How Damola Rufai Wow A Million Naira For His Genius Furniture Design


Innovation is a common subject in Nigeria, especially in the tech space, where Nigerian youths are increasingly dedicating their time to develop exceptional solutions to problems. But a furniture innovation in Nigeria? That, is a rare subject. Two weeks ago, Damola Rufai emerged winner of a million naira prize at the IO Furniture Innovation Award, a CSR initiative of leading interior design and furniture manufacturing company, IO Furniture.


Damola Rufai with his one million dollar check

Damola Rufai’s ‘Esho Table’ was chosen as the winning design amongst other great designs, like ‘Ubuntu’, by Yinka Adepoju, and ‘Beta’, by Nafisat Dada. The ‘Esho Table’ is a versatile design that can be used in both commercial and residential settings. Made of a glass top and welded steel rods as the support, it was designed with low poly graphics in mind to conjure up images of a cut jewel, hence the name ‘Esho’, from the Yoruba word for treasure or jewel.

Ventures Africa had an exclusive interview with Mr Damola Rufai, to discuss his success at the event and the future of designing for him.

Ventures Africa (VA): Kindly introduce yourself briefly?

Damola Rufia (DR): I am Damola Rufai. I am a designer/artist. I studied architecture at Howard University and Miami Dade College. I attended Kings College, Lagos Nigeria. And Nigerian International School in the Republic of Benin for a little bit. That’s me in a nut shell.

VA: You studied architecture, can you explain the diversion to furniture making, since most people would relate architecture to building?

DR: For me it is not too far a stretch, because architecture involves design. For me, that’s the part I’ve always enjoyed about architecture, but it’s just one part of architecture. And I decided to take that skill and parlay it into something that I felt at home with and enjoyed doing more. When I was in school, one of the things I loved doing was model making, it was always like I was creating a piece of art or sculpture. It took a while but I realized I was more of a maker.

VA: How did you hear about the IO furniture Innovation award?

DR: Well, everything leads to something. My old boss I used to work with sent me the flyer. When I worked with him, I started as an architect and we had discussed going into other products not just buildings, and it was there that I started exploring lighting, furniture … After I left, this opportunity came up and he just thought I’d be interested and sent it to me. So you see why I said it is not that far-fetched that I am doing this now.

VA: How did you feel winning this award; did you think you were going to, or was it a total surprise?

DR: It was a surprise. The other finalists had very strong designs, it was very hard for me to figure out who was going to be the winner. I had confidence in my own work, I admired it and also saw the value in it but I was nervous to the very end. Let me put it this way, sometimes it’s hard to give myself all the credit, so when I saw the works of other competitors, I was like Whoa! Pretty good entries. I had no idea how it was going to end but I just thought, “Whoever wins will deserve it.”

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Esho table by Damola Rufai

VA: So who was your biggest competition amongst the other finalists?

DR: I would say it was Yinka, he created Ubuntu. It was like a collapsible furniture piece that had an in-built shelving system. I thought he was a very strong competitor. Nafisat also had a very ambitious project – the one that converts from a bunk to a bed and sofa.

VA: So why do you think you emerged the winner, what was your edge?

DR: I’d like to think the edge was the ingenuity in the materials used, I’d like to think that was part of it. My intent was to create something that didn’t immediately look like a table and almost had a sense of weightlessness to it. When I say weightlessness, I mean visually. If you look at other people’s work, there is a heft to them. But there’s a lot of void space, when you see mine – there’s a lot of play between negative and solid. So it almost looks like cobwebs, same way cobwebs have this structure to them but still have all this void space. I wanted it to look brittle, like something that could easily break but actually wouldn’t. So for me it was like a play on expectation, because if something looks like it’s frozen in motion and looks like it might be easy to break, but then when you get to it, and it isn’t any of those things.

VA: A surprise factor?

DR: Thank you. That was what I was going for.

VA: What did you do immediately you got information about the competition, what was the process to the final design?

DR: Well, fortunately, the design is something I had done before. So it was like I just had to revisit it and improve on some things and work it out. So it still was like doing it for the first time because I didn’t just have the dimensions and everything on hand. I still had to start from scratch, and the way I usually work is – I create a physical model that gives me the look, feel and scale of what the final prototype will be. I didn’t do anything on the computer. I have a sketch and then I just intuitively start to create what I want it to look like. I use a glue gun, sticks, and I just add and remove things until I get what I’m looking for. Then I go to my artisans here in Lagos, speak to them, supervise them and we come up with the final product together.

VA: Kindly explain the name of your work – “Esho.”

DR: The name came after I finished making it. It’s part of a line; I have some table lamps that I have created in the same style too and after I finished making those, they just reminded me of a cut jewel. Let me bring this to pop culture a bit, do you listen to Drake?

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VA: Yes, a little bit.

DR: Okay, there is an album he released recently with Future, if you look at that album cover, it is like a close up shot of a bunch of diamonds. And the way that just looks with the light refracting off the edges of the jewel, is what I was reminded of when I created them (the table lamps). And I just liked how easy it was to say “Esho” – two syllables.


Esho table lamps

VA: So Esho means what exactly?

DR: It means treasure or jewel in Yoruba.

VA: You mentioned earlier, that this (Esho) was part of a line. Do you always have lines for your work? That is often related with fashion.

DR: Yea, it is basically the same thing, it’s no different. I am currently working on a line of fabrics, and shirts and dresses. So it pervades everything, it is bigger than just one thing. Because I know how to design buildings, I can also design other things. And so with lighting, furniture, if it has the same aesthetic style, you group them into one collection. It is the same in fashion where you can say there are spring, summer lines that usually have themes… It’s basically the same concept.

VA: A unique aspect of your work is the decision not to use modern computerised tools. Why?

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Esho table.

DR: If you remember at the beginning of our conversation, I said when I was in school, I loved playing with sticks and my friends in school knew me for that. That’s what I liked. I like the intimacy of working with the material, and coming up with a form that is genuine to me. The way I use to do it in school was I’d start with the model and then translate that into the computer, so I’d have my drawings and 3d renderings. I also just wanted to show that you could achieve something contemporary even if it wasn’t made on a computer.

VA: What were your challenges doing this work, or was there none?

DR: Well, I wouldn’t say there was none and it is just a prototype. For me right now, it’s a one off art piece to showcase an idea, it’s not a finished work. It is functional, but there are still things I’d like to work out. Some of the challenges I faced had to do with availability of processes that could make the finished product more refined and also, access to funds, I was ultimately able to do this with support from my parents.

VA: How will a million naira affect your work?

DR: What a million naira affords me is the opportunity to do more one off pieces to showcase my vision a lot more. So I can hopefully be able to partner with bigger manufacturing companies that could assist in mass producing lines because these (current works) aren’t necessarily mass production friendly. These are like audition pieces, just to showcase the idea and the vision. Ultimately, I’d like to work with bigger manufacturing companies whether at home, or outside the country.

VA: It has to be at home.

DR: If there is a manufacturing company here that is interested, I am totally game. Ultimately, I always prefer if it’s here; its home, and you are adding to the economy. But I also know that manufacturing in Nigeria has taken a big dive. Even the CEO of IO said the other day in her speech, that a lot of manufacturing here have taken a dive. That’s one of the things that is very impressive about what she is doing; I am very excited and glad that there are people like her taking up the mantle and creating that avenue again in Nigeria because there aren’t that many. Even our textile industry, like I told you I’m planning to get into fashion, you’ll be surprised how little of our fabric is made here. If at all.

VA: Have you ever had an exhibition?

DR: Yes, I participated in one but I do want to have a solo exhibition that’s a lot more expansive; something that shows off new work, and also a bigger library. The one time I did, it was part of a group exhibition, and that didn’t showcase designs, it was just art – digital painting. In the future, I want to do something that showcases art, design, and fashion because that’s where I’m headed.

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Esho table

VA: What’s next for you?

DR: To make more things, for people to see, to purchase, and produce. That’s what’s next for me.

VA: Any word of advice for people in your field?

DR: Hang in there. You have to stick to your guns, knowing that your work is valuable. Also know that you can’t do it alone; always talk to people that share similar interests, include as many talented people as you can in what you do. No industry is just one person, it takes a group of people to make something good.

The IO Innovation Award is aimed at promoting the raw, untapped talent of Nigerian youths through a competition that requires a display of their creativity in furniture and interior design. IO Furniture firmly believes that this platform  will spark a conversation that will inspire and motivate youths in the design industry, and show them the endless possibilities of design and manufacturing in Nigeria.

Judges at the event includes Muni Shonibare, Chief Executive Officer of IO Furniture, Tayo Babalakin, president of the Association of Consulting Architects Nigeria (ACAN),  and Stefano Moretti, Head of Production at IO Furniture, amongst others.

Damola’s ‘Esho Table’ will be produced and added to the IO Furniture product line, he will also receive royalties on his design for a year.


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