In the rugged highlands of Ethiopia, majestic spiral-horned mountain nyalas run free. The grace and beauty of these elusive antelope sparked Jomo Tariku’s idea for the Nyala, a hand-carved three-legged chair that appeals in modern indoor spaces.
The Nyala is also the most-requested chair at Springfield-based Jomo Furniture, a modern African furniture-design business that Tariku has run since 2000. To this Kenyan-born, Ethiopian-bred designer, a chair is complex, even provocative. No other piece of furniture is as challenging and gratifying to conceptualize and create. This one piece of equpiment needs to accommodate a wide array of diverse body types—short, tall, large, small. “You’ve got to find a balance, to get it right ergonomically,” says Tariku. “When you do, it’s very satisfying.”
Tariku’s enthusiasm for traditional African furniture updated with modern lines goes back to his days at the University of Kansas. As an industrial-design major, his fifth-year thesis centered on how to create a new and modern range of African furniture. Today, he has lived out that dream, coming full circle in bringing prototypes and finished furniture pieces to the public.
“As an industrial designer, I want you to sit on it,” says Tariku. “But it’s a statement piece, too. I attract those who can appreciate chairs as art.” The Ashanti stool, for example, is a contemporary take on the traditional ceremonial stool once used by the indigenous Akan people in present-day Ghana.
A breakout moment for Tariku came in 2016 at Dubai Design Week, where he was overwhelmed by the response to his prototypes. He found the chairs and stools tap into emotion through the culture and heritage each represents.
“Strangers have been affected, to see Black designers as creators [and] not just as salespeople,” says Tariku. “They want to decorate and purchase core furniture and design pieces that relate to their heritage, but there is so little on the market.” He wants to change that through the objects he creates.
By redefining African furniture, Tariku is changing the longtime mindset that has traditionally relegated African decor to tribal masks and leopard prints. He thinks that the perception is indeed changing as the industry is being challenged. In 2018, he co-founded the Black Artists + Designers Guild to help bring Black designers to the foreground. Black and African designers are quickly becoming a growing presence in curated collections at museums and furniture stores. Buyers want to see a whole suite of living room furniture that represents them, says Tariku. “I am working to create furnishings that satisfy this need from a psychological and emotional point of view.
“The goal is to create a new branch in the home and decor industry that associates with African design,” says Tariku. “Africa has 54 countries, yes, but let’s start talking about it.”
Tariku sold his handiwork from an Alexandria storefront from 2000 to 2008, and he hopes to have a brick-and-mortar location again soon. For now, he sells his chairs and stools from his garage studio in Springfield, where he focuses on dreaming up and building prototypes. His chairs are then handcrafted by a regionally noted furniture-maker in Columbia, Virginia. And, as much as Tariku urges that “you have to experience a chair,” you can actually shop his line from whatever you happen to be sitting on—he launched an online store in April. // jomofurniture.com