Tosin Oshinowo’s lifestyle furniture brand, Ilé Ilà, began as an experiment—and as with many experiments, it failed on the first attempt. Back in 2012, when Tosin had just started her architectural practice, CM Design Atelier, and was helping a client design the interior of their house, she stumbled upon the concept of using materials and fabrics like aso-oke, a handwoven cloth that is popular in Nigeria’s Yoruba culture, to upholster a chair. Aso-oke is usually bright and typically worn during special occasions. Tosin designed her first chair by draping several aso-oke fabrics on a plain chair—to see if they matched—and working closely with carpenters to fit the fabrics in. After making that chair, which the client obviously loved, Tosin went on to make 10 more, but gave most of them away because they didn’t sell.
It wasn’t until after she designed Maryland Mall in Lagos that she decided to give the chairs another go in 2017. With the encouragement of a friend, Tosin established Ilé Ilà, which translates to “House of Lines” in Yoruba. Ilé Ilà chairs, which retail for anything from $730–$1703, have gone on to be used in esteemed buildings like Ebonylife Place and have been sat on by prominent figures including French President Emmanuel Macron and Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osibanjo, among others.
The Line Chair in white dove.
Tosin recalls how the chairs were like a “burst of culture and vibrant colors, and people resonated with them because nobody was doing anything specifically like that.” As she explains, “[Nigerians] grow up with the idea that chairs made from locally sourced clothing materials are traditional and only appeal to old people. And then, all of a sudden, it is being put in a young, urban context, and it is something that people can use.”
Her design style is very minimalist, an approach she adopted while studying at the Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London from 2003 to 2004. Though she has a personal preference for designs that have a clean, modernist form, Tosin’s cultural upbringing in Nigeria draws her to designs that are flamboyant, colorful, and over the top. Now, Ilé Ilà provides an entry into marrying both aesthetics. For Tosin, the use of aso-oke, tie and dye, and African wax prints allows her to translate the decades-long history of the clothing materials she uses through a modernist lens, thus ensuring that her works carry a touch of her history and culture around.
More importantly, however, Tosin is determined to keep everything about Ilé Ilà in touch with culture by producing these chairs in Nigeria—in spite of the limited structural support, the long-standing problems of power and infrastructure plaguing business owners in Nigeria, and the lack of access to machinery needed to make more of these chairs.
A bold red setting for the Adunni chair and ottoman in Pupa.
The chairs, whether wingbacks, side chairs, or armchairs, take about three months to complete. For wood, Tosin prefers to use Nigerian teak as well as black afara. To achieve the signature Ilé Ilà look, she spends much of her time visiting fabric shops in Lagos to select the right colors of aso-oke, almost as an artist would when building a color palette. She adds, “What is particularly artistic about Ilé Ilà chairs is how I almost paint with the fabrics.”
According to Oyeyiola Moyosore Anne, a Lagos-based interior designer and architect, chairs made from locally sourced materials have re-entered public consciousness over the past five years. These types of chairs can be found in many Nigerian homes, performing the functional purpose of a seat and the aesthetic purpose of art.
“Nowadays, people embrace it as an artistic feature and use it to depict authenticity and a connection to ‘their roots,’” she adds. Oyeyiola also believes that Nigerians are drawn to this furniture style particularly to feel a sense of identity. “Every fabric and every color play tells a story,” she explains.
A full view of the Ironrun table.
The use of locally sourced material to make furniture the way that Ilé Ilà does has always been a strong part of the furniture-making process throughout Nigerian history, specifically in the country’s pre-colonial era. As Oyeyiola explains, parts of Abeokuta, a southwestern Nigerian state, embraced tie and dye fabric to upholster chairs. Eastern parts of the country have been using their own local fabric to depict royalty as well. “It was present in other pieces of furniture, like throw pillows, lampshades, and accent pieces,” she adds.
Making Ilé Ilà chairs continues to bring Tosin closer to the rich history behind the fabrics that she works with. This element also inspires how she names the chairs. For example, Àràbà, as one chair is named, means “aged tree,” while the Adunni chair references a Yoruba name typically used for women that means something “sweet to behold.”
Speaking on the future of her work, Tosin is looking to tap into the global interest that her designs are receiving, which she considers validating and proof that people understand and can connect with her vision for Ilé Ilà. “I want to produce functional pieces that can work in Lagos or London or New York while retaining a strong cultural context of who I am as a Yoruba girl from Lagos,” she says.