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Munira Shonibare: The design dynamo

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Munira Shonibare: The design dynamo

Shonibare's vision is to manufacture pieces that can compete globally at international furniture shows.

Shonibare’s vision is to manufacture pieces that can compete globally at international furniture shows.

Going into manufacturing in Nigeria is not an easy task. However, MUNIRA SHONIBARE, CEO, IO Furniture, dared to venture into an unusual terrain some 20 years ago. In this interview, she takes FUNKE OSAE-BROWN into her private world.

She laughs heartily as she welcomes guest to her expansive showroom situated on Industrial Avenue, Ilupeju, Lagos. Clad in a black patterned jacket and skirt, she looks radiant with her braids flowing down her shoulders. She is hosting estate surveyors to a tour of her large furniture showroom and factory.

Munira Shonibare is a guru when it comes to interior furnishing. She is the CEO of IO Furniture Limited. She has been in the furniture industry as an interior designer and a manufacturer for over 20 years.

From inception, she has always had the mindset to be a game changer in the way locally manufactured furniture is consumed and appreciated. “We realised that most of the time,” she says, “a lot of Nigerians prefer to go abroad to buy goods and services including interior designs and services, almost everything. I thought; how do we begin to participate in ensuring that we effect that change that they should by locally made furniture.”

And so, in the last two years Shonibare has intensified her campaign for people to purchase and enjoy the comfort plus the durability of Nigerian made furniture. “For some time now,” she explains, “for the past year or two they thought me about raising awareness. Making sure that the various institutions and governments like the Architectural Association, contractors or quantity surveyors, know about the quality of what we make here at IO Furniture. I just thought you know what, maybe the awareness isn’t there yet and most of these people only have access to the local artisans, who can’t guaranty the quality and standard required in setting up a manufacturing output in Nigeria.”

Shonibare’s quest some 20 years ago while working as an interior designer, made her go in search of a reputable furniture company but she couldn’t find any. Hence, she decided to step into that space to fill the vacuum. “I just couldn’t find a reputable manufacturing company that could give me what I want in high quality, meet my time’ and delivery; and also accurately deliver what I had ordered.”

Shonibare is an interior designer by training before she partnered with manufacturers from Italy to establish IO Furniture.

According to her, in an ideal world, an interior designer is not supposed to go into manufacturing, but the unique Nigerian situation makes this so.

“Interior designers everywhere else are not manufacturers. We happen to be in that unique position in Nigeria. So, when I decided to go into manufacturing, I needed to be able to guarantee time lines for my clients. That was why the manufacturing arm of the business was born.”

Initially, Shonibare says the manufacturing was done manually, however mechanisation was introduced and IO Furniture’s reputation began to grow by word of mouth. “Seven or eight years ago, I realised we have been taken by event. We need to get automated. Fortunately, there was a ban on furniture some years ago. We didn’t want to become smuggler so I had to talk to my foreign partners about the possibility of manufacturing in Nigeria.”

They agreed but they said they have to train our local staff to transfer skill and knowledge and that is how it was born.”

For her, one of the factors that led her into furniture making is that fact that she wants to create the awareness and bring the artistry of Nigerian artists to people’s consciousness. Nigerian artists can give us the kind of standard we require. Look at the fashion industry; it has exploded now Nigerian fashion designers are participating in international fashion fairs. In the furniture industry, we have got to begin to do that.”

Shonibare says her vision is to manufacture pieces that can compete globally at international furniture shows. “Our ultimate goal is that we have got to be doing furniture made in Nigeria and begin to participate in the Milan Furniture Show, because that is the biggest furniture fair in the world. Manufacturers from all over the world exhibit there. I have never seen any African country in the Milan show. Turkey has been represented, you get some furniture makers from the North African countries like Morocco and Egypt, you never get anything from our side and why is that? It is not that we are not educated or not enterprising or unintelligent or not hard working but we have not entered into collaboration that is it.”

Twenty five years on, Shonibare says her experience in the manufacturing industry is still ongoing. “The experience is ongoing. I learn a new lesson every day. I have been here for over 25 years and it is only this year that we started looking at collaborations to create awareness with architects. The next one that we are going to do is with the quantity surveyors, and then, the engineers. We want to tell them we are in this together. We have nowhere to go, we either come together and grow our industry or we keep supporting other industry to keep growing. If we fail to support ourselves, what we will be doing is stifling our own.

“For instance, look at the textile industry, it is dead. Meanwhile, we are among the biggest users of textiles and we no longer have a textile mill because we have killed it. For every occasion now, I go African because I am so proud to showcase our cultural heritage.

“For any occasion out of these shores I make a conscious effort to get cultural. People would ask me, what culture is that. I tell them it is from Nigeria. Nobody is going to do it for us if we don’t do it for ourselves, no British man is going to come, so he is going to promote himself or promote his industry so it is only we that are Nigerians that can promote ourselves.”

Shonibare tells me if she had not gone into interior decorations she would have gone into fine art. “I would have gone into fine art. Art has always been my first love. It is something that I enjoy and as a matter of fact, it is something that I look forward too. I did teach fine art at my Youth Corps, at the Federal School of Art and Science and I thought the O Level classes because right now I teach my interns and there is no interior designer’s school in Nigeria, but there are just trade associations and as a founding president we are trying to start an interior design curriculum. We are actually starting with trying to find and make some agreements with interior designs companies or institutions abroad to start courses in Nigeria. So, before that happens I actually teach two days a week, Wednesdays and Fridays bring the interns out here and do designs with them.”

Art has always been her first love

Art has always been her first love

According to her, fine art and interior design are interrelated. “Everything is interrelated, science and the arts are interrelated, think about it, and you have got that phone it is from the principles of the sounds and the electromagnetic waves but the design of the phone, the colour of the phone, the size of the phone that is design. There is a marriage, yes. This book has got print that is art in it, the science of it is in the production of the paper that is in cutting it, there is their marriage.”

Proudly African and Nigerian, Shonibare says a spinoff of her love for the arts birthed Ethnik, an arm of the business that focuses entirely on African art and design. “I deliberately did not want to call Ethnik by an African name, because I didn’t just want to believe that we should be boxed in. I did want us to be open. We do have a spinoff company that we call Ethnic Care and what Ethnic care actually does is collaborate with local artist and pick up items. Sometimes we design and often times we actually give them our own designs and then they make.

“It is hand crafted, sometimes from the materials to the coffee table to art work. If you look around you there is no art work like all the ones that we have here. They are done by African artist and they are starting predominantly with our Nigerian artist then other West African artist, so there is a part that caters for local arts and crafts because we believe that we can actually introduce the African contemporary concepts into interior designs. We must begin to do that.”

Shonibare says her designs are inspired by everything around her. “I am inspired by everything, the trends, the lifestyles, talking to young people’s such as you finding out what is new now. Twenty or thirty years ago if you walked into anybody’s home you would see a huge cabinet, a huge television but all of that is gone and because people are becoming more minimal with and people have done away with tables like in the old days my mother had a big dressing table, but that is gone. You want things in a hurry and trends interest me that is things that are happening around me, like how are people thinking so you want to make them, the latest keyword in interior design are smart living. You want to be quick and everybody wants everything to be functional, efficient, clean, and simple.”

According to her, IO Furniture constantly changes its designs every year. “We change our designs constantly because it is always work in progress all the time, whether we get to translate it to manufacturing and another because we are constantly busy and all our clients are priorities and whenever we have we can slot. What we want to do in terms of changing the showroom, is something we are thinking of doing maybe twice a year because people get bored coming in here year in year out and they keep seeing the same thing and so once a year we just get everything out and introduce new products and new ideas in our showroom, all depending on customer demands and what is new and what is going on.”

In addition, she tells me names she give her pieces are inspired by her clients. “The clients decide what we name the pieces. If a clients walks in and he is interested in a particular design or decides to make some changes to suit his tastes we may just decide to name it after him or her. Sometimes, we name a piece after the person who came up with the design, be it one of the artists. It could be named after anything or what is happening at the time when it was made or even the shape of the piece.”

Finally, before I ended by interview I was curious to know what IO Furniture’s signature design is. To this Shonibare says: “Signature; do you know something we asked ourselves, the same question, what is our signature design? And we realised that because there are several popular lines but we do not have a signature line so we are actually going to based on popularity on our signature line. We are going to come up with our signature line, and do we have one now? No.

“For our office tables we have got one called the Hampton and that has done really well in terms of office, kittens they are more juvenile and everybody comes and they are more different in interpretations of their kitchens for sofas. I am actually coming up with what we want to call couch potato and it is work in progress, and we are hoping that it is an integration of all the comments and all the feed backs that we have received from our clients from time to time.”


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