Drawn to New York’s diversity, designer and architect Kim Mupangilaï moved to the city in 2018, but her intuitive practice is distinctly shaped by her Belgian roots and Congolese heritage, two profound forces that she describes as “the yin-yang of my conceptual process. My pieces are reflective of my identity—a cross-cultural self-portrait that is constantly evolving.”
Consider Hue I Am, Hue Am I, the recent exhibition of her inaugural furniture collection Kasaï at New York gallery Superhouse Vitrine. Sparked by the desire to “mirror the ambiguity and interpretation,” as she puts it, of her lineage, the seven sculptural creations—spanning a screen, chaise, chair, armoire, bench, and side tables—are fashioned out of teak, stone, rattan, and banana fiber—natural materials that evoke her father’s native Democratic Republic of Congo.
Raised in the small town of Puurs, in Belgium’s Flemish region, “aside from cows, farmers, fields, and a little bakery or butcher every few miles, there wasn’t much,” Mupangilaï recalls, yet her imagination flourished in this rural environment. In her grandparents’ attic, she pored over old furniture, photographs, clothing, vinyl, and knick-knacks, and those items made her feel “like I was placed in a time capsule. This love for vintage and the history that comes with it fueled a passion to create and design things with a story,” she explains.
Given her Western upbringing, her father’s own vibrant Congolese stories were often cloaked in mystery, relegated to the background. Eventually those memories unleashed a curiosity that “helped me shape my work into a montage of opposites, translated into a perfect amalgamation of my deep appreciation for primitive African artifacts and Western design,” Mupangilaï says.
Her oeuvre is inspired not only by tangible symbols of Africa, she says, such as pre-colonial hairstyles or the currency tools used to trade land or animals “that also symbolized major events in one’s life such as birth, coming of age, marriage, or death,” but abstract notions like rhythm, too.
Mupangilaï’s ancestral explorations are meant to shed light on the little-known, including the Congo’s unacknowledged influence on the Art Nouveau movement. “Today we have the luxury to richly contextualize our narratives,” she says, “and vocalize our viewpoints within design.”
This article originally appeared in HD’s December 2023 issue.