by Almas SadiqueSep 30, 2023
In the realm of design, a dynamic interplay transcends boundaries, cultures, and expectations. Enter the luminaries of design, Ozwald Boateng and Poltrona Frau, whose collaboration attests to the potential of design to initiate cross-cultural dialogue. Boateng's ability to influence long-established traditions, evolving through creation, meets Poltrona Frau's iconic designs in the 'Culture and Craft' collection. Revealed during the London Design Festival, the collections combine African aesthetics, Savile Row-British tailoring, and Italian craftsmanship. Ozwald Boateng has forged a timeless legacy in UK fashion, Savile Row tailoring, for his particular use of pattern and colour in a reinterpretation of tradition. Now, in partnership with Poltrona Frau, with over a century of handcrafted excellence, Boateng has found a kindred spirit. This co-creation manifests Boateng's sui generis creative language, which defies mediums, reinterprets forms, and gracefully traverses eras, places, and time. He reimagines Poltrona Frau's Chester sofa, armchair, and Vanity Fair armchair designs, including a range of new accessories within Poltrona Frau's Beautilities collection, including a Mancala, an African strategy game, wallpapers, cushions and rugs. The subtle application of the 'Tribal' pattern, his iconic signature, adorns each product, uniquely—honouring his Ghanaian heritage while meticulously designed to construct a powerful spiritual tale and serve as a protective shield for the owner. Here, layers of meaning coalesce into a singular, profound vision.
A subtle translation is key. If you are going to take on a piece that is so iconic, you can’t take it so far away from the original position. – Ozwald Boateng
In a conversation with STIR, Ozwald Boateng and Poltrona Frau’s CEO, Nicola Coropulis, discussed their alliance, born from a profound respect and experimental exchange. Their pursuit of excellence guides their collective vision of designing with purpose, creative challenges and the intricate interplay of culture, craft, tradition, innovation, and excellence.
Ayesha Adonais: Your collaboration marks a transition from your respective worlds of fashion design and interior furnishings into the others’ domain. Can you share the inspiration behind this shift and how it aligns with each of your aspirations?
Ozwald Boateng: There has always been a connection with interiors. However, I needed to find the right partner to explore it. I am extremely particular about quality and execution. I tend not to venture into the space if I can’t find the right maker. When the opportunity arose with Poltrona Frau, and I saw how they worked, it was an easy yes. Their level of quality is exceptional —I began working with their iconic pieces and finding a new language around them that made sense. That's how I have approached my entire creative world.
I am on Saville Row, right? I chose it because I wanted to create a new language around it. It's always been about how can I take something traditional and find creative ways to evolve it. That's why I am drawn to The Chester and The Vanity Fair; this is what I do. As a designer, it is important to have a language. When I say language, you can see it; you can tell it came from your hands, that you’re the creator. You can look immediately and know I placed my hands on them, and I think this is key; I call that a ‘creative language’. We have found ourselves a creative language, which we have expanded on the rugs. It is taking my Tribal print on the Chester, a reasonably small print and expanding it. The Vanity Fair features an embossed print as a further expanded piece. When you look, they have a relationship, but it's very different. When you have a creative language, you can play with it like this.
Nicola Coropulis: We have always been a very multicultural company because we have worked with hundreds of designers and architects worldwide. This was a way to include another culture to the traditional one that inspired Poltrona Frau and something we had never tried. Fashion design is a different way of looking at things and with a British Designer. All of this is a way to make Poltrona Frau more diverse and certainly more appealing.
Ayesha: Your collaboration exemplifies how design can become a medium for a respectful, experimental cross-cultural dialogue for the industry. Was that your intent?
Nicola: Fantastic. You’ve said it perfectly! That is exactly what we want to do for the industry. We realised Ozwald Boateng, and Poltrona Frau say the same thing yet speak different languages. We need to create. Fashion and Design are worlds that are very close to each other yet have different needs and timelines. Fashion is seasonal; we are, well, I don’t want to say eternal, but certainly, we have a longer life. We don’t have seasons, yet both try to answer customer needs and involve creation, innovation, craftsmanship, quality and attention to detail. All of these values can combine as long as we find the right way for fashion and design to talk and be respectful of each other. The risk is this is perceived as a marketing exercise. However, it is different. We have co-worked. Applying the same approach, the approach he applies to clothing was applied to our furniture. Our approach to research and innovation was applied to his work method, so it's a co-creation.
Ayesha: Tailoring and fabrication require a unique understanding of the human form. How has your expertise influenced your approach to design for a furniture collection?
Ozwald: The start position is respecting what already exists–this is why this was perfect for me. Then, it's just a question of finding the correct fabrication language that suits it. A subtle translation is key. If you are going to take on a piece that is so iconic, you can’t take it so far away from the original position. The skill is to keep it completely intact but put a different perspective on it. It is the same language that I use in my design; little things that you don’t know are there, and you’ll discover them. They add a layer of detail.
Ayesha: What are the most challenging aspects of this creative partnership?
Ozwald: The challenging part was wanting to execute a raft of ideas that could meet Poltrona Frau's level of craftsmanship. The way they test the leather is quite incredible. The chair will last not just your lifetime but many generations to come. The material has to withstand this test, so if anything impacts that, it's an instant no. I like the idea of sustainability and lasting forever, but I am like, wow! It challenges the creative process because you can’t push it through if they are unsure. We have quite a lot (laughs) creative dialogue. We’re having fun with that. Most designers always push production; that's how you create something new and different. There’s always friction, but it's fun friction because there is recognition and respect from both sides on what we are trying to achieve. Nicola is a fantastic, charismatic individual; there's great energy every time we see each other. It's essential in partnerships like this. You have to be able to have that dialogue.
Nicola: Aligning everyone on the same wavelength regarding expectations and results. He knows his work, and we know our work. Each of us in our own fields represents excellence. He is the excellence in tailoring, and we are the excellence in furniture manufacturing. To make these two ways understand each other is a challenge. It's the way you choose colours, the way you select materials, the way you test the materials. There are a lot of details; everything we make has been studied and considered in a particular way. As a fashion designer, he creates ten prototypes of different suits in different colours to find the perfect design. So that was a challenge. To make a Chester sofa, it takes fifty-five hours of craftsmanship. Imagine making ten of those. However, we found an excellent compromise. Let's make the products for Fulham Road, Harrods and Saville Row. So then we made three of them, the footstool in three other colours, and the armchairs in different colours. Then, we had an understanding of what the whole thing was about. So that was our compromise. He has a very good sense of all this, and the final results are exceptional.
Ayesha: Your work often reflects the concept of "new Africanism." How does this philosophy come to life in your collaboration with Poltrona Frau?
Ozwald: I have always worked with Africanism as a language. I have always worked with cultural inclusion. Now, there's an acceptance of the intellectual property that Africa can bring to the creative world. Africa is a continent, so we shouldn’t just summarise it. However, as a creative person, it provides a huge palette. I am very excited about how I integrate this palette into my work across multiple platforms. What is interesting now is it allows a creative like me to express what an African aesthetic around design can look like. I have an excellent understanding of how to apply it—This is what you see with this collaboration with Poltrona Frau.
Ayesha: One last question, how do you see it contributing to the broader conversation about African design and heritage, especially in a cross-cultural context?
Ozwald: Everyone talks about purpose when it comes to design. I always design with a why? When I collaborate with Poltrona Frau, British Airways, the reason is multilayered. There is always a purpose. I always say there are two types of designers: product-driven and concept designers. I am a concept designer. The concept is always the why? Why am I doing this? I am known for tailoring because I understood that if you say my name, it should resonate a message. I understood that was a key component if I was to enter the design world. When I understood it was tailoring, It was clear Savile Row would be a perfect place to position myself for several reasons. I understood that if I could breathe new life into this street and take it as a banner to Paris, I could make tailoring fashionable again.
There is a lot of consideration and thought about why I do things. It's not; I just do them. Historically, I wouldn’t necessarily be as vocal as I am today. Now, we are in a place where I can give the back-of-house story; this is really why I am doing it. There are multilayers, and I knew being me, looking like I did, would inspire not just black people but anyone because I showed them the possibilities. I respected the tailoring tradition and, in fact, was enhancing it. I was bringing new life to a skill set you’d thought you’d lost, and I respected it. That's where I understood that if you contribute significantly enough, then what happens is from the inside, you can evolve it. So it's more understanding and more accepting. You don’t say that; it becomes a natural progression, so it's not so difficult when the next person comes—This is the real undertone. Not that I didn’t experience challenges and issues; I experienced lots that there's no point getting into. This is how I have layered it, and when I ended up in Paris as the creative director of Givenchy, nothing was by accident. That's one layer, and it's multi-layered and being able to do it as me, I know how it will inspire at a cultural level without even saying anything.
Discover the Culture and Craft collection currently exhibited at Poltrona Frau's flagship store on Fulham Road, Ozwald Boateng's boutique on Savile Row, and Harrods department stores.