Treasured African Artifacts

Contemporary designers are making African-inspired furniture, objects and cloth.

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Anthony "Amp" Elmore was attracted to African artifacts and furniture when he visited Kenya in the early 1990s. He liked their simplicity and spirit.

Stanley Taylor fell in love with African art when he lived on the Ivory Coast for a year in the mid-1990s. "I like the freedom that the art represents," he says.

African art and furniture are "primal," says Sharne Algotsson, author of "African Style Down to the Detail" and co-author with Denys Davis of "The Spirit of African Design." "It's very minimal and simple. It's always very organic. And there's something about handmade folk art and craft art -- you see the imperfections. It looks real."

Elmore, who owns Elmore Carpets and African Imports in Memphis, Tenn., brought back several pieces from his trip to Kenya.

"This comes from Cameroon," Elmore says, holding a wood carving of a woman's head. "Some guy back in the mountains or wherever made this and they put their heart into it. When I put it close to me, I feel something. You can't figure out why, but it has a spirit about it."

Taylor and his wife, Maxine, own Motherland Gallery, also in Memphis. "We primarily sell wood carvings and statues and some paintings, but mostly custom-made carvings mainly from West Africa, the Ivory Coast and Ghana," Taylor says.

Taylor, who opened the shop in 1996, says carved African masks are popular with his customers. "They buy those accent pieces to enhance their homes. They make a statement."

Contemporary designers are making African-inspired furniture, objects and cloth, says Algotsson, who owns Inside Design, a product and design consulting firm in Philadelphia.

"African design, you can really work with that in all kinds of design," Algotsson says. "It has different looks, so it has a different personality for different people."

For example, pair a carved statue from Ghana with American country furniture, or use an African-inspired cloth to cover an antique English-style chair.

Algotsson says fabrics from Nigeria are beautifully colored. Congo offers the look of raffia or barkwood and monochromatic colors. Kente, a colorful fabric from Ghana, "works well when you're marrying it with another style." To achieve an Asian look, use minimalistic wooden stools and subdued-colored textiles from Central Africa, Algotsson says.

The East African look, popularized in the movie, "Out of Africa," is more "weathered and savanna plains, very monochromatic, beiges and browns and coppers and creams and chocolate." Moroccan style is "more pastel, adobe, mud and the colors of sand." The South African look is "very strong colors, the primary colors mixed with black and white."

Although it's versatile, the use of African design isn't widespread, Algotsson says. "Among certain people, African design and art is really strong, but it has yet to become a real staple. It hasn't become the 'Danish modern look' or 'Scandinavian feel' or 'French Country.' It's among the design options of people who have selected tastes."

But people definitely are interested, she says. "The demand is out there, because I get calls from people asking for tableware with African motifs or fabrics."

Some African-Americans feel the look in their homes binds them to "their history or heritage."

For some, it gives "a sense of the world traveler."

Algotsson has never furnished a home completely in African design. "No one I've ever worked with wanted the whole kit and kaboodle. They want chairs to have an African textile. They'll want a stencil drawn around the ceiling or close to the ceiling."

African design isn't just for African-Americans.

Basiru Camara, who opened African Art and Accessories in Memphis last year, says his customers include all races. "Every color comes in here, not just black and white," says Camara, who is from Gambia.

Keith Anderson, who, along with his wife, Trina, own West African Artifacts in Memphis, have been selling African objects in Memphis for 10 years. People of all cultures appreciate the detail and the uniqueness of the artifacts. "Each piece has its own story," Keith says.

As for including authentic African antiques, such as masks and statues, Algotsson says, "There aren't a lot of antiques to be had in Africa right now. Most of the really beautiful, elaborately carved pieces are in the hands of collectors. And they've had those since the '50s, '60s and '40s."

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