INTERVIEW : HICHAM LAHLOU by SAVERIA MENDELLA ET KHÉMAÏS BEN LAKHDAR
This summer, the Maison Mode Méditerranée Endowment Fund will publish interviews with three French-Moroccan artists: Amina Agueznay, Hicham Lahlou, and Louis Barthélémy.
These discussions will cover their contemporary visions, both local and international, as well as their take on creation and design. The conversations were carried out by Khémaïs Ben Lakhdar, PhD Student in the History of Art and Fashion, benefiting from a MMM Endowment Fund Research Grant, and Saveria Mendella, PhD Student in Fashion Anthropology and Linguistics, benefiting from a CIFRE Industrial Training and Research Agreement with the MMM Endowment Fund.
This, the second of our conversational interviews, is with Hicham Lahlou, a French-Moroccan international designer and interior designer, originating from Rabat in Morocco. Hicham Lahlou studied in France at the Académie Charpentier School of Applied Arts in Paris, where he graduated in June 1995. He has created collections with international companies such LIP, DAUM, HAVILAND, CITCO Italy, AQUAMASS etc.., and has completed numerous projects and major interior design projects, as well as product, space, branding and packaging designs. This has led him to become a leader in design in Africa, as well as the precursor of urban industrial design in Morocco, where he designed most of the urban furniture, including the bus shelters in Rabat, Casablanca, Meknès and Agadir, as well as the largest motorway toll station canopy (Rabat ring road) in both Morocco and Africa.
His creations are regularly exhibited in museums, such as the Vitra Design Museum in Germany,the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, the High Museum Atlanta USA, or the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. They come halfway between pure design and contemporary art, making the designer a recognised artist for his unique drawing style, his work on lines and his innovative approach to aesthetics.
In 2016 he was awarded the distinction of Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters. by the French Republic. He was elected as a Member of the Board of Directors of the World Design Organisation (WDO) at their 30th General Assembly, which also celebrated the 60th anniversary of the organisation, on 14th and 15th October 2017 in Turin. He became the first person from the MENA Region (Middle East and North Africa), the first from West Africa and the first French speaking African to be elected to the Board in the 62 years history of the WDO.
He also had the honour of be invited by Mme Marva Griffin, the founder of SaloneSatellite, to be the exhibition coordinator for the African part of the AFRICA-LATIN AMERICA, Rising Design/Emerging Design exhibition event for SaloneSatellite 2018, alongside the Campana brothers, the exhibition coordinators for the Latin America part.
He is also the official designer for the stations of the Al-Boraq high-speed rail service, the first in Africa. He was responsible for the interior design and the design of all the furniture and light fittings for the Al Boraq Business Class lounge areas, the sales and ticketing areas, the VIP lounges, as well as the public seating on the platforms and at the information desks. The Kenitra LGV Al Boraq station was recently awarded the Versailles prize for Architecture.
As an Ambassador of African Contemporary Design on the international scene, in 2014 Lahlou created the Africa Design Days & Awards in order to promote the continent’s contemporary talent.
In 2019, after being involved in numerous projects concerning the institutional development of African design and Pan-African cultures, the designer was named as an advisor for Africa with the World Design Organisation (WDO).
With the ambition of having a local idea generating a worldwide impact, Hicham Lahlou makes sure that with all his projects he keeps a sense of the identity of his country, and promotes the creations of his continent, with a process of controlled diffusion of the arts.
He founded the Africa Design Academy in 2014 during the New York Forum Africa (NYFA) organised in Libreville, Gabon, which he announced in 2019, with the first Academy opening in Rabat in 2022. The Africa Design Academy is the first network of design Academies in Africa.
Saveria Mendella and Khémaïs Ben Lakhdar had the pleasure of undertaking a wide-ranging interview with Hicham Lahlou, given in exclusivity here, which particularly covers the variety of his repertoire and his political and artistic commitments.
International trajectory, local heritage
- As a starter, we would like to ask you a question which is both practical and very contemporary. You are an Ambassador of Design for Africa, what would you say is your level of involvement? To be more precise, we wondered if promoting African skills and know-how is a priority for you in terms of image and your written and spoken communications, or if this major contribution towards the revalorisation of the continent also involves collaborating with local craftsmen and women in realising your projects?
As far as I am concerned, as a designer and interior designer, I realised very early on that it was essential for my work to be with Moroccan craftsmen and women, who are the
guarantors of ancestral skills and know-how. I wanted to interact with them, in the best way possible, remaining humble and certainly not being condescending! Because of my numerous collaborations I learnt an awful lot from them, particularly concerning different raw material qualities and their technical problems, and how far can you go in terms of the conceptualisation of a design object when following traditional production procedures. I travelled extensively in Morocco, between Fez (the capital of artisanal craftsmanship), Marrakesh and Meknès, and learnt an enormous amount from the craftsmen and women I met, and from their experiments, to the point of subtly recommending their work in my interior architecture projects, for example.
- How does your cultural identity influence your vision of design and contemporary creativity?
I like making accidental discoveries. And it happens to me quite often. Particularly when I’m walking around medinas, the old walled parts of towns. I discover, then I experiment.
- Your hookah water pipe, exhibited at the Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem, and during Design Indaba in South Africa, is emblematic of your work. In a style of deconstructivism similar to that of Marcel Duchamp, but less provocative, you magnify daily life. For a long time Western culture was not used to seeing such an object, seeing it only in their collective imagination, so how was it accepted on the international scene? Also, why did you choose this particular object which is so distinctive? Could you talk about your creative process for this piece, and also how the VA approached you to include it in their collection?
The Ottoman culture, and that of the hookah water pipe, did not have the same social impact in Morocco and across the other North African and Maghreb countries. So it was quite a challenge for me to reinterpret this object when I met Eric Gideon, the founder and President of Airdiem in Paris in 2009. His idea was to revive the hookah by using the services of international designers and had already worked with Nedda El-Asmar, a Belgian-Palestinian designer, the American designer Hilton McConnico, and others. In fact it was the idea of the absence of the tradition of the hookah in Morocco which was of interest for him in our collaboration. I started with the codes of the very different forms of the original object, and the related music. Furthermore, initially the hookah was not to be called Disco Pipe but Oud, as I found the form of the bowl of this necked lute very interesting and magnificent. The piece is made from rotomolded polypropylene using an industrial craft technique and produced in France.
I was very pleased to see that it quickly had a lot of success, as the public found it amusing and innovative. It was exhibited all around the world and purchased by trendy bars and restaurants in Moscow and Dubai. Somebody from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London even made the trip to Casablanca to meet me and acquire one for the permanent collection of the museum. As they have the largest collection of Islamic Art in the world, I was very proud that my Disco Pipe hookah is also now part of it. It is also part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Islamic Arts in Jerusalem.
Transition and transmission through contemporary design
- In 2014 you founded the Africa Design Award & Days. Where did the idea come from to create a community of designers in Africa? What were the deficiencies of the international scene concerning the taking into account of design currents in the African Continent?
The first edition took place in Libreville, Gabon, during the New York Forum Africa, and afterwards we were invited to numerous capitals of design, including Milan and Paris. This was the work of the militant in me, as the project is a not-for-profit organisation, and came from my desire to share. More than anything I wanted to create a dialogue with other actors on the artistic scene, and share these meetings on the international scene. Of course, forms of leadership have developed, adding structure to the project, but the objective was above all else to promote the artists and get them to meet one another. The idea was to show the varieties of designs in Africa, which is an immense continent. The project, initially in the form of a digital platform, has become a personal experience and very practical: each time design was celebrated on the continent everyone looked towards South Africa, whereas, as I see it, there is not even a direct flight for this country from Casablanca. So, I decided that we needed to create a digital platform where young designers from across the whole continent could interact. It also helps to bring together pan-African communities, and to reunite those subject to diasporas with their homelands. All creators have this capacity to make things happen, so in two weeks the whole Africa Design Award competition was launched through the media and was all set to go, even though we did not have a budget for the project. Nevertheless, applications flocked in from over forty countries. After Africa Design Days, designers benefited from a greater visibility than the artistic world had ever tried to create historically. This event was also the driving force behind several art fairs and events in Africa, including Tunisia Design Week, where I am a mentor, patron and co-initiator of the idea. This art-event militantism allowed me to achieve one of my objectives as a creator: making artists aware of and sensitive to local communication but with international scope.
- Would it be possible for you to give us a definition of African design? What are the major trends? Could you also identify the major centres of production and reflection for this sector?
First of all, and most importantly, a specific type of African design does not exist. There are different types of design in Africa. It is a gigantic and very complex continent. In fact there are several Africas. Even so, between the 5 different regions, with a 6th outside of Africa which represents the African Diaspora in the world, you have very rich connections between them. Depending on the origins of the designers, we realised that a skilful mix of plural traditions existed as well as a certain contemporaneousness with international design. The work of Cheick Diallo in Mali is a perfect example. He is perpetually interacting with local skilled workers and in doing so invents a new, very contemporary language. In the same way, today’s challenges, particularly linked to recycling, relate directly to the tradition in the works of designers as diversified as Hamed Ouattara in Burkina Fasso. Nigeria is a very interesting production centre, concentrating not only on hypermodernity (production of 3D objects) and workshops for skilled workers, similar to Egypt, which has a perfect mix of industrial design and skilled workers (with weaving for example). I initiated and co-wrote a book on design in Africa (African Generation. The force of design – Published by ‘Langage du Sud’; edited in French and English) which talks about 49 designers from 17 countries. For example David Adjaye, a Ghanian architect and designer with a worldwide reputation; Karim Rashid, the Egyptian-born Canadian-raised superstar of design; Jean Servais Somian from the Ivory Coast. What we wanted to show is that each designer, relative to their experience as well as their multiple cultures, produces original works, which are contemporary and show evidence of multiple sensibilities. Obviously the African Continent possesses a large number of different talents which it wants to support and put under the spotlight.
- You often use the word ‘militancy’. Is there some political will to try and break the anti-modernity artistic stereotypes related to Africa?
This militancy, that I practise, is, in one sense, ‘childish’, as it is motivated by a simple desire to share another vision, an internal perspective, which is more heartening than the western rhetoric which portrays the continent. But this militancy is, of course, political and structured. It is time to show that African designers are not there simply to ‘amuse the public’. We know how to create for the current artistic and financial market by participating in economic and human development. We are certainly passionate, but also capable of making something which tells a story, or something concrete which fully contributes to current economic needs.
In Africa, we haven’t had an industrial revolution, but we have been designing thinks for thousands of years. Contemporary design, which comes from the Art & Craft movement, consists of producing objects by craftsmen and women but using mass production methods, providing a democratic approach, as we have always done. As African artists, we must continue to assert this heritage.
- You navigate between the artistic and institutional worlds all around the globe. How do you create a dialogue between the young generation of artists and the institutions, while at the same time taking into consideration the evolutions of the creative processes? Today, artists are conscious of the fact that they manage a business and are connected. But because everybody is, do you have any tips for them?
Even the most well known artists have had difficulties, and it is never something to be ashamed of if you come across complications when you choose this complex path called creation. The fact of being part of a community and working closely with one another is essential and at the same time complicated, because recognition takes much longer. Since I was invited by the World Organisation of Design in 2015 to become a Board Member, elected by merit from 2017 to 2019, I acquired a vision of design which was even larger, and realised that all the professionals actively support the profession of being a designer, which is both global and specialised. Design is now not only industrial, but global and unifying. So, the main tip I can give to young designers who already use the internet every day as creators without always having the capacity to export, is to try and increase the awareness of people directly around them, in both the political and artistic sectors. Being a promoter of your cause with people and institutions close to you, is an act of local communication which will lend credibility to your domain and your artistic approach. Our predecessors worked using circles of close contacts, each one supporting the other, allowing artistic currents and movements to emerge, which were sometimes misunderstood at the time they were created. You need to subtly alternate between distinctive digital communication and local communication which favours networks and geographic identity and attachment.