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Women Shaping Design: Osaru Alile

Nigerian designer Osaru Alile is passionate about design, education and empowering young Nigerian entrepreneurs.

By Shannon Manuel  | August 31, 2021 | Design

Nigerian designer Osaru Alile is passionate about design, education and empowering young Nigerian entrepreneurs.

The Interior design professional, product designer and social entrepreneur has played her part in transforming the country’s design space, and is considered a leader in the industry.

You are quite the force in the Nigerian design space. How you become interested in design?

Osaru: The force! I’ve never heard myself being called that but yes, I’ll take it! I’ll be honest, when I started, I did not know I was interested in interior design. After secondary School, I left Nigeria for the United States to go to University. My Dad is an economist and so in pure admiration, I was going to study the same. After a year and half of study, I thought to myself, ‘this is not working, I’m not enjoying this.’ I shared with my siblings and my super hero eldest sister encouraged me to try something in the design field.

Bridge Lamp. Image: Caxton Alile Living/supplied

Taking the bold step of dropping out of formal school, I took a series of day and night classes at a few design schools across NYC. After going through prospectus’ and curriculums, I fell in love with the idea of Interior Design and decided to explore. My first application to the Interior Design bachelors’ degree program at the Fashion Institute of Technology was negative. I did not get it and I was so devastated. I spoke with the dean at the time and he encouraged me to take classes and work towards building my portfolio specifically in Interior Design. I took his advice, reapplied the next semester and look at me now.

What was the first thing you designed and what were your feelings about the whole process?

I started working as an Interior Designer at Cetra Ruddy Architects in NYC. I was involved in two dynamic projects - multi-use buildings in the middle of Manhattan. I had the best direct boss one could ask for, Paris Forino - she is one of the most phenomenal designers ever. I was the junior designer; she was the senior designer on both projects. Paris used to give me a free hand and much needed encouragement (every young designer needs this!). She would often say to me ‘Osaru, you have a really good eye, you are great with colour, and material selection. She’ll send me off sourcing at the Design & Decorators building and I absolutely loved it. I was quite involved in the projects from meeting clients, drawing sets, picking out materials, finishes, colours and site visits. I loved every minute of it. Seeing your designs come up from idea, to paper to build can be so empowering.

Chelsea Home Interiors. Image: CC Interiors/Supplied
Image: Caxton Alile Living/Supplied

Can you give us some insights into the design space of Nigeria?

I started working as an interior designer in Nigeria over ten years ago and I have to say that at first, I was utterly disappointed. I was shocked by the industry because a large portion of it hadn’t developed into what it is today. It was quite informal, seemed disorganised and confusing. The systems, principles and structures that set apart a professional Interior Designer seemed to generally not be accepted, adhered to or even understood. Clients would want you to work off-paper, directly on site and expect things to just ‘happen’. I struggled with it and was often seen as extremely rigid, but I was determined to push back and enforce change, as I knew that I wanted to be working in an industry that looked better than how it did when I started.

I was a member of American Society of Interior Designers in the USA and was hoping to be a part of a design community here in Nigeria. I would often ask around and someone introduced me to Ms. Ogufere, who at the time had just started the Interior Design Association of Nigeria, IDAN. I was very excited and I joined immediately and ever since then, I have been actively involved in the industry as a whole, consistently trying to uphold the profession, bring more structure and unity to the industry. I’d very often informally educate other designers who have the talent and are in the industry but do not understand the profession completely. I’d educate clients to give them an understanding of what to expect and how they can help to make their interior designers’ job more effective and efficient.

In terms of materials and stories that are being told through design, I will say that I have seen enormous seeds being planted, some of which I am directly a part of. I can confidently say in the next three to five years, Nigeria will be coming to the top of the design world in Africa and worldwide.

How do you think that you have shaped, or are shaping design?

I play a lead role at Design Week Lagos (DWL), which was established as an annual citywide celebration held in Lagos, Nigeria, to promote creativity and innovation across various disciplines. The festival, which holds In October yearly, brings together the design community with a vision to create a recognisable design culture for Africa. Over the years I’ve also spearheaded education committees and various design competitions for DWL and IDAN. love to see students navigate interesting briefs, compete for constructive growth and thereafter thrive!

I also co-hosted the very 1st global online interior design summit, The PAID (Pan-African interior Design) Summit, with thousands of design students leaning about the rudiments of interior design.

Who are some women that have inspired you?

Paris Forino, Titi Ogufere and Iris Apfel. Paris because she is a delightful designer and was a phenomenal boss to me, I remember often saying‘ If I could be half the boss Paris was to me to anybody who works with me either formally or informally, then I know that I’ve done good’ she was simply amazing! Titi because she doesn’t see limitation, it amuses and amazes me all at the same time. We are building Design Week Lagos together. Iris because she is unapologetic about her style and Its so beautiful, I absolutely love her and have actually met her once a few years ago, I was so excited and claimed her as my design grandma. She’s 100 this year and is still quite active and very dynamic and bold, she inspires me to continue to be who I am, to chart my own path and completely own it!

You run a number of businesses?

At CaxtonAlile Living, we create and produce contemporary Africa inspired lamps using various materials like wood, metals and unique textiles like adire, Aso-Oke and ankara. We’ve produced a few collections over the years and truly enjoy working with designers to create bespoke pieces. We also do a-lot of restoration work, which can be so exciting to see.

I am a principle partner at CC Interiors Studio, a full service Interior Design practice run out of Lagos, Nigeria - however serving an international client base. We’ve worked on numerous residential, commercial and a good amount of multi-use multi-story builds. I run, alongside my good friend Ameena, a quaint fashion brand called Cape Soul, We design and produce elegant, yet whimsical fashion capes. When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tried on our Cape for the 1st time, she said, “This is Cape with which I shall rule the world.” I also am building an exciting furniture line with my first collection coming out in October this year.

As African people are making their voices heard and embracing their culture, where do you see the African design industry heading in the next few years?

‘What a time to be alive!’ This phase truly sums up how I feel about the African design industry right now. We are booming and growing, dissecting and understanding our own environment, cultures, history and lifestyles - we are finally excited to tell our own stories. We are Africans and enjoying being Africans. What is springing out of this new trajectory is emerging not only in the design industry, but also in every sector. It is strong and positive and will certainly have a ripple effect.

From our hair and skin, to fashion, music and design, all sectors are truly now looking inwards. We are proud of our looks, the way our minds work, the soul that is within us and are truly celebrating our differences. It’s amazing because the beauty of Africa is in our culture, heritage and our stories. Why we were brainwashed into thinking that it was not okay or beautiful, I certainly don’t know. But all I do know is that we are currently resetting our minds and I’m excited to see where we are going!

Are you happy with the role that you have played thus far?

Yes, I am. Actually, I’m happy with the impact I’ve made so far. And excited to make much more. I was moderating an online panel session about ‘Building a lasting Legacy’ during the lockdown in Lagos. I know what a legacy is but, of course, before I moderate any session, I do my research to properly familiarize myself with the topic, and this time as I prepared for the session, I realized that documenting and telling your story is a very huge part of legacy building. This is something I haven’t done so well with. I’m actually putting out a public charge upon myself; to do more, to share more, and in-turnhopefully impact more and get to legacy building!

Thank you to House & Garden SA for helping me with my new task-set. When I was in NYC, I definitely had a House & Garden subscription and now many years later; I’m really excited to be a part of the ‘Women Shaping Design’ series.