Born in Kenya, raised in Ethiopia, Jomo Tariku is on a mission not only to create beautiful furniture, but also to design pieces that tell the story of Africa. It’s the story as he knows it - and not as the West perceives it.
Now living and working in the US, Jomo’s success as a furniture designer has been 25 years in the making.
After he finished high school, Jomo travelled to the US to study industrial design at college. For his senior year design thesis, Jomo decided to focus on African furniture. It became his passion. He worked on it for two semesters - including the research phase, then designing and producing the furniture.
After that he couldn't get the idea of building a business around African furniture out of his head.
"No one else was doing this in the U.S. My project would be a great addition to the culture and market of the U.S. The Immigration Service agreed with me, and I got granted a Work Permit in the USA. I moved to the U.S. and got married there.”
In 2000, he opened his first studio in Washington D.C. with a close friend. Together, they ran this for about eight years before the economy started going into recession. Forced to go in a different direction, Jomo started working for the World Bank.
But he never stopped sketching. In 2016, he noticed that people were interested in his design work once again. He got published in a book, and received an invitation to a Design Week. After a seven year hiatus, he rebooted his career in design.
Jomo draws his inspiration from his heritage - though as a ‘pan-Africanist’ he looks across all of Africa.
“I don't focus on a specific part of Africa to draw inspiration from. I'm not looking into one culture or specific design elements - just because I'm a furniture designer doesn't mean that I get my inspiration only from other furniture designs.”
He finds inspiration in clothing patterns, facial scarifications or paints. He also gets inspired by architectural colour palettes - like mosques in Mali, or the natural materials used to build.
His African heritage, combined with European influences, gives him a refreshing design perspective. From his unique point of view he creates unique designs that focus on African themes.
He studies the African crafts and the skills passed on from one family to another. They take day-to-day objects, like mugs, or baskets, and decorate them. Jomo believes that African art isn't just something you hang on a wall, it's something to use every day.
His most significant success so far
For a designer, one of the greatest achievements is being published. And Jomo’s work has been published in various magazines and books:
“ I just received one book that was written in Nigeria and my furniture is on the cover. The title of the book is "This is Africa". The book features many great designs, and the fact that I'm on the cover means a lot to me.”
He’s also in discussion with a museum to showcase his designs there. To be exhibited in this specific museum would be a huge accolade for Jomo and he’s delighted to be considered.
What’s next for Jomo?
Jomo’s designs are created out of wood, but he doesn’t source his materials from Ethiopia where deforestation is a real problem.
However, Ethiopia has one of the largest supplies of bamboo in Africa. Bamboo is a solid material; it lasts for a long time; it grows fast. So, Jomo is exploring what he can create out of bamboo to help the local market.
Also, Africa, in general, has one of the largest populations of young people in the world. So, Jomo is looking into what he can do for the younger generation in terms of manufacturing. Instead of importing everything from the outside, he and his team could build manufacturing processes in Africa, so one African country benefits from another.
Jomo’s view of African design
“What African designers can bring to the world is the African design vocabulary - our approach. There's a lot of creativity within the black community. But there’s also a misconception about what African American designers, or people from the diaspora can bring to the table.”
With this in mind, Jomo became one of the co-founders of the Black Artists + Designer Guild. Its vision is to connect people with African heritage and give them the support they need for their work.
Jomo is so proud of being part of the group that advocates the industry globally, allowing designers to showcase their work. Slowly, they are being accepted and attitudes are changing.