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Ousmane M’Baye: Renegade African Furniture Designer

Ousmane M’Baye: Renegade African Furniture Designer

Ousmane M’Baye finds glory in the rubble of Dakar. Now he’s employing 15 locals, creating a furniture design empire and forging a legacy of African education and export.

For 17 years he repaired fridges. Today he conquers the world with his furniture made of steel and recycled oil drums.

We met with Ousmane M’Baye in Soumbedioune , a part of central Dakar, Senegal. On the street outside his old refrigerator workshop are the cabinets, chairs, armchairs, lamps and shelves, he has designed and then ships to Paris, Barcelona, Belgium, Italy, USA and Japan.

Today Ousmane has 15 people working for him, two of them doing nothing but exploring Dakars junk yards to find good steel parts and oil barrels that can be used for his designed furniture.”It’s been an amazing journey. I grew up in this district and it has always been a creative environment where people make something out of nothing.

But I had no idea that I would become a designer”, Ousmane M’Baye laughs.

Success from Failure

He left school as a 15-year-old dyslexic and started working in his father’s small workshop to repair refrigerators, freezers and air-conditioners. “Maybe subconsciously I was influenced by all home visits to various customers. I saw many different types of designs I carried with me into my own creations”, he says. After 17 years as frigoriste (the French word for refrigerator mechanic), he went through a midlife crisis.

He began experimenting with various steel and iron parts he found to make different objects. ”I had no money to buy materials. But it taught me all materials are unique with unique properties. For me, metal was a means to expand my horizons, to think differently”, he says. At first, he worked with whatever materials were within his reach―drums of petrol, old water pipes he found around town. Anything that involved a formal plan, he didn’t follow.

Creative Calling

”I never do well with following other people’s methods. I prefer to create my own, and by doing that, I developed another way of thinking, different from the academic kind”. A friend of his saw a chair he made of steel and an old cap to an oil drum and ordered several chairs, tables and cabinets.

Since then everything has been working at a record pace. He has received agents and representatives in Paris and elsewhere, and taken part in trade fairs and exhibitions worldwide. When we meet him he is on his way to a big furniture fair in Frankfurt and he has also been approached by major design firms in Hong Kong. His furniture also sells in the U.S. and Japan.

Some like to call what I am doing African Art, or primitive. I call it design, providing a casual object a soul.
To make an everyday object beautiful, to move past simple functionality to give it a spirit, an attitude, a direction―that’s defining design, to me”.

Opening Up Shop

Recently, he opened a big showroom in Dakar where he, with the help of his sister, displays new items to customers from all over the world.”It was important to me to have a local shop to show more people what I do, he says. But in order not to loose his roots he sticks to his run-down refrigerator workshop where all his designed furniture are produced.

Upcycled design which eventually ends in chic boutiques all over the world.

His creation takes place in the head with little change when he begins the actual work of creating a new chair, table or lamp.

“To me everything is a matter of balance. It is imperative when creating furniture to find a harmonious balance. Then the furniture will not only be practical but beautiful and elegant, “he says.

The success has allowed him to purchase a large house, but it is only a few hundred metres from the workshop, in the same area, Médina, where he grew up.

”Here are my roots, this is where I learned to think creatively without large resources. I do not want to loose touch with these roots just because I am successful”, says Ousmane M’Baye.

Growing Demand

His customers are mainly western. “Twenty to thirty percent of my customers today are Africans, compared with five percent two years ago. But I want it to be even more, he says. Up until recently, African art and design were unavailable on the continent, but the Internet has changed the industry a lot. It is up to us as designers to reach out to other people, we need to get to know our market. Today, many young designers in Dakar sell everything online and it’s great”, says M’Baye.

Today Ousmane doesn’t do the practical work any more. But every day, if he has time, he goes to his shop and talk with his workers. ”They carry out my designs, but I’m still the author. They’re the arms, I’m the brain.

I tell them to cut certain pieces in certain dimensions, to put this with that, to solder this piece with that one, but they usually don´t know how the finished furniture will look”, he says. To encourage and save the craftsmanship in his home country, Ousmane Mbaye wants to create a design school. “There are thousands of skilled craftsmen in Senegal. How do you transfer the old knowledge to the new generation? I have been fighting for two years to create a design school in Dakar and increase the skills available”, he says.

Forging a Future for Design

He continues.”When a large part of everything we consume comes from Europe and the United States, we have to work every day to create our own. We must create here, produce here and make sure there are structures to do it. With modern technology, I definitely think it’s possible”, says Ousmane Mbaye.

To learn more about Ousmane’s craft go to www.ousmanembayedesign.com

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