Crossing continents and disciplines

Don't try to pigeonhole Kossi Aguessy. He was born in Togo, grew up in the US and is now based in London. Oh, and he is both an artist and industrial designer.

When “Making Africa – A Continent of Contemporary Design” opens at the Vitra Design Museum this Friday, 13 March, it will include the work of London-based Kossi Aguessy, a multi-faceted industrial designer of Togolese and Brazilian heritage whose practice flows seamlessly across continents and creative disciplines.

Aguessy was born in Togo, a sliver of a country sandwiched between Ghana and Benin, and raised in the US. He studied industrial design and interior architecture at Central Saint Martins in London and has lived and worked in several of Europe’s design capitals.

His multi-cultural background has had a considerable influence on his work, not least in that he views himself as a truly global citizen. However, starting out, Aguessy was driven by his desire to change the way his work as a designer of African descent is viewed in the world.

“When I looked through history, when it came to engineering or applied arts, the Southern Hemisphere seriously lacked [African] names and references,” he says. “We needed some changes. I felt I had to go my own way to at least try to establish one of these references.”

Access to digital technology has empowered Africans to shine the spotlight on their work themselves, he says, fuelling global interest. But we still have some way to go, he adds, noting that once the world refers to individual creatives rather than collectively referencing creativity in Africa as a whole, then the battle for Africa's creativity to be of equal standing in the world would have been won.

Through his own studio – Aguessy Industry, established in 2004 – he charges himself, in Gandhi’s words, to “be the change you wish to see”.

From mass market to one-off pieces Aguessy has a diverse portfolio of work that includes industrial collaborations ranging from furniture, home appliances and interiors to objects, set designs and cars for some of the world’s most iconic brands, such as Yves Saint-Laurent, Cartier, Swarovski, ST Dupont, Renault and Branex. But he also considers himself a visual artist and his output includes sculpture and painting. He designed the Stella by Stella McCartney perfume bottle and the Coca Cola Sustainable Design Award trophy and furniture made from recycling bottles.

His work has been widely exhibited and can be found in the permanent collections of The Beaubourg Museum in Paris and the National in Beijing. His designs are also included in the Museum of Arts and Design's The Global Africa Project.

Aguessy, however, shuns the title ‘designer’.

I am not a designer but a describer. I’m not a creator but a messenger – a bridge, a piece of a puzzle called evolution that started before me and shall continue long after.

Philosophical in his outlook and with a natural curiosity for life, he does not consider design and art as a career but as a path he has followed naturally from childhood – despite discouragement. His work is carefully considered: “The first question I ask myself at the very beginning of the design process is if this novelty is needed and what will be the human and environmental impact of it. If the answer happens to be negative, I will not complete the process.”

And while there are specific types of products and materials that he chooses not to work with – such as military objects and devices that use only oil based-energy – Aguessy does not restrict himself to one particular discipline or product type, choosing instead to go wherever the creative process leads him.

“Design for me is a solution-based process wrapped in a layer of balance and beauty, exactly as a butterfly wing is,” he says. Again, if that balance cannot be achieved, he drops the project. The creative process also informs his choice of materials and he explores the challenges of each material’s properties to achieve the final result he seeks. This often sees him mix high technology with tradition or craftsmanship, a defining characteristic of his designs.

Aguessy has had the opportunity to work in Africa, most notably as the designer of "The Guardian" monument commissioned to commemorate Togo’s 50th independence anniversary. He also established a Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory) in Porto Novo, Benin, a partnership between the Centre Pompidou Museum in Paris and the Fondation Zinsou in Benin. The pieces created at the lab now form part of the Pompidou Museum’s permanent collection.

It is the beginning of what he hopes will be even more prominent and meaningful projects on the African continent. Calling for more industry groups in Africa to integrate the value of design and technology research into their work, Aguessy is working to establish more partnerships between fields such as product, electronic, communication, automotive, energy and fashion design.

For now he is significantly reducing his industrial collaborations to a couple per year, giving him time to focus on upcoming exhibitions and on his visual art.