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Ifeanyi Oganwu: Designing Expanded Experience

WRITTEN BY: Burcu Yancatarol Yagiz


After working for John Ronan Architects, Chicago and Zaha Hadid Architects, London, and collaborating with fashion designer Hussein Chalayan, Oganwu joined the London-based structural engineering practice of Adams Kara Taylor in 2003. In 2008, Oganwu formed Expand Design where he produces work that goes beyond given typologies of form, structure and manufacturing, and explores ‘experience’ with an integrated approach to art, design, architecture, and engineering. 

I believe that the name of your design office, Expand Design, fittingly represents your approach to design. How would you describe your design practice in relation to the act of expanding? 

The concept of Expanded Arts was central to Fluxus practitioners based in New York in the 60s and 70s. This group of artists worked across various artistic media and disciplines. For example a Fluxus sculptor would work as musical composer and vice versa. I found this approach to interdisciplinary practice quite fascinating, which consequently led me to adopting the notion of Expansion in my practice, as I wanted to retain and reflect that 'spirit' in my projects. 

You worked with architects such as Hani Rashid and Zaha Hadid, who are known for their skilful employment of digital technologies and software, as a form of contemporary craft. How does your experience within the fields of architecture, fashion (with Hussein Chalayan) and engineering tie into your design practice? 

Your question is very well researched. I was quite fortunate to have taken a design studio with Hani while I completed my Masters degree at Columbia University. I am also grateful to have had many great teachers and colleagues across several disciplines. Building on the idea of Expansion, my design practice allows me to synthesize this diversity of thought and experience. I'm currently working on wearable structures, so the scales keep shifting as well.

I think that your work goes beyond the basic and (quite) limited definitions of design activity as problem solving and constructing innovative relationships between need, function and form. How do you describe your work in this sense? Do you design products (in this case, furniture) or objects?

I see my role as that of designing information. This manifests through form, structure and experiences, leaving the end result to be interpreted by the viewer.  

Following on the issue of interpretation, each piece in your portfolio looks like a one-off with unique sculptural qualities that encourage the observer/user to explore the piece from different angles. How would you describe the basic characteristics of your product typology? And I believe all of your pieces are fit for serial production, aren’t they?

I always try to push the limits within any given typology; this lends an added value and function. With the output of the studio thus far, serial production involves small editions as opposed to the large quantities of mass production. This is primarily due to the complexities of manufacture, for example BULGY Inverted, a recently completed work requires several months on the workshop floor so it's unrealistic to assume that more than two editions of this design can be produced within a 12-month period.

How do you investigate form? Looking at the organic and reflective characteristics of your work, I imagine tectonic principles have been meticulously involved with the creation of sections and contours?

I look at form against material performance, spatial relationships and typology, so every project responds to a set of criteria built around these relationships. This iterative process is carried out digitally, with physical mock-ups created at different stages to evaluate the overall design.

Each one of your pieces looks like a new challenge to explore the relationship between materials, technology, handicraft, and manufacturing. What drives your choice of materials and the specialized manufacturing techniques that you use for production? For instance in your Zebra table, your use of marble is quite unconventional…

Sometimes the design and concept drive the material selection process but it's not uncommon for a particular material drive the concept and outcome of a project. With Zebra Table, I wanted to collapse the visual qualities of marble onto a varied and light surface.

What is the role of the 3D modelling software in your design process? Do the software that you engage with in your design process inform your vocabulary of form and structure? Or do you push the boundaries of certain 3D modelling technologies to achieve what you envision originally?

Digital software is present throughout the design and manufacturing process, of course many of the works are hand assembled and finished, but software is utilised from the conception stage through to developing manufacturing tools and aids. So, it's very much a mixture of both relationships as digital design tools aren't autonomous, but are systems and networks that rely on the dialogue between variables within a brief.

How does the specialized production process inform the original design? Are you generally willing to negotiate certain aspects of the original concept because of the production constraints? Or do you insist on trial and error until you realize the original?

Production constraints always lead to more interesting and challenging outcomes so I embrace them.

And, how does engineering come into play in your work? I believe you collaborate with experts with different backgrounds in manufacturing….

Engineering plays a very important role. One might say even critical, as each project demands quite a lot from the materials being used. In some instances, the properties of a particular surface create the structure of the final form such as in Splice Chair where I worked with car manufacturers to produce the multi-curved aluminium surfaces. In other scenarios, surface emerges through the expression of structure such as in Contoured Crater Desk. 

I think most of your pieces represent an informed, interactive relationship between handicraft and digital manufacturing. How does handicraft inform digital manufacturing in your work?

I work with the best manufacturers who have successfully incorporated new technologies into their practices, which at times were built on age-old techniques. This feeds back into the spirit of Expanded Arts as I'm constantly seeking expertise from diverse industries.

In cases where designers and people who are sometimes conservative about their areas of expertise (such as craftsman and engineers) collaborate, there appears a certain level of resistance to try and step out of their comfort zones. What is your experience in collaborating with a variety of experts? 

Technical challenges are quite different from resistance and I've successfully sought out partners who are keen on being part of an adventure. 

What is the most rewarding about collaborating with experts from different fields of manufacturing?

Gaining insights from experts in other fields is very rewarding; it's also great to share new ways of seeing where existing tools and methods can be reworked in interesting ways.

You show your work in major art and design exhibitions as well as in art and design galleries around the world. How do you think exhibition as a format, and the gallery space inform the relationship between the viewer/potential user and your pieces? And related to this, do you think it is relevant to draw the line between art object and design object? 

There is a line drawn between both practices, what's interesting for me is to observe what artists bring to functional objects and designers to design-art objects. With the art object, the artist is always present; as a designer I tend to keep a distance from the work, looking at all the issues as objectively as possible. Exhibitions are great platforms for having critical discussions around these topics.

How do you align your design practice with discourses of contemporary art and design?

These discourses are quite varied and diverse, I'm mostly concerned with topics shaped by my background in architecture such as how typology is informed by technology and materiality. 

Unlike many designers who collaborate with global furniture manufacturers and show their work in showrooms of major furniture brands, you take a different path to introduce your products by collaborating with art and design galleries. What are the advantages of exhibiting your work in art and design galleries? 

Both outlets present different challenges; galleries offer me a platform to create experimental work that isn't necessarily suited for the production methods of the mainstream furniture brands.

What kind of architectural projects are you pursuing right now? Do you have any on going projects in Africa? I believe you recently collaborated with architect and designer David Adjaye who commented that you remind him of himself 10 years ago. How do you feel about that?

One of my early exposures to David's work was through the Forty Under Forty exhibition held at RIBA London in 2003. David is most generous and his work continually paves the way for younger practitioners. I'm truly humbled by his comment and support. Recently, on the project side, discussions with several groups based on the continent are on going and I'm excited by the future prospects. 

Having participated in exhibitions such as ‘Designing Africa’ organized by AAF, how do you think your work and design approach align with the dynamics of contemporary design in Africa?

The primary aim of shows with AAF is to increase awareness of design practice within the continent, so the younger generation of Africans develop the tools required for reshaping the built environment.

What are your thoughts on African design as a regional paradigm? What dynamics do you think characterize it as a regional paradigm? And lastly, how do you envision African design’s relationship with the global design world?

The discussions around African design are relatively new, and this is positive. Since design is practiced differently on the continent, I feel that its impact will contribute towards re-evaluating the notion of design as currently understood globally.

Can you name some of the African artists, designers or personalities who inspire you?

I'm pleased to say that they are too many to list; I've been fortunate to have met a lot of intelligent and inspiring individuals over the past couple of years.