Oct 11, 2023

Episode 117

Tolù Adẹ̀kọ́

Tolù Adẹ̀kọ́ designer Adẹ̀kọ́ & Co.


British-Nigerian designer Tolù Adẹ̀kọ́, who founded London-based Adẹ̀kọ́ & Co in 2014, is known for crafting compelling narratives that nod to his childhood in Lagos, Nigeria. He moved to London at the age of 6, and it wasn’t long before Adẹ̀kọ́ started sketching furniture and clothing that caught the eye of his teachers and landed him a slot in a summer product design program led by British designer and restaurateur Terence Conran. It was there, while tasked with creating an ADA-compliant desk, that he understood the notion of functional, yet beautiful design.

His resumé includes stints with United Design Partnership and David Collins Studio, where he helped design Waldorf Astoria Lusail, Doha’s outpost of Italian restaurant Scarpetta. Today, along with his eight-person team, he is creating luxe interiors for a forthcoming fleet of cruise ships and designing a scullery inside a London men’s hostel where residents find community in cooking and eating together. More importantly, Adẹ̀kọ́ is an advocate for a more inclusive and collaborative industry. “Your idea may be a good idea, but it’s nothing without including people to make it come alive,” he says. “You need to listen to others and collaborate as much as possible … and [then] you can deliver any design.”


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I am here with Tolù Adẹ̀kọ́. Thanks so much for joining us today. How are you?

Tolù Adẹ̀kọ́: I’m very well, thank you. Nice to be here.

SSR: We always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

TA: Well, the earlier part of my life, I was born in Nigeria in Lagos. In actually not really Lagos, which is quite far away from Lagos. And when I was roughly around about six, seven, I moved to London with my mom. And I guess all since then I’ve lived and breathed all things from London, all things London, and as well as in that area.

SSR: Were you creative as a young kid? Did you have an early interest in design?

TA: Yes, yes. From the longest amount of time you’d find me being that person that would be on their lunch break and on the school break being in the teachers kind of area, doing some coloring in instead playing football or at home, I would maybe go to my neighbor’s house and they would have Barbies and I would get the dresses of the Barbies and I would use felt tips to create a crazy outfit for the Barbie. And then I’ll use some scissors and cut something in. Or it might just be me just drawing something or trying to create something. So from very young, I’ve been kind of just surrounded by creativity and I’m very grateful that I was allowed to explore my creativity in different forms. So from doing fine art and things around the traditional form of art to things in textiles and fashion design to product design, and just kind of finding my way through it professionally in school, but also on courses.

And then interior design was always something that… I wanted to be an artist, but my art teacher who’s a well-known artist, Maria Arceo, she said to me, “You’d be poor if you was an artist, so don’t be an artist. Do something else.” And around that time on TV in London, there’s something called Changing Room. And Changing Rooms was a thing where effectively you’d be neighbors and you’ll swap with your neighbor for a week and then they’ll get to redecorate your home and do a style that they wanted. And I really, really loved that. So from young, I was like, okay, well, if I’m not going to be an artist, I’ll be an interior designer because I’ll be like a curator. I’m able to curate all these different things in one space at one time. And that’s what I followed.

SSR: That’s amazing. And so she was a teacher of yours?

TA: At that time, Maria was teaching whilst doing art, whilst now she mostly only does art commissions and stuff, but she was a teacher and she just took me in underneath her wings. And she actually… Teachers sometimes are quite underrated. They can have such a great impact on someone’s life. And I think she definitely had a massive impact on my life. Looking back, I would go back to school on Monday and other teachers would ask the rest of the kids, “What did you do on the weekends?”

Some would say, “I went to a football match.” Some say, “I went to the theater.” And I’d be like, oh, yeah, I was just at the Tate gallery. And then, “Who did you go with?” I went by myself. And this would be like 13, 14. Yeah. And maybe it was the one that kind of introduced me into going into galleries, trying to find inspiration, trying to find my art language, but also trying to appreciate the art language of other artists and seeing how you can learn from their processes and how you can implement their processes to advance your own art. So yeah, shoutout to Maria again.

SSR: That’s amazing. And were your parents creative as well?

TA: Yes. So my dad was a fashion designer, so he had a clothing store and so he was very into fashion and textiles. But I was raised mostly by my mom. She was an entrepreneurial woman, so she wasn’t necessarily, I wouldn’t say creative in the usual form, but our family comes from a background of textile designers and textile makers and textile merchandisers. So my mom was just, I think being surrounded all by that she was partly creative but very entrepreneurial. And my dad also was quite entrepreneurs. Indirectly, I guess they both impacted me in ways that. My dad’s one was genetic because he wasn’t really there. But my mom, she was definitely entrepreneur and not necessarily this creative type, but very entrepreneur.

SSR: Got it, got it. I love it. So influences from all over, which is the best, right?

TA: Yeah, exactly. Just being surrounded by so many things going on. I think design is seeing many different problems and seeing many different solutions. A good design is a good problem solved. And seeing all these and having these different influences. And through Maria I was then able to be connected with Sir Terence Conran, who was the founder of the Design Museum. And his son is like Jasper Conran. And he owns the Conran Shop. Well, he did. And being surrounded and being mentored by so many of these different people just allowed me to understand design and allowed me to understand how design is very much so problem solving and the stylistic part is just the bow or the trimmings to the solutions.

SSR: So did you end up going to school then for interior design or did you start in art and then move over? What was that trajectory for you?

TA: So the path was very much so, after secondary school I went to a sixth form. And sixth form is your equivalent of… I don’t know. You guys call it college or I don’t know, or before college, what you guys would call that because you call your college, university. Anyway, I went and I studied theology with philosophy as well as textiles, fine art and product design. So I’ve done that as a two year module of all of these courses. And it was just to again, stimulate my creative thinking, but also my creative demonstration through those different forms. Then I went to university, to Bournemouth University where I studied a BA in interior design. And that was a great course because it was a four year course. So intentionally I went to that course because at that time most courses didn’t give you a solid gap year to gain experiences in the industry. So it was like you worked, but what they taught at uni, there was a disparity with what was actually being practiced in the industry. But luckily I went for that course and I got in and I was very tempted because I also applied for a fine art course at Central Saint Martins and I got in there as well. And I was like, decisions, which one to make.

But I still remember the fact of, I didn’t want to not have money. Not to say actually being an artist, you wouldn’t have money because that’s ridiculous. Artists sometimes are the richest people in the world right now. But it was just a perception that kind of partly scared me into doing the BA course in interior design. And after I graduated, I already had a year’s experience under my belt. And it wasn’t in one firm, it was in multiple different firms. So I already kind of saw the kind of day-to-day routine of being an interior designer and the kind day-to-day challenges and also some of the kind of perks also. So by the time I finished out, I was just ready to work for a firm and to join the firm.

SSR: So you said you worked for a few firms, which ones did you work for? And then what was your first real job out of school?

TA: My first job after was for a company called United Designers. United Designers, they’ve still got an office right on Tower Bridge in London. And it was a fantastic place, to be fair to start your career. Though very scary. It was one of those places where as a graduate you used to had the duties of carrying teas and coffees and you don’t look at people in the face. And you had to arrive there almost an hour early. And if you ever left on time consistently, you’d be pulled in a board meeting and you’re cut off. It was a very strict place to work, but what was fantastic is that they practiced a lot of great discipline, which I think, if I didn’t have that foundation, I don’t think also that I would be doing what I’m doing right now or where I’m doing right now. So I think that was very, very good. And I got to work on an amazing project. I think that was the company where I worked on the Gordon Ramsay project, which was the Maze Grill. So it was a really great way to start my career. The clients included like Marriott, Hilton, W Hotels. It was just a great way to start, but at the same time, not for those who wanted to be work shy. Because you couldn’t be work shy in that environment.

SSR: Did you know that hospitality was something that you wanted to try or because of that you got bit by the bug a little bit?

TA: It’s a very good question. I didn’t know necessarily that I wanted to go into hospitality then, but as my first job was just in luxury hospitality, it was just a no brainer. On the side of all of this one thing that’s really is an interesting fact is that with my mom’s entrepreneurial spirit, I was also involved in starting up a luxury magazine in London, which was actually sold in 15 countries. And so I was very much so into the luxury world. And hospitality just fit in very well. I guess hospitality was something that I felt like was just right for me to work in. And now looking back, all of my projects has been mostly in hospitality through hospitality for hotels or cruise owners and obviously including bars and restaurants. And I sometimes do feel like the industry, it is a bit sad that we sell hospitality, but sometimes we’re not hospitable. It’s like we design hospitality and sometimes hospitality is like, you welcome people with open arms. You are smiling from left to right. Sometimes I think we design hospitality and we design for hospitality, but I don’t think we understand the experience of being hospitable. And I think if we did, it might even impact the way we design better. Because you’re coming from a hospitable background. But yeah, that’s a totally different topic, which we might end up going into. But yeah, hospitality is definitely an industry I’m incredibly passionate about and I’m grateful that I’ve managed to find a space for me inside of it.

L’Atelier Bistrot MSC Grandiosa

A seating nook at L’Atelier Bistrot onboard the MSC Grandiosa, crafted by Adẹ̀kọ́’s former firm SMC Design; photo by Paul Craig

SSR: What is it that, going on that conversation that sometimes we aren’t hospitable, what do you think you love most about the hospitality industry and what are you trying to do with your now firm to evolve what that means?

TA: I think for me it’s like, I feel like hospitality is really about making people feel at home. But not just with words and marketing and branding, but making them feel at home with all of the touch senses and all of the things that connects with them. And for me at the studio, our hope and desire in working the projects we work on is that actually, how do we build better memories for people? Because to me, it’s like, the experience of being that somebody will be sitting maybe in a space where it’ll be three generations. Maybe the grandchildren and the grandparents and the parents. And they are experiencing maybe a meal together or they’re experiencing something together, which they might not get to do again. But you’re helping people to build and establish memories that’s almost like forever. So that’s the key thing that our studio is trying to do this through materiality. Why are we using that material? How does that connect to maybe a narrative? And how does that narrative enhance the story that these people are going to experience?

SSR: Okay, so you worked at United, you got some great experience. Where did you go from there? And how did you do that and publish a magazine at the same time, by the way?

TA: Sometimes I think back in my 20s, I rarely slept. And it’s like I rarely slept. I remember sometimes leaving work, going to somewhere and I’m like, actually, how does that even work? But anyway, after United, I moved on to a company called Talent Design. And Talent Design, that was a great experience. At United, it was more so a larger firm, so therefore I got to see everything but not necessarily physically do everything. Whereas Talent was more of a smaller scale studio, so more works needed to be put in. But it was great because I had that experience from United. And I worked on Hilton Terminal 5. And Hilton Terminal 5 was, I think was a four star hotel. And it was recently been acquired and they needed some development there. And I worked mostly doing FF&E on that particular project.

And from there I then moved to another firm called RPW. RPW, they were quite well established for, again, residential and hospitality projects, which was quite fantastic. And again, for someone that loved FF&E, which we call furniture, fittings and equipment, they had such a great procedure, such a great way of organizing and structuring their firm and structuring the way they worked with suppliers and stuff. So that was fantastic experiences for me there. And then after then, I just done a lot of freelance work for different firms and different smaller developers.

Also doing a bit of residential, but touch base here and there with hospitality. And then I moved into doing hospitality for cruise. And I worked for a firm called SMC Design. And had the responsibility as a senior designer there to do design for a range of cruise liners, including NCL, MSC Cruises. As well as actually being the sole interior designer to complete the MSC Ocean Cay. Which is an island resort in The Bahamas. And that was an experience because working in London, having to travel sometimes to Miami to work with suppliers, then get to the island and back was quite a journey, to say the least. And yeah, so then I worked doing cruise interiors and cruise marine interiors. Which again, it’s very much sort of hospitality, but on water I like to call it. I always say to people, think of a hotel on water. Even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like that because of how it’s been designed. But most of the time that’s the kind of scope.

Following on from that, I then moved to Dave Collins where I got to work on one project I can’t mention because it’s still very high profile. And Scarpetta in Doha, which again was a fantastic project. And in between working with these firms. I guess after freelancing, when I was freelancing, I actually pre-established my studio name. I already had a registered corporation for my studio. But knowing that I still needed to float and work on different things, I kind of put that on a burn, in a sense. But then COVID was a real kind of [inaudible 00:23:09] moment because it kind of made me realize, actually, what am I doing? Why am I doing it? Do I like what I’m doing? Do I think it could be done in a different way? Not necessarily being competitive to say, could it be done in a better way, but more could it be done in a different way?

And what that different way would be and why would it be that? So all of those questions just kind of really convicted me and actually made me feel like actually there is something inside of me that wants to fulfill things in quite a particular way. And I needed to push out continuing the studio that I pre-registered and going along with it. So I started the studio from the back of my home. I was fortunate enough to have a studio built there over lockdown because we didn’t know how long we’ll be locked down for. So it seemed like such a long distance ago, but really in reality it’s not that far. So yeah, we had the studio built and I was working the studio and things started to pick up and the team increased from myself to two people, and then there was three of us. And actually we need to start meeting suppliers, and I don’t want them to walk through my living room to then go to the studio at the back.

So we needed another space, a bigger space also. So I was very fortunate that whilst I was building my own studio, the developer of where our studio is was also thinking of building a creative community. And he built, inspired by the different design districts around the world he came across that, “Oh, London doesn’t have a design district.” In terms of all different disciplines of designers under kind of, one area in a sense. And so I then realized that there was the design district and we registered our interest and had to go through a committee to be able to be part of the district. So here we are.

SSR: Did he build a couple different showrooms and offices? Tell us a little bit more about this community. It sounds really interesting.

TA: The Design District is really amazing. So it’s based in North Greenwich. So North Greenwich, for those people that are not in London, it is southeast of London. And our big landmark is the O2 Arena, which is a place where all of the musicians and the artists comes around the world to perform. So that’s like two minutes, it is a two minute walk from where we are on foot. And right opposite us is the financial district of London or of the UK, Canary Wharf. So it’s a really great location. And then we’ve got fashion designers, textile designers, artisans, lighting designers, architects. We’re the only interior designers, by the way here. They’ve commissioned four different architects to design absolutely uniquely different buildings. So when you look online, for example, you see that it’s such a mismatch. Each building has its own characteristics, has its own creative expression, and that was the commission to be done. And we’ve got our own separate members’ lounge. We’ve got our own restaurant and cafe that’s sourcing ingredients locally. It’s a fantastic creative community and very, very supportive. We also do a lot of community engagement. So we reach out to local schools, whether through workshops or other elements, just try to make sure that the community members are able to touch base with the creative industry and to almost find their space inside of it as well. So yeah, it’s a fantastic place to work.

SSR: That’s amazing. Such inspiration surrounding you at all time.

TA: It’s so important. And in fact, we’ve even got a gallery also and a creative university next door to us, Ravensbourne University University. So it’s like an ever-growing creative hub.

SSR: We did a story on you in our July issue, and I don’t know if we were right or wrong, but I thought, did you start your firm earlier just as a side business, and then you took the jump during COVID?

TA: Yes. So the studio was already registered, and this is what I was trying to say, that the studio was already registered in 2014. So that was the phase when I started to do the freelance and I was starting to do a lot of the freelance work, but after going back and then still working as a contractor for some of these other firms, and then it was COVID, it was just kind of like a reality check to kind of go back to what I actually intended to do. And also there was a part of me that was slightly nervous because I was thinking, I’ve got a daughter and I’ve got a family, and is it responsible? But sometimes you’ve just got to fulfill your passion and to stay true to your convictions and stay true to some of the things that you feel you’re called to do, even though the road seems quite like you don’t know how to walk through it, you just need to have the faith that you can walk through and you can just persevere.

SSR: A couple of years in, is there something you wish you had known before you made the full leap, or is ignorance a little bit of bliss?

TA: Yeah, owning a business where you’ve got staff members and you’ve got so much overheads and stuff, it is not a joke. I think the one thing I guess I knew before, but I guess it’s even more real now, is that I realized that business and deals aren’t done necessarily through the emails. And it’s not done through the formal meetings, but it’s done through the coffees and the weekend lunches. And that’s really where business is done, our business is done. And in a sense, connections in your network is incredibly important. And I guess for somebody looking out to maybe do their own studio or that they also feel burdened by that passion to pursue their career in whether interior design or any creative discipline, I guess is to really try to build on your network as often as you can. And not to say go to every single networking event and drink the Proseccos and exchange the business cards alone, as fun as that could be. But try to find mentors and try to find people who believe in your vision and try to find people who care for you and who care about you. And then at the same time equally, try to find people that you can also be a mentor to and you can care for. Because I think it must always be a give and take. And if we can find people that you can pour into and you can advise, you might be super busy like everybody is, and I hate that word busy. I actually prefer to say at full capacity. But finding ways you can contribute back. I think that’s a thing that I think I would definitely continuously say to myself and to convict myself to always say, how much of that am I doing? Can I have room to care for more people or to be involved in more things that no advantages to me or for me, but it’s to serve others. Yeah.

SSR: That’s amazing. So with that in mind, how have you helped build your team, or what kind of culture did you want to create with your firm? And tell us a little bit about that makeup today.

TA: So at Adeko & Co, the studio is a very flexible environment in a sense. The design direction and the design language doesn’t necessarily have to come from me. Or it doesn’t have to necessarily come from somebody on the top. But the way the team works is very much so that we’re encouraged to read, to study, to do very in-depth research on every project we do. So it might mean that we’ve been awarded a particular project and it’s a historical building. It’s like, researching into the history of that building into that decade or into that era of that architecture. Looking at, just referencing a lot of the past. And then what we try to foster is how do we then interpret this into today’s world? So the design is always led by true meaning and a form of storytelling that’s not just fabricated by the means of PR and marketing or fabricated by just a nice idea, but it’s actually having some kind of origin to make it authentic and to make it true. We try to encourage in a studio for people to really be as creative as possible, whether it’s for them to go to galleries or whether for books to be brought or for books to be acquired, but just to absorb information constantly.

We try to use technology in a smart way. So for example, we do try to start using AI, but at the same time we try to say, don’t get all your images or don’t get any images, if I’m honest, from Pinterest for your presentations because your client has already seen it already. So what’s the difference from what you are presenting and what the client is seeing? They easily will feel they could also be doing what you are doing. So why are they paying our fees? We try to encourage, okay, well you can use Pinterest for your own personal reference maybe for detail or something that you want to use for when you’re actually drafting your work. But all presentational elements should be out there. It should be based on your research from books, based on your research. Even if you have to go through to a physical library, though it’s not necessary, do so.

On the flip side, we’re also really about collaborating with artisans and crafts, like things that’s made by hand. So constantly, I’m looking at suppliers locally that are, whether there are artisans that make specialist wall finishes or wallpapers or they make specialist mirrors and glass, or somebody that does bas-relief or plastered work. We’re always looking out locally for where can we find craftspeople to add to our project. We feel like sometimes their story elevates our story. And their story answers and enriches the project in general. So that’s a key thing that we try to do. Sometimes based on obviously the geographic location of these projects, it means that we can’t always guarantee that we will use that particular person, but it might mean that from this we can also try to find a local artist in that region.

So I remember I was doing a project for Vidanta. And everything had to be sourced locally, to be sourced locally. It’s like, trying to do as much local sourcing. So I guess that weaves into this notion that the studio has on sustainability, but not from the perspective of greenwashing and, don’t use marble or don’t use that. That’s not the perspective we adhere to. But the notion we try to do is actually more so to do with social sustainability and longevity. And how we can try to design things of a high quality with longevity in mind so that things last longer and is used for longer. And then less of this has been demolished going into landfill and starting again.

L’Atelier Bistrot bar area MSC Grandiosa bar area

L’Atelier Bistrot recalls a sophisticated French neoclassical manor; photo by Paul Craig

SSR: Are clients responding to that? Because I feel like too, it has to come from the top down sometimes.

TA: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So where we can’t necessarily say we enforce some of these things, but I think our clients, they are really passionate about the authenticity of the stories. They care greatly about their brands and it being reflected in the right way. The owners that works in the project, they are looking for originality. They’re looking for studios that are going a bit off the grid where they’re adding what’s in trend with their own flare, or sometimes they’re rejecting trends altogether and they’re just doing, “This is what’s right for the story, even though popular demands say it’s not, but this is the direction that’s right.” So our clients are really responding well to it, and it’s very encouraging because it makes me believe that I’m not going crazy.

Some of the architects we work with and some of the owners we work with, there’s a great increase on retrofits happening now. Rather than hospitality, buildings or venues and locations being built new, there’s a great turnaround for taking existing buildings and repurposing those buildings for something else. So already, we’re already onto a sustainable story just by doing that. Whether you are turning an old, I don’t know, an office into a hotel for example, that’s not being used. Or a pub into a boutique hotel.

We’re seeing more of that happening and we’re seeing. In fact, we’ve had a few owners that’s come to us with sustainability on the forefront of what they’re looking for before the design. And we’re not talking, make everywhere in stone and put plants everywhere for it to be sustainable. We’re not talking in that direction of this greenwash, but they’re looking at, “Okay, if we’re to work with you, where would you suggest… Where would these things come from? What kind of suppliers are you working with?” They care about that story. And we’re just very, very blessed to be involved.

SSR: Are there a couple of projects you’re looking forward to?

TA: Yes. So currently we are working on a cruise vessel. Which, it’s a project that … Well, it’s not the most sustainable story. But it is social sustainability I guess, on one side. So we’ve got that. And then we’ve got a few kind of high profile hospitality projects in London that we are looking to embark on. Some of them as early openings as next year, summer. So a lot to unveil.

SSR: Amazing. And for your studio too, you have started to diversify as well, right? You’re doing branding and graphic design and you’re trying to take a holistic approach. Right?

TA: Exactly. I think I’ve been in the industry for 15 years now. And one of the biggest frustration as an interior designer would’ve been to design a restaurant, you’ve spent hours, hours under specifications, months and months, sometimes years on this. And then it’s finally done. You’ve got this beautiful interior, but then it’s like you look around and all the signage and all of the graphic design has no connection to it whatsoever. It was done as a secondary thought. So the way the studio works is that we’ve got inhouse graphic designers and branding experts, and we try to take them on the journey as we’re working along. So they’re seeing the materials, they’re seeing what the studio is doing in-house because they’re part of the team. So when it comes to then doing the signage and doing the branding elements for the space, they already understand the narrative.

They already understand the core and the heart of the story, and they’re able to really contribute in a way to provide a solution, a graphic solution that really elevates and edifies, and adds to the project rather than as a second thought. So our studio would provide, for example, right now we’ve got a hotel brand where we do the signage. We do all of the menu designs. We do the web designs. We do all of the different digital touchpoints is done in the studio alongside the interior design. So for them as an owner, they can have a one-stop shop to do everything. And they understand that we’ve got a unified vision in a sense. It’s not two separate visions.

SSR:  Is there one part of the process that you like the most?

TA: It’s hard to choose, but if I would have to choose, I would choose two. I choose concept and completion. Because I love concept as in you’re able to really open your mind, take in the inspiration, take in the elements, and create absolutely. And to deliver compelling stories through materiality, through materials, through lighting, through furniture, through fabrics, and through textiles. It just goes on. But then I do love the aspect of completion. I love the site visits with manufacturers. Going to see how, because I’m very interested in how things are made, and I think connecting the dots together. As a young child, I was always interested in how things are put together. So I love their completion process and the implementation process because that allows you to, the implementation phase especially, where you are able to go and see the suppliers, you’re seeing how the upholstery is being done, or how the detailing that’s going into the piping, the stitching details. You are seeing these people that sit inside the factory or the workshop, and this is their life, this is their skill, and they take such pride and joy in doing this. And I love it. I love both of those two elements.

SSR: And do you think that stems from watching your family doing the textiles and being part of that because your great grandmother was a weaver, right?

TA: I think parts of it bring back a lot of memories, especially in the implementation phase. Part of it does bring back a lot of memories of when I was in Nigeria and I would see [people] weaving the fabric in front of me. But I think part of it is just because I think when we understand how things are put together, we make better decisions when designing. And I think when you are more informed, you make better decisions. So understanding the process of production really gives you a great understanding of the right detailed solution or the right solution for a particular project or for a particular cause. So that’s why I really love implementation because you’re able to see how you’ve drawn it, or you might have detailed it in your drawings or how the drawing package is being put together, but how actually it’s been made. The amount of tension maybe they’re putting into upholstery in a fabric. Too much of it is too tight, too little of it, and it will cause a sag after a while. These small details, I think really adds to a better final product. And you need to experience it to be able to know it, to be able to add it on and learn from it each time you do a project.

SSR: Do you have a dream project. Something on your bucket list that you’d love to do?

TA: You know what? I was actually thinking of that. I would love to do a hotel for a luxury fashion brand. So I’ve always had fashion, I’ve always loved fashion. So I was thinking to myself the other day, imagine a Gucci hotel or Bottega Venetta Hotel. How do you take all that history and the heritage of the fashion brand and how do you convert that into an interior? Would that be be maybe using all of the archives of the collection of the textiles and using that for what would be the upholstery or what would be the fabrics of the cushions and the curtains, or what details can we take from maybe the leather goods and use it on the case goods? And I said, that would be quite a fun project in a sense to do.

SSR: Yeah, for sure. And then do you think coming off of your heritage and your family, do you think you’ll ever try your hand at your own products? I mean, that’s how you got that internship or whatever with Terence Conran, right? Because you were actually sketching your own product design, and so it could come full circle.

TA: In fact, it’s something that it’s already in the making, and it’s something that the studio, I’m doing on a soft level. And we’re waiting for something to be put together so we can then say it’s unofficial collection. But yes, definitely. Making my own collection of furniture. Because I’ve got a great love for furniture. But using Nigerian textiles, and we’ve got, in Nigeria, there’s so many different type of textiles. From woven textiles, in fact, tie dye, which everybody uses around the world. It was always been done for centuries in Nigeria. And I would love to be able to connect my heritage and I guess that aspect of textiles with very much a contemporary, timeless furniture design and just could be in this essence of case goods and from screens to credenzas to maybe your seatings and tables. But it’s something that definitely really interests me.

And right now I’ve been also working a lot with a lot of artists in Nigeria in the last two years in seeing how not only can I get maybe some of their artwork featured in some of the projects that I do, but also how can some of their art techniques, can be used for more than just the art as in on canvas, but used as in elements for maybe inlays on tabletops or used as technique to maybe make a base of a table or a leg detail. So I’m constantly thinking of how can I necessarily connect my heritage and connect my story with what I’m doing now in a very seamless way. In a very effortless way that doesn’t appear to be I’m trying to… It’s effortless. Not trying too hard to create it. Which takes a lot of time,

SSR: Which is a fine line. And you’re also on the steering committee or part of the organization, United in Design. Can you talk a little bit about what you’re hoping to do as part of that inclusivity promoting organization?

TA: So United In Design is a charity that’s based in London. And right now they are doing a fantastic work in being able to try to solve the lack of diversity in interior design. But I think if they were to have it their way, it will be to solve it in all forms of the creative disciplines. And they’re mainly doing this through offering people with diverse backgrounds opportunities to be able to apply for a year’s internship. And the internship works out in a way where you’re able to intern in different practices over a space of a year. So I think some could be two or three practices in a year and up to four practices in one year. And this allows people from diverse backgrounds. I think you are required to have a BA degree in interior design. That’s the only requirement. But that’s not necessarily as a restriction, just because that person will be going into professional practices where they’ll need to use certain softwares and have certain skillsets. So that’s the only requirement.

The charity has really been growing. And my input inside the charity is number one, to help them raise awareness. And number two is to really as much as possible from our clients and around just trying to help them to keep the charity running, really. The problem I guess I found in interior design is it’s still not as diverse as it should be. Everybody’s got to play inside of it. From journalists to design studio owners, to makers, we all need to just be aware that we need to say to ourselves, “What’s our environment looking like? Is it diverse?” If it’s not diverse, then we need to say to ourselves, “Why is it not diverse?” There’s an intentionality that’s required. And I guess it is something that everybody needs to play a part in. I do also, I have said before, and a part of this has also been that there are certain people in communities in, for example, communities where they feel like design is not a career to go into because you can’t survive, so they say, doing design.

So they discourage design being done, and then therefore parents kind of put off their children from studying these creative courses. So in terms of the pool of applicants to even pull from of diverse backgrounds, there isn’t much. So I guess even with that, we can do something by maybe doing children and parent workshop with schools. Every design firm is placed somewhere in a particular community where there’ll be a local school or a local college and they can just offer two hours once in a year or twice in a year to just do like a Q&A. Ask us anything. Where parents are there and then the potential students are also there and we can have these open dialogue conversations.

I think something as simple as this would actually encourage, would give a lot of reassurance to maybe parent that has got doubts about their child maybe studying something creative. And it could definitely increase the influx of people from diverse backgrounds that we have coming into the industry. And I believe, again, part of being hospitable, if we’re saying we’re in the hospitality industry, we can’t say we’re hospitable and we’re part of the hospitality industry were not all ethnicities are being celebrated. Where is the hospitality in that? But when we do have an industry where you’ve got people of different genders and different kind of beliefs and different ethnicities working together, I think our creative minds collaboratively will even elevate every single project we do. And it creates a more brighter future for the industry.

SSR: Yeah, the more diverse voices, the better.

TA: Exactly. I think sometimes, again, it’s like we must, and I always put a disclaimer, it’s like, if a student is around a place where maybe all of them, everybody’s apples, you can’t expect you’re going to find an orange where you’re surrounded all by apples. So you can’t help if you are in. If they’re geographically located in a place where there’s only one particular type of ethnic group, I’m not saying, “Okay, move out of that place and go and move somewhere else just because you want to be diverse.” But if you are in a cosmopolitan environment where there are people of different ethnicities around in that city, for example, but your studio only has a type of ethnicity, then it is a question that the HR and maybe the studio owner should be questioning why.

Scarpetta restaurant Waldorf Astoria Hotel Lusail, Doha

Adẹ̀kọ́ worked on the midcentury-inspired Scarpetta restaurant in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel Lusail, Doha when he was with David Collins Studio; photo by Ben Broomfield

SSR: Right. And have you made that a practice yourself in your own studio of getting a diverse group of people?

TA: So in our studio, we’ve got people that are European, we’ve got people that are African, we’ve got people that are Asian. And again, it’s also a thing where we’re not necessarily recruiting people because of that alone. It’s like talent is still required, and they’re amazingly talented people. I’m so blessed to have such amazing people to work with me because it takes a team to deliver any project. So I’m so grateful for everyone that works with me. But I look for the talent and diversity. And together we can move things forward. So we do it in this studio, and I think every studio can also do it.

SSR: I love that. Well, I hate to end this conversation, but for the sake of time, we always end the podcast with the question that is the title of the podcast. So what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?

TA: Inclusion. My greatest lesson so far is inclusion and collaboration. It’s like your idea may be a good idea, but it’s nothing without including people to bring the idea forth and to make it come alive. You need to include people. You need to collaborate with people. You need to listen to others and collaborate as much as possible. Work on collaborating and inclusion of the people around you and you can deliver any design.

SSR: Well, thank you so much, Tolu, for spending your last 45 minutes or so with me. It’s been such a pleasure.

TA: Thank you.

SSR: And hopefully we’ll get to see each other in person someday.