Hicham Lahlou, the International Designer and Interior Architect, finally returned to Milan after two years of forced absence due to the pandemic. Mr. Lahlou is an iconic figure of Arab and African design. He is considered the flag bearer of Moroccan national design as well as one of the most prominent emergent designers worldwide.
Hicham Lahlou earned a degree in Interior Architecture from the prestigious Académie Charpentier in Paris in 1995. He soon gained international recognition as a designer able to combine tradition and modernity and made himself a name in the design of furniture, tableware, and objects by signing collections for major international brands. His creations are regularly exhibited in museums such as the Vitra Design Museum, Guggenheim Bilbao, Kunsthal Rotterdam or the Victoria Albert Museum in London. In 2014, he launched the first African Design Award and the Africa Design Days.
In April 2018 Mr. Lahlou was called by Marva Griffin, founder of SaloneSatellite, to co-curate that year’s edition of the exhibition, that is dedicated to promising young designers and since 1998 runs concurrently with the Salone del Mobile, the famous design fair held every year in Milan. Mr. Lahlou, alongside Brazilian designers Humberto and Fernando Campana, curated the video exhibition called “AFRICA & LATIN AMERICA Rising Design / Design Emergente”.
In 2019, he presented at the Salone del Mobile, alongside other artist and designers, an art installation called Africa Sound’s Wall. The installation was edited by Italian luxury brand CITCO Italy, one of the many brands Mr. Lahlou collaborates with.
This year, Mr. Lahlou arrived in Milan together with a delegation of Moroccan designers and architects. This mission, aimed at reinforcing cooperation between Italy and Morocco, was organized by the Italian Trade Agency (ITA) with the support of the Italian Embassy in Morocco. The delegation visited the Supersalone, the 2021 Salone del Mobile special event, curated by Stefano Boeri. We had the opportunity to talk to him about his work and the world of design.
Our goal at INDiplomacy is to talk about the relations between Italy and the rest of the world. One of the ways our country creates bonds with other countries and other peoples is trough art, and certainly also design. Here at Salone del Mobile we can see this clearly: design creates bridges between different cultures.
I have been going to Milan, to the Salone del Mobile fair, for 25 years. I started coming here in 1995, when I graduated from the Académie Charpentier in Paris. It is here that, 20 years ago, I gained recognition as an international designer. I learned about the importance of Italy for the world of design, and I also understood the power of design. People normally think that design is only about decorations and furniture. They don’t see what’s behind the curtains. Design is not only about creativity: it is a very transversal discipline. It can be a powerful tool for social and economic development, and it can have a huge impact in terms of soft power and parallel diplomacy.
Milano and the whole of Italy are the Mecca of the world of design. I believe that Italy and Morocco can build together a strong relationship, a bond that can be beneficial to the two countries and beneficial for south-south relations, and south-north relations, considering the role of Morocco as a gateway to Africa. We can share experiences, build relations and support development. Together, we can build bridges and open new perspectives. In this sense, design can be a powerful diplomatic tool, especially with regards to south-south cooperation and south-north cooperation, as I said.
You have talked in the past about the problem of eurocentrism in the world of design. Do you think that something has changed?
I will tell you a personal anecdote. In 2018 Marva Griffin, founder of SaloneSatellite, contacted me. She wanted me to be the co-curator, together with the Campana brothers, of that year’s edition of the exhibition. I was very proud and honored to be chosen for this role. We created an exhibition focused on Africa and Latin America, bringing together 18 emerging designers from Africa and 18 from Latin America. The exhibition had a huge success. People discovered that those parts of the world have a history, as well as a lot of knowledge and talent.
In some ways, eurocentrism in the world of design is normal. After all, the industrial revolution took place in Europe. In Latin America or in Africa industrialization followed a completely different path. But in those continents, there is a tradition of design that inspired artists all around the world. Just think about the influence that African masks and sculptures had on the work of Pablo Picasso.
I believe that things have begun to change. Africa is not seen any more as a “problem”. Several countries have developed new visions of diplomacy. Italy, for example, is focusing more and more on Africa. I think the creative industry can be a driver of dialogue. Italy, and especially Milano, since the beginning of Salone del Mobile have been building this dialogue, for example by promoting designers from all over the world, just like they did with me when I was younger.
More recently, I was invited to other fairs, such as Marmomac 2019 in Verona, where I had the opportunity to talk as a guest of honor during the official opening ceremony about the richness of talent that Africa possesses, and what we can do together to valorize it. I believe Italy can be a big promoter of talents.
One of your goals has always been to promote African culture and design in the rest of the world. But the world often seems to ignore this continent.
Yes, the world still looks at Africa in a superficial way, often with prejudice. I always say that Africa does not exist, there are many “Africas”. Obviously, the different parts of Africa are connected, but each of them has its own identity. There are countries where more than a hundred different languages are spoken. We have a history of old civilizations that existed before colonization. Africa is very rich in terms of culture, but this richness is often overlooked.
At the same time, when it comes to North Africa, people often see it as separated from the rest of the continent. This is a consequence of colonialism. If one looks closer, it is easy to see how in reality things are different. Morocco, as an example, has a plural identity. We are Africans, we are Berbers, we are Jewish, we are Saharawi, Arabs, and so on. We are the result of a mix of civilizations. We also share a common heritage with many other Mediterranean people. Morocco is the door to the Mediterranean, as well as a gateway to Africa for Europeans: from Tangiers, you can see the coasts of Spain, of Europe. We are closer than we realize.
Talking a bit more about Italy: artistically, is there something specific in our cultural heritage that inspired your work?
Italy is always an inspiration. It is impossible not to be interested in or inspired by Italian art. Italy is a very creative country, but also a country with a strong industrial tradition. What I find fascinating are the bonds that exist between our cultures. For example, it is amazing what 800 years of Morish presence in Southern Europe produced in terms of art and architecture. When I visited Palermo, I was surprised to discover the mix of cultures that shaped that city. There, you can really see how deeply our cultures are connected.
This idea of interconnectedness, of reciprocal inspiration, amazes me. No artistical evolution happens in a vacuum: you can see traces of Roman influence in Moroccan architecture, and Morish and Arab influences in the first stages of the Renaissance in Italy. And yet often we are told that our people don’t understand each other. I don’t think this is true. Also, I believe that by getting to know each other, we discover ourselves.
Looking more at the present day, the pandemic has had a huge impact on our lives, in many ways. How did it impact design?
Just like other professionals, when the pandemic started many designers used their expertise to try and find new solutions to the problems that emerged. I also gave a humble contribution, offering the external design of the respirators produced by Morocco.
What I hope is that what we have been through in the past two years will push us to change the way we think about the planet, and to really understand the importance of sustainability. During the period of lockdowns, everyone talked about the planet. We saw Madame Nature claiming back spaces that humans took from her. We still see the problems that climate change is creating all over the world. When will we react? What are we going to do? This are questions that I constantly ask myself as a designer.
I am currently Regional Advisor for Africa of the World Design Organization(WDO). From 2017 to 2019 I was elected member of the board. One of our main goals is to promote the SDGs contained in the UN Sustainable Development Agenda 2030. Designers cannot create, cannot live without thinking about the planet.
We must carefully consider the impact that our creations have on our home. Responsible consumption and production should always be on our minds, for example.
Still talking about the future: what would you suggest to a young designer to be successful? And by successful I don’t mean becoming famous, I mean how to do design for the future, in a way. What do you see, more generally, in the future of design?
This is a good question. To young designers, I would say: keep your eyes open, learn more about different cultures and civilizations, and always try and be emphatic, do not let stereotypes cloud your judgement. But most importantly, ask your teachers to teach you what happens in other parts of the world. Talk about the importance of learning about different experiences, different cultures. To create is to keep one’s eyes and mind open. Designers are visionaries, they can create the future. But it is impossible to create the future if we only look at ourselves, at our own experiences.
This is true also in business. Too many companies work only with designers from the West. If companies want to expand to new areas, they will need ambassadors. Many Italian companies have been doing this: they promote emerging designers from all over the world and these designers in turn promote those companies in their countries. It is a win-win situation. I think that Italy can continue to do this successfully and maybe start looking to other, less considered parts of the world.
About your future: what projects do you have coming in the next months? Will we see you in Italy?
Right now, I am working on many projects, in Morocco and elsewhere. Some of these are part of a bigger vision, an effort to promote African design. I want to revive the Africa Design Award and the Africa Design Days. Another important project is the Africa Design Academy. It will be the first African network of schools of design: we are planning to open the first academy in Rabat by 2022. I am still looking for financial and diplomatic support. With Covid, obtaining funds has become harder. Hopefully, things will get better soon.
I am also preparing an African design exhibition that will take place in Morocco, Mali, Senegal, and France from the end of 2022 to 2024. The exhibition is co-organized by the French Embassy in Morocco and the Institut Français du Maroc. Finally, I have been in constant contact with the Italian Trade Agency and the Italian Embassy in Morocco. We are working together to promote design in my country. In fact, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Ambassador of Italy in Morocco, Armando Barucco, and all the people that are working to build partnerships between Italy and Morocco and between Italy and Africa in general.
By Leonardo Brembilla
Read more on Salone del Mobile and on Supersalone 2021 here.