Designer Ini Archibong Is Working on a Higher Plane

It may be early days in the career of breakout designer Ini Archibong, but he’s already a bit wary of lofty summaries being made of his approach. The spiritual designer. The mystic. Maker of emotive furniture. That sort of thing.

“It’s not like I sit down and I’m like, ‘I’m going to make a sad bench today.’ That’s not what’s happening,” Archibong says.

Not that those descriptions lack truth. After all, Archibong showed up to this interview with a bookmarked copy of Vasistha’s Yoga. He named a table after Orion, a mythological Greek hunter, and a sofa after a Nigerian deity. Prayer and meditation are a part of his daily routine.

“It’s funny to me because none of it is false, but it’s all presented in a way where people can forget that I’m just a dude. I’m just a dude that drinks beer and makes shit,” he insists.

Perhaps that’s a more modest autobiography than you would expect from someone who recently designed a timepiece for Hermès. The 36-year-old has been quietly and steadily sending his designs into the world for close to a decade, picking up awards at NeoCon and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair, and building industry recognition with furniture and products designed for the likes of OTHR, de Sede, Vacheron Constantin, and Bernhardt Design. But it was the release of the Hermès watch, along with a new series in his collection for furnishings brand Sé, that in 2019 launched Archibong into a larger orbit.

“I put myself on the path to where I’m making things that matter, that last, and that touch people’s souls.”

The works, decidedly luxurious but with ap- peal that goes deeper than alligator straps and marble, planted him in a new position: that of a designer answering the call of our times — give us beautiful things that last, and that make us feel something. Archibong’s work is, by his own description, inspired by tenets of mysticism, spirituality, and philosophy, or at least his connection to them, but what makes him fascinating is how he executes in a way that’s less moon-charged crystal set and more function-with-feeling. The products he creates are tactile and useful, but are designed to genuinely calm or rouse us in their service.

For the California born-and-bred, Switzerland-based designer, it’s a personal purpose that he’s managed to translate into a burgeoning career.

“The artist’s dilemma is just ‘Oh, God, I want to feed people’s spirits and their souls, but I don’t want to be fucking poor until I die.’ I’m not saying that I figured it out. I’m just saying that I have managed to be an artist that has a business, right?” Archibong says. “I realized that I create from a depth in my soul that I needed to manifest. Upon realizing that, you have the choice of what kind of medium you’re going to use to do that with. That’s how I ended up becoming an industrial designer.”

As a kid growing up in Pasadena in the ’80s and ’90s — he’s the second of three sons born to Nigerian immigrants — Archibong exhibited the signs of a propensity to create early on. Weaving gimp bracelets and excavating the backyard to make universes for G.I. Joes evolved into experimentation with graffiti, pottery, woodworking, and Photoshop.

Despite his creative leanings, Archibong didn’t originally pursue higher education in the arts. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, so the idea of being wealthy and all that stuff was intriguing, and business seemed like a way to get to that,” he says. He lasted two years in a business program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, most of which were spent eschewing required classes in favour of philosophy and art. He dropped out.

“My parents didn’t know, so you can probably extrapolate what was going on during that time,” Archibong explains. It was, as he de- scribes, a period of doing what he needed to do to survive, coupled with creative experimentation. He spent a lot of time at his turntables, making beats he contemplated pursuing professionally. He delved deeper into 3-D modelling. He watched Dragon Ball Z. He read spiritual texts. After a couple years, he came clean to his parents and moved home to Pasadena.

Something about Archibong’s academic hiatus seemed to crystalize his calling. With no experience, he landed a job at a local architect’s office. He started reading about Tadao Ando, Shigeru Ban, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, and Antoni Gaudí — “the foundation of my architectural background, basically.” An idea was percolating.

“Reflecting on what came inherently to me and what I did naturally and what I’d always done, it was always the creative stuff and the artistic stuff. The next logical determination for me was when I started thinking, ‘How can I use this stuff to benefit humanity?’” Archibong says. Design turned out to be the answer. Or, in his words, “trying to remind people of the beauty of their existence. Of the beauty of reality.”

Five years after dropping out of USC, he entered the environmental design program at Pasadena’s acclaimed ArtCenter College of De- sign. He designed furniture. He won awards. He found mentors — notably, in Tim Kobe, founder of design firm Eight Inc. and the visionary be- hind the Apple retail concept. Every couple of semesters, Archibong would spend a few months as an Eight Inc. intern in San Francisco and New York. After graduation, he walked into a role working with Kobe in Singapore.

After two years in Asia, Archibong decided to return to school, this time for a master’s degree in luxury design at the École cantonale d’art de Lausanne in Switzerland. “[I realized,] ‘Okay, I need to put myself on the path where I’m making things that matter and things that last and things that touch people’s souls,’” Archibong explains. “Once I started thinking that way…I started realizing that luxury was the area where that happens.”

For some, the image of the Bhagavad Gita–reading designer with a daily meditation practice may feel at odds with his choice to create luxury goods. In a way, it prompts a fundamentally human question. Can we be enlightened and still covet beautiful stuff?

“It’s highly logical to me. The way that lux- ury and religion operate, in a way that creates undying, irrational loyalty, is that they touch you in a place that you can’t define. It’s no longer subject to your ability to make sense of it in your head. You just feel it, you know?” Archibong says. “A thorough understanding of the spiritual tenets that operate parallel to the reality that we walk around with everyday, combined with a degree of understanding of how the luxury business operates, puts you in the position where you can provide spiritual nourishment for people and make a living for yourself.”

Archibong’s portfolio is a stylistically diverse reflection of his belief that the objects we acquire should provide us with something greater than just function, and something deeper than just aesthetics. It’s a credo that’s manifested in sophisticated but understated seating for Cumberland and gently curved occasional tables for Nucraft, exemplars of his early work. For Archibong, figuring out how to imbue contract furniture or mass-produced seating with feeling is all about subtlety. He doesn’t need someone to pay close attention to a commercial-grade armchair, but his intention when designing that chair is to make someone smile if they did.

Take the Serif, Archibong’s quietly elegant table for Bernhardt Design, one of his earliest works. “The brief was essentially to design a new training table for offices and school settings,” Archibong explains. “Rather than trying to redefine a methodology which, in my opinion, was functioning quite well, I tried to design an alternative which carried the ability to bring a bit of sensuality to the environment.” Its graceful metal legs look almost fluid.

The work that cemented his status as a designer to watch is different. In 2016, com- missioned by actor-cum-designer Terry Crews, Archibong debuted a splashy collection at Sa- loneSatellite, an exhibition for rising design stars at Salone del Mobile in Milan. Dubbed In the Secret Garden, the bold suite featured a hand-blown lighting sculpture, a pair of Carrara marble–topped tables with gradient colour glass legs, and a settee shaped like a Cheshire cat smile, all rendered in psychedelic hues. It’s this kind of work that attracts the more “visceral reactions,” Archibong says.

The collection caught the eye of Pavlo Schtakleff, founder and director of Sé. Estab- lished in 2007, Sé had already produced furniture by Jaime Hayon, Nika Zupanc, and Damien Langlois-Meurinne. It had been four years since Sé’s last collection when Schtakleff came across Archibong’s work in Milan and eventually tapped him to conceive Collection IV.

“We were prepared to wait for the right designer. Ini’s work at Satellite caught my eye due to its thoughtful material combinations and forms,” Schtakleff says. “I felt it was such a rich offering. It’s the feeling I had when I first saw Nika [Zupanc]’s work. There was a real identity, elegance, and character to the pieces.”

If In the Secret Garden was an experiment in prizing emotion over function, Below the Heavens, Archibong’s resulting work for Sé, was an exercise in finding equilibrium. As the name suggests, Archibong played with the space between heaven and earth. Released in two parts in 2018 and 2019, the 22-piece collection feels ethereal in areas, grounded in others. Oshun, a sumptuously plush sofa reminiscent of a fluffy cloud, offers a place for dreamy repose. The Atlas console table is decidedly more terrestrial, with lacquered legs resembling polished stones.

Much of the gestation for the Sé pieces happened in Archibong’s live–work space in Neuchâtel, a town northeast of Lausanne on the shore of a namesake lake. The space, once a studio where factory-employed designers would create trophies, has some 15 windows that offer views of the water and surrounding Jura mountains.

“[It’s] just me. No employees, no designers, just a dude with his pencil and a computer,” Archibong says. When he’s not travelling, which he does a lot these days — this interview took place mere hours after Archibong’s plane landed in Toronto, where he was giving a keynote speech at this year’s Interior Design Show — he keeps a strict routine. Up at 5 a.m. Praying, meditating, making a smoothie, making coffee. By 6:30, he’s working. No breaks until 4 p.m., when he assesses what he’s accomplished that day. Back to work until 9.

“I try not to deviate from that. If I ever do deviate from that, it really fucks me up,” Archibong says. “That’s one of the reasons why I don’t like leaving my apartment. Any day that I have to leave my apartment, I don’t design that day.”

So why settle in Neuchâtel, a sleepy hiker’s paradise of less than 40,000 people, rather than New York, London, or Milan? For Archibong, the density of high-level craftsmen in the area was a huge draw. That and the fact that Neuchâtel is watchmaking territory; some of the world’s best luxury watches are produced in the region. And Archibong has always wanted to make a luxury watch.

So he did. The story of how is almost that simple. He cold-emailed Philippe Delhotal, the artistic director of La Montre Hermès, Hermès’s timepiece division, asking for a coffee meeting. Archibong was hoping to learn more about watchmaking and, if their conversation went well, tour the factory. At the end of their meeting, Delhotal casually suggested that Archibong float any ideas his way.

The result was Galop d’Hermès, Archibong’s feminine (though designed to be worn by every- one) equine-inspired timepiece released in 2019. With its stirrup-shaped case, available polished or encircled with 150 brilliant-cut diamonds, the watch is a nod to Hermès’s roots as an equestrian goods company. The Galop’s Arabic numerals, designed by young typographer and fellow ECAL graduate Vincent Sauvaire, expand and narrow with the case’s shape, creating a sense of flow that feels distinctly Archibong. It’s a testament to Archibong’s ability to translate his approach, whether working for a contemporary furniture brand like Sé or a heritage fashion house like Hermès.

There should be no expectation that Archibong’s future work will be as serene as the Oshun sofa or as polished as the Galop. There’s been darkness in his life that he says hasn’t manifested in his portfolio — yet. “You have ugly experiences growing up as a black male in America in the fucking ’90s,” he says. “You don’t see all of that stuff in the beautiful tables and the shiny chandeliers. For a reason. When that box does get opened up, that’s the part that I’m not sure how people will react to.”

He doesn’t plan on lifting the lid just yet. Not until he feels like he’s created security for his daughter. The three-year-old factors heavily into decisions about the projects he takes on and how he approaches them. His recent work has included Theoracle, his contribution to a special interactive exhibition of immersive, accessible experiences at the Dallas Museum of Art, which wrapped in late March. Archibong’s room was filled with oblong light fixtures surrounding a large obelisk. Visitors were encouraged to push the fixtures to trigger shifts in brightness, and in music and tones emanating from overhead speakers. A light-reflecting pool of water sat in the foreground. It looked mystical, like the setting for an otherworldly ritual. In other words, on brand.

Up next for Archibong: a bicycle for cult-favourite Italian bike frame–maker Dario Pegoretti, a collection of contract furnishings designed for Knoll, and a collaboration with Jon Gray of New York City–based cooking collective Ghetto Gastro. Design challenges that appear, on the surface, markedly different — but for Archibong, the strategy is the same. “That sensitivity with which I’m approaching things, that applies across the board. The only difference is: what’s the brief?”

That ethos is perhaps the through line for his work more than any visual trademark.

“I think Ini is not on a typical journey that has been defined by his predecessors. I would suggest he is looking to bring the design conversation into culture in a new way and not just as a purveyor of commodities,” says Kobe, Archibong’s old mentor. “The idea of the star designer is a bit of an old convention and also a creative trap. I believe Ini is on a path to something greater.”

It’s a fair prediction. Archibong’s career isn’t defined simply by his talent for making beautiful things, but by his need to create things that last, serve a higher purpose, and enrich our lives beyond aesthetics. On his list of areas to experiment in next? “Temples,” he says. Evidently, the world has its new design god.