informal market is to design, build and implement. The relationship between design and local communities has been severed by the assumed elitism of design which has effectively wedged a gap in between the two. This gap can only be bridged if design is wheeled back delicately and intently to local communities in a familiar but unique language and not vice versa. Impact is inevitable but not predictable; it is this undefined but absolute surety of social change that fuels my mind and my hands.