Jomo Tariku is a designer who has worn a lot of hats during his design career (web developer, graphics, 2D and 3D animation, data visualizer, furniture designer). Currently, Jomo works as a Data Scientist at the World Bank Group in Washington, DC and in the evenings and he pursues his lifelong passion as an Industrial Designer creating his own line of unique and modern African furniture based on themes from all over the continent.
Tell me about your early years and where you come from.
I was born to Ethiopian parents in Nairobi, Kenya and grew up in Ethiopia. I came to the US to pursue my college degree during turbulent times in Ethiopia. I changed my major to Industrial Design while considering a transfer to study fine arts at the University of Kansas after a professor gave me a convincing presentation why I should consider ID.
How did you first get interested in design?
I loved to sketch and draw even as a young kid. My sketches were of objects, buildings and cars and never of people.
In high school, my father got my younger brother, and I involved in a local woodshop that was walking distance from our house. At that moment I thought it was an excellent excuse to escape the strict rules at home and I did not think of it much but now looking back it probably played a more significant role for awakening my interest in design later on in life.
Tell me about the work you've done?
Strictly focusing on my furniture design, I would say I have been trying to introduce the concept of modern African furniture ever since my 1992/93 Industrial Design thesis. Currently, I am on my second attempt to introduce my work after an 8-year hiatus giving it a try from 2000 to 2008.
Since my latest reboot, I have been diligently working on developing new designs and have seen positive progress towards both my work and the whole concept of mainstreaming modern African furniture getting acceptance in the contemporary design world.
What are your proudest accomplishments of your career?
Even though my work has been published and I have been invited to various global shows my most significant accomplishment is tirelessly working to represent African design in furniture and home décor industry from the perspective that most consumers are not accustomed to. I believe I am one of the new breeds of African designers that are showing work that changes the design narrative that people have of African furniture.
What have been your biggest struggles of your career?
I would say trying to break into an industry that feels like it has its own echo chamber and raising capital.
What are you doing that's special that sets you apart from your peers?
I think it is the diversity and breadth of my portfolio even though I have only a couple of hours to work on it each day.
What have your experience been as a person of color in the design industry?
It’s been very tough. I have been told by few to drop the “African” themed label. If the Italian, Danish and others can name and be proud of their style I don’t see why I should consider my heritage any less. So there is always a struggle to rid off the assumed and erroneous narrative tactfully but it is not easy. At the end I want my work to speak for itself by what it brings to the market.
What are your biggest motivators?
My kids. I want to leave my two boys and hopefully their generation a positive legacy that they come from a very proud heritage that has contributed so much but not duly recognized.
How do your friends and family feel about the work you've done?
My most significant fan, critique, and watchdog is my wife. ☺ Friends are always inquisitive and ask how things are going which is great to hear but my younger brother who used to joke saying “my expensive hobby” is now the biggest supporter of my work. If it were not for him, this thing would not have been rebooted for a second try.
What do you love most about working in design?
The constant challenge, creativity and new solutions that my competitors and I come up with.
What would you like to see changed about the design field?
Be more inclusive and genuinely step outside the design centers of NYC, London, Paris, and Milan. There are more amazing things happening all over the world. I believe that is why formats like Design Week has been very successful.
How can design be more accommodating to underrepresented populations of people?
Design media, industry leaders, PR agencies, manufacturers, and companies are in close proximity of so many underrepresented communities and can play a huge role by continually engaging and trying to find where the glass ceiling is for minorities. I am sure they see the disparity when they go to enormous shows like Salone del Mobile or ICFF, but we need to keep showing them variation, as most will not do anything unless pointed out. Of course, designers like us should do more outreach by being involved with local schools, conferences, social media, etc. so kids will have role models and see what is expected out of a great portfolio.
What are you working on right now, either for work or for yourself?
I am in the process of setting up a small prototype shop in my garage. I will be investing in a CNC machine this year and hopefully a decent 3D printer next year. I can’t wait to be back in the shop. I will also be introducing my two latest chairs called the Nyala and BCII Maasai at shows in Paris and Milan.
Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years? Do you think you'll stay in design?
I hope I will continue to unabashedly promote the value and contribution of African design in the home décor industry. I would like to see some of my work also licensed and produced by other manufacturers.
What advice would you give to folks from similar backgrounds who are in design or hoping to get into it?
My advice for future furniture designers is to do your apprenticeship even if you have to do it for free. There is so much to learn from an actual craftsperson you will never learn in school.