Niloufar Afnan is not an imposing figure. She is petite, soft-spoken and wears subdued colors. Her personal aesthetic belies the fact that she is the designer of vivid, patterned and bold jewelry, clothing and furniture. Upon first seeing Niloufar Afnan at TUMO Studios, she was flanked on either side, teaching her students the best way to get the stitching right on a structured garment they were working on. The audience was listening intently, eyes wide, mouths slightly agape as they tried to absorb each word — Niloufar may not be loud, but her words traveled. She was in the middle of her fashion and design atelier at TUMO Studios. We chatted with the designer to discuss her motivation, taking cues from whom she dubs as the ‘original’ designer, and her complicated relationship with functionality.
1. What inspires you the most?
It has to be nature. Mother Nature is the ultimate designer. When you look at a leaf with all its lines, or an insect with its array of colors, you can’t help but acknowledge the beauty behind each design. I think that my palette, my lines, my shapes are all, in some way, inspired by nature. Aside from that however, I’m also heavily inspired by the material I’m working with. When you look at or feel a certain cloth or textile, you start getting lost in your own imagination, visualizing what it can become. I never plan my designs before seeing what I’m going to be working with; it’s a spontaneous process.
2. What drew you to product design?
Over time, I realized that I really liked objects — furniture, tables, chairs, lights — but I didn’t like the idea of functionality. I wanted to challenge that, so I made chairs and tables that weren’t functional. We have enough chairs and tables and they all work great, beautifully. I think designers now should be more critical with what they’re putting out in the market because we already have an abundance of domestic objects. It’s time to be more conceptual.
3. What advice would you give to future designers?
Being open-minded — it’s a gift. That means trying everything. I teach back in Beirut and so often I’ll have students who’ll automatically say, “Oh, I can’t draw,” without having even touched a pencil. They’re so intimidated by the task ahead of them that they don’t even want to try. The most important thing is not to draw things realistically or with perspective or according to scale. It’s practicing, and gaining confidence. There is no medium out there that is scary enough to be intimidating. You just have to have fun and try.
The focus for the atelier was on the dining room — more precisely, the dining room table. The dining table is where you have lunch. But it’s also your home office, where the family gets together to play board games, where you put down bags you’re unpacking. The problem (or fun challenge, depending on how design-minded you are) is that different dining table activities require different dining table accessories. During dinner, you need the food tray, which you then replace with the iPad stand while you’re working, which you later substitute for the lovely candlesticks when guests come over. So the students and designers in the Studios atelier decided to confront that issue by developing a new type of dining table centerpiece that doesn’t need to be shuffled about depending on the time of day. They created a multi-functional tray that caters to a variety of needs according to the occasion. The tray can hold warm pans, has a snack compartment and seats an iPad, all while still functioning as an attractive centerpiece in its down time. Though really, function dictated the final form of the tray. “We wanted everything to have a reason,” explains Nanna, “each piece of this tray has a purpose and we didn’t include anything for the sake of beauty alone. The tray turned out attractive because, in our experience, when you focus on function, the aesthetics always fall into place.”