Ini Archibong: Artist in Residence

We sat down with Ini Archibong, a designer who has collaborated with Knoll, Bernhardt Design, and Hermès, to talk about our love of interior design, Wu-tang, artistry, and openness. Those last two are very important to us as a company. We try to weave artistry and openness in everything we do. We also champion artists that share these values. So when we heard Ini would be in London to unveil his new work at the London Design Biennale, we were delighted to host him and his team in a Sonder for the month. 

Ini’s new work is the Pavilion of the African Diaspora. The Pavilion is made up of three flowy structures reminiscent of shells. Its purpose is to be a global stage to celebrate the past, present, and future Black contributions to society and culture. Ini received the London Design Biennale 2021 Best Design Medal for his Pavilion.  

Can you start by telling us a little about your design process?

So a lot of my process is a combination of the fact that I started in architecture, I’ve been a musician since I was young, and I played sports. That’s the simplest way to break it down. Because when I get into the design process, I’m meticulous, like an architect, about establishing the parameters and boundaries of what I’m creating. When I get into the actual process of designing, I try to do it the same way that I would play the saxophone or the same way that I would improvise on the soccer field. Where you trust that if you put in enough work during practice, you know the plays, and when you get in there, you’re just kind of reacting to whatever inputs are coming at you. So, in many ways, everything that I did in the past informs the way that I approach design because design was something that came into my life much later. 

Would you say it’s like muscle memory? Like you’re trusting like your previous experience to guide you to where you need to go?

It’s like 100% a muscle memory thing. Like when I was in school, I trained the muscles to execute anything that comes to my head without thinking. So when I sit down to design something, all I have to do is let the object float around in my head or the space float around my head, and then my hands do the rest.

Do you follow any design values or principles?

I guess the only design principle that might work is: Don’t make shit that’s not dope. I respect all of the people that have come before me. And I’ve employed all their approaches at different times, especially Buckminster Fuller, Dieter Rams, and those guys. But all of that was in the studying phase when I was developing who I was going to be. And once I figured it out, it’s kind of like, you know, if you get all the paints in front of you, you just paint the picture.

Would you say your home has a specific interior design style? 

The thing people usually don’t think about is that their interior should be a reflection of their personal interior. So if I have a big mansion, and they see a big mansion, they don’t necessarily know anything about me, except that I got a bunch of money, right? So instead, you should be able to walk around in my house without me being there, and by the time I show up, you know exactly who I am. 

And there was a point in time before the modern metropolis where you had people who had rural lifestyles, where they were stuck in one place and they had nowhere that they could go. So those people didn’t really have their own individual identity. 

But then, when you had the advent of the modern city, people could go to a metropolis and be completely anonymous and be nobody. You could walk around NYC, and nobody has any idea who you are or what you’re about. But once you invite them into your home, that’s your chance to show somebody exactly who you are. 

And the way that that is done at the very beginning was that you collected things from where you went. It’s why, if you look at anything up there on the shelf, there’s a reason why I have each of those things. They represent something. If you were to walk around my house, somebody would pick up pretty quickly where I’m from, and what music I’m into, what I find interesting, and what I’ve collected from around the world, and that’s really how my house is, you know, laid out.

Do you have a favorite city that you visited in your lifetime?

My favorite city in Europe is Copenhagen. My favorite city in the US is Chicago. 

Why those two cities?

Because every single architectural and city planning element is there, you have waterways, bridges, all those things. They’re all organized. And they’re all beautiful as well. And they’re all intentionally designed. Whereas New York feels like it happened on accident. You go to Chicago, and every time you hit a corner, it’s so very intentional, very clearly designed, you know? And Copenhagen, I don’t think I’ve ever taken a taxi in Copenhagen. I’ve always either had a bike or one of those electric scooters. You can literally get anywhere in Copenhagen you need.

Is there anything today that you look to for inspiration?

Anything that I create will have an element of nature, spirituality, and music within it. It’s that basic. I’m always listening to music while at work, or I’m making music while at work. I’ve planted myself in a place where when I look out the window, all I see is trees and sky. I take frequent walks, and I can see the stars at night. So it really is nature and music. Also, my spirituality plays a big part in it. I read every morning, and it all kind of seeps into my work.

Any particular music that you prefer while working? Lyrics, no lyrics? Or is it just kind of how you’re feeling for the day?

It changes based on what I’m working on. When I had a lot of time, I would make music with every project. So, the first thing I would do is think about the feeling that I’m trying to create, and then I’d go to my records. I have a crate that I keep next to my desk, and I would start pulling out the records that I knew I had that feeling on them.

Recently, I’ve had less time to get things done, to be honest. So now it’s more about playing the music that maintains a feeling and keeps my energy in the right place while I’m creating. It also depends on what’s going on around me. I remember during 2020, I just listened to Miles Davis on repeat from the summer on. Like when everything surrounding George Floyd started to happen. That was really the mood in my apartment; the lights were usually really dim, and Miles was playing in the background. That was the energy. And all the things that came from that time period are going to carry the energy of what I’m feeling. So the music really tied to that. 

When I was designing that chair behind me, it started with contemporary instrumental stuff. By the time I got down to the nitty-gritty of engineering, it was all Wu-Tang and Griselda. 

Which Wu-Tang album?

36 chambers is always the beginning, and then Liquid Swords. When I’m listening to the GZA, it always gets me in the right space.

You’re very much into the Black Lives Matter movement. How do you think you could use design to make the world more inclusive and open?

The first thing I’m hoping to be clear about is that Black Lives Matter is an organization, an organization that is a piece of the puzzle of an overall movement that started a long time ago. So it’s kind of a misnomer to lump everything that I think we’re talking about here into the bucket of Black Lives Matter. It was the most visible and the biggest branded part of the movement.

The second thing is the world, by default, is inclusive because we’re all here. So it’s not like a movement is going to make things more inclusive; it’s just going to make things really clear about the recognition of power that is included. So I think that bringing attention to the fact that marginalized people are not just marginalized with their access, but they’re also marginalized in terms of how important they are to the sustenance of an ecosystem that requires them is saying the same thing as Black lives matter. It’s not that Black lives matter to me. It’s Black lives matter to everybody.

That was kind of like the inspiration behind the Pavilion, to draw attention to some of those marginalized contributions to culture and art. The point was for me to lead a group of black people into a space of creating a monument so that other black people could come and say, “look, we’re being recognized by our own people.” So we have a space to talk about our creative contributions to the world in general and establish the fact that we’re going to change the course of how we treat things and how others treat things going forward. 

To have that conversation and start somewhere, and saying it doesn’t matter what kind of black person you are, you’re part of the diaspora. So let’s start congregating under one banner and having these discussions. And because these discussions are taking place in a public setting,  they can be listened to by others which might give them insight into how important these contributions have been. 
To see more of Ini’s work, follow him on Instagram.

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