Ini Archibong presented the second instalment of his Below the Heavens furniture for Sé during Milan design week. In this interview, the designer says his aim is make objects that help you "escape your mundane reality".
Archibong debuted the first half of the 22-piece collection in 2018. Designed to reference elements of both heaven and earth, it features lights that evoke cloud formations and a table that references the sun rising up from the horizon.
The second series, unveiled at Spazio Rossana Orlandi in Milan this month, continues this theme, with tables that look like groups of rocks and a sofa that references flowers.
"I really can't make anything until I have some kind of visceral impetus, something pushing me, and something that I want to express and translate to people," explained the designer, who is also a Dezeen Awards 2019 judge.
"Below the Heavens is a collection of pieces that allow you to escape your mundane reality while you're still here on earth, in your home," he told Dezeen.
Design "to elevate your soul"
Archibong is based in rural Switzerland, although he grew up on the outskirts of Los Angeles, with parents who had emigrated from Nigeria. Having started out in architecture, he moved over to industrial design, although he identifies more as an artist.
"I don't like the labels," he said. "I make emotional things with a function. To me, there's still artistic expression and the function is part of it."
"When I got into architecture, it was about the emotive quality of space, and spiritual spaces like temples and churches, and how they had a specific function that was tied to an unseen, to elevate your soul. That's what I wanted to develop the skills to do," he said.
Below the Heavens is only the fourth signature collection from London-based Sé, which was founded by Pavlo Schtakleff in 2007. Previously the brand has worked with Damien Langlois-Meurinne, Jaime Hayon and Nika Zupanc.
It is almost unheard of for a brand to commission such a vast collection from a designer so early into his career. But Schtakleff was so impressed by the glass-legged tables Archibong presented at the Salone Satellite exhibition in 2016, he decided to take a chance.
Importance of mythology
All the pieces draw on Archibong's interest in mythology and spirituality. The designer believes his work can have an intangible, almost spiritual effect on the spaces it occupies.
"I entered this realm to have an effect on the world and on humanity," Archibong said.
"There needs to be a way for humans to shake off this realm and enter into a realm of the sublime and the unseen, but very real," he added. "Beauty has that ability to do that. Art has the ability to do that."
"Upon realising that and dedicating myself to doing that, I started being more effective."
Read on for an edited version of the interview transcript:
Katie de Klee: Tell me about yourself. Where are you based?
Ini Archibong: Neuchâtel, in Switzerland. It's on a lake, surrounded by mountains. If you Google it, you usually see a picture of one of the mountain castles, and then the lake down below.
Katie de Klee: Do you have a studio there?
Ini Archibong: Yes, I guess you could call it that. It's my home; I don't have any employees. I work alone.
Katie de Klee: Do you find it easier to work in a quiet place?
Ini Archibong: Yes, it wouldn't be good if I was living in the city.
Katie de Klee: You're from a city though?
Ini Archibong: Kind of. I'm from Pasadena, which is on the outskirts of LA. It's like a suburb. The hustle and bustle is something that I've never really been into. I tried New York, it didn't last. I tried San Francisco, it didn't last.
Katie de Klee: Isn't it more of an artist's thing to choose the reclusive life, rather than a designer?
Ini Archibong: Actually I consider myself more of an artist than a designer, but I don't like the labels. I make emotional things with a function. To me, there's still artistic expression and the function is part of it.
Katie de Klee: How did you come to be a maker of emotional functional things?
Ini Archibong: Where to start? I guess we could start at architecture. When I got into architecture, it was about the emotive quality of space, and spiritual spaces like temples and churches, and how they had a specific function that was tied to an unseen, to elevate your soul. That's what I wanted to develop the skills to do.
By the time I got to design, it was how to do that in a more intimate scale.
Katie de Klee: Do you think that products have the same ability to elevate souls as spaces?
Ini Archibong: I think so yes. I think that the products are what occupy the frame, which is the space. Then the human navigates that space. Your memories and your experiences are directly tied to how the space holds the objects within it and how you navigate that. The pieces that are around are extremely important.
Katie de Klee: When did you move over to design from architecture?
Ini Archibong: I was at an art centre and the first piece of furniture I designed was for one of the elective classes. I just got stuck in there, because it was the first time that my wild, crazy ideas and the sculptural approach that I had to my architecture wasn't manifested in a miniature model. I could just make the actual thing.
I made a table. I was thinking about experience, and how to touch and affect people, but not as much as I've been able to do here [with Sé]. It wasn't until later on that I realised that I could be expressive in this way.
I figured I would move to Switzerland and do a master's there that focused on this sort of work. That's when I started.
Katie de Klee: How did the collaboration with Sé start? Did you already have the ideas for Below the Heavens in your mind, or did that come later?
Ini Archibong: Both. I have ideas, conversations, experiences, all these things that are bubbling under the surface. Maybe Below the Heavens would have come about later down the road, but it was really the identity of Sé that brought that thing out from wherever it was. I started thinking, what is this brand? What is Sé?
Then all of a sudden it came forward – Sé is this conversation about a space in-between that you have the ability to create. That's where the connection was drawn, and everything tumbles out from there.
I was like, "Oh, this is Below the Heavens". All these things started to make sense. Something that represents the spirit of the earth dropping from heaven, makes sense. Cloud formation, lamps, makes sense. Greek mythology inspired-themes and forms and names, make sense.
I really can't make anything until I have some kind of visceral impetus, something pushing me, and something that I want to express and translate to people, and that's where it all began.
Below the Heavens is a collection of pieces that allow you to escape your mundane reality while you're still here on earth, in your home. You can go out, go to the office, do all your stuff, and when you come home, even if it's just for a second before you turn on the TV, you're in an in-between space. You're not tied to all of that out there, and you're also not disconnected from all reality, tripping on drugs. You're here, but you're in-between, heaven-adjacent.
Katie de Klee: Glass plays a big part in the collection. Do you particularly enjoy working with this material?
Ini Archibong: When Pavlo first contacted me, he'd seen the collection that I did for Satellite. I was excited to introduce glass to Sé.
The approach to materials that I try to have is really about maintaining the integrity of the non-physical qualities of the material.
Glass makes you feel a certain way, big glass makes you feel a certain way, coloured glass makes you feel a certain way, lit big coloured glass makes you feel a certain way. It can't really be fully captured in a picture. It can't be fully described in words. You kind of need to be next to it and experience it.
There's a different feeling when you have a big old piece of glass next to your head.
Katie de Klee: One of the standout glass pieces from the first series was the Gaea Pendant light, which you have reinvented for the second series in the form of a coffee table. Tell me the idea behind this design?
Ini Archibong: The large glass is meant to represent the womb of the spirit of the earth. Gaea was the goddess mother of the earth in Greek mythology. The chain is kind of like an umbilical cord hanging from heaven.
The light started with a joke. We were a little bit drunk on the road and I was like: "What if we make a floor lamp that hangs from the ceiling?"
In my head, it was like, "It's a womb and it's hanging from heaven". What's it going to be hanging from? An umbilical cord. Then the beads were kind of natural.
With the Gaea, it feels very much like my African heritage is a lot in there. Things that I grew up with, around and seeing and wearing. It's part of my DNA.
Katie de Klee: Are you a first-generation American?
Ini Archibong: Yes. My parents moved from Nigeria, so I grew up with a lot of Nigerian heritage in my life. The community of Nigerian expats is very tiny in the States. If you meet a Nigerian, it's highly likely that they are part of a group of expatriate overachievers that went over, went to college and raised their children there.
Katie de Klee: What did your parents think of your choice of career choice?
Ini Archibong: They've always been supportive but I think they were definitely fearful because you want to try to protect your children. When I'm entering a world that they have no idea about, they can't give me any advice. They didn't know what I was doing. All they know is the old trope about the starving artist.
My dad's an engineer, so in his mind an architect is somebody that plays around and then he does the real work. My mom's happy that I actually graduated from school, even though I was 30.
Katie de Klee: What goals do you have? What will be the marker of your own success, or does success matter to you?
Ini Archibong: Yes, success does matter. I entered this realm to have an effect on the world and on humanity, and to use what I was born with to be a benefit to as much of humanity is possible through my expressions. That's the success. I'm probably not going to see if I'm successful here on this earth. I'll put it that way.
Katie de Klee: Do you think making beautiful things can be a benefit to humanity, as opposed to more practical careers?
Ini Archibong: You have lots of body parts, and you have a bunch of different cells in your body. Your brain cells, your neurons do a certain thing. Your white blood cells do a certain thing. The cells in your muscles do a certain thing, but they all need to do what they do. There's not really a hierarchy. You might choose to say that my brain cells are more important, but what happens if your muscle cells aren't doing their thing?
I could have done a number of things. Before I did this, I had a full scholarship to study business. I was doing really well in philosophy classes and I could have been a lawyer. I could have been a humanitarian. I could have been a lot of different things, but then I sat back and I said: "Well, I'm only going to be happy if I'm doing what I was born to do".
The stuff you see around here, it comes pretty naturally. If you look out in nature, there's a reason why flowers are beautiful and they serve a function.
There needs to be a way for humans to shake off this realm and enter into a realm of the sublime and the unseen, but very real. Beauty has that ability to do that. Art has the ability to do that. That's why somebody like Shakespeare had an effect on the course of humanity with what he wrote. That's why different artists have had the effect that they've had.
Upon realising that and dedicating myself to doing that, I started being more effective.
Katie de Klee: Tell me about the Moirai lighting?
Ini Archibong: It's called the Moirai because there were three muses, and there's three distinct shapes here. The formation was meant to be like a constellation of clouds. In my head, it was these swimming clouds in the sky. I later realised this could be extracted into floor lamps, table lamps, different ceiling lamp configurations and the chandelier.
There's also this sense of urgency. There's this sense of almost like, this might be my last chance to make stuff so let's make it. I don't know what the next opportunity is going to be.
Katie de Klee: How do you name the pieces?
Ini Archibong: I have my own obsessions. For me, this stuff is about mining in my own story, my own obsessions and mythologies, and figuring out a way to translate what I've taken from these experiences into something a bit universal.
All the mythology comes from my own obsession with spirituality, comic books, magic, science fiction. I was just a constant reader. I read a lot. All that stuff is all around it. When I think about expressing things, it goes to those places.