Having captivated the Design Indaba audience in Cape Town last month, Ini Archibong has been the name on everyone’s lips recently. We chat to him to find more about his latest range, and how he makes the most of inspiration.

He has been described as a design storyteller, and taps into his upbringing as the son of Nigerian immigrants who grew up in the United States as a grounding point for his aesthetic and inspiration. His most recent collection, The Secret Garden, is a whimsical tribute to the natural environment that surrounds us, and he draws on his heritage to add further heart and soul to the range. He is currently based in Switzerland, elaborates on his collections of fantastical lights.

The Secret Garden was seemingly inspired by fairy tales, mythology and fantasy. Are there other areas you draw from for inspiration and ideas?

Nature. When I observe natural beauty it’s a reminder that everything has already been figured out to some degree. I can only hope that I get to a point where my designs can be as effortlessly beautiful and functional as what I observe in nature.

How does your background in architecture inform your work?

As architecture was my entry into the world of design, I developed an awareness of how spatial relationships of objects and architectural features affect people. Every product, regardless of size, becomes an element in a space, and every element is experienced in relation to the other elements that occupy a space, especially light-emitting objects. Architecture is the shaping and control of light through spatial elements and material qualities.

What is the core inspiration and goal of your designs?

I see my life as a continuous search to discover new ways to view the world around me and translate these discoveries into meaningful and long-lasting products and experiences that hold enough depth and emotional power to fascinate and enrich the lives of the people who own them and inspire those who come into contact with them.

What is the appeal of working with glass?

It’s by far my favourite material to work with. I feel like I have barely even scratched the surface of its possibilities, and I hope to have a lifelong relationship with the material. Everything from the material properties to its visual fragility and spectrum of colours absolutely enthralled me from the beginning of my experiments. For me, glass is the perfect medium for expressing concepts rooted in fantasy. We are so accustomed to seeing and using glass products in our everyday lives that it’s easy to take its magical presence for granted.

 Which material do you feel has the most unexplored potential?

All materials are created equal.

How has your heritage shaped your work?

My heritage is what makes me who I am. I think that my Nigerian heritage, and growing up as an African American in Los Angeles are inseparable from my work. Aesthetically, my choices of colours, form language, and other design decisions come from all the images and influences that I had growing up (both conscious and subconscious.)

It’s very obvious when it comes to the exuberant colour combinations and material choices as seen in The Secret Garden collection.

My upbringing has also shaped how I view the world around me, thus influencing the conceptual quandaries I decide to tackle. “Heritage” isn’t just the culture which we inherit, but also the culture which we create for ourselves through our life choices and our consequent surroundings. For example, I really feel that travel and engaging with different cultures has become key to who I am as a designer. It has shown me that people from so many disparate backgrounds are, at the end of the day, more alike than they are different. This makes heritage and identity a difficult topic to tackle. It is important to understand what makes you who you are but, to me, this is important insofar as it allows you a deeper understanding of what you have in common with others who share a completely different background. At the end of the day, heritage should be a unifying concept more than a segregating one.

Any unexpected difficulties or failures which lead you to a more successful design, approach or concept in the long run?

I don’t think I have ever worked on a project whose final outcome was not the result of integrating some form of failure or mistake with the initial idea. Working from a conceptual framework, there are very few concrete elements to a design at the onset. The final design is always the end result of a process of exploration. During that exploration, there are times that the work yields unexpected outcomes, or challenges arise which were not anticipated. Integrating these unexpected “failures” in a seamless manner or finding novel solutions to unanticipated challenges, are what make the piece in my opinion.

Key message to young designers?

I think that it is very difficult to take the time to truly find one’s voice as a young designer. Often times a young designer spends their time in school stressing out about completing assignments, making the grade, and competing with others around them. Pretty soon you can find yourself with a degree, student loan debt, and a job where you face more stressful deadlines and competition. My advice would be to take more time to explore the impractical and intangible while you are in school.

Do as much soul searching as you can in order to figure out who you really are, beyond just an aesthetic style and a specific skill set.

These things are important, and you will develop them in time, but ultimately having a clear personal philosophy and identity will remain with you as your skills and aesthetic evolve. Your time in school is one of the few opportunities you will have to explore this. Also, remember that you can always go back to school.