On a small side street in London’s fashionable Islington, Dar Leone stands out among its more muted neighbours, exuding energy with its range of African inspired homeware and soft furnishings in bold and unexpected colours.
The brainchild of Freetown-born, lawyer turned designer Isata Funna, Dar Leone stocks an original range of contemporary home accessories, that re-imagines traditional African artisanship. She describes Dar Leone’s aesthetic as “preppy West African”, and then laughs saying: “I have to think of a better description.”
It fits though. Crisp, sophisticated, and undeniably up-market, Dar Leone is a shop for cosmopolitan consumers with an eye for design. Products, such as cushions, lampshades, trays, trinket boxes and table ware, are distinguished by the quality of their craftsmanship and evoke rather than emulate West African style. They wouldn’t look out of place in most interiors – traditional, modern, urban, rural, African or European.
The cultural narrative appeals to Dar Leone’s customers
The predominantly British customer base is genuinely interested in the cultural narrative behind the designs. “The back story,” as Isata describes it
She’s made this her USP and weaves provenance into her products. Colours are named after West African fruits – guava lilac, coconut brown, and tamarind orange. Her hugely popular Ronko hibiscus lampshades are reminiscent of the gardens of Isata’s childhood; and the geometric patterns on the Romarong range of delicate bone china are inspired by Freetown’s metalwork gates.
The idea for Dar Leone came to Isata in 2014. She was renovating her home and struggled to find furnishings that reflected her background. “The way you live and what you surround yourself with is essential to your wellbeing,” she says. “I found myself yearning for objects that resonated with my childhood.”
Growing the company
In its first incarnation, Dar Leone was a website selling a small range of cushions made from fabric Isata picked up in the market. “It was hard to get traction though,” she recalls. “I realised that if I wanted to make a business out of it, I had to be bolder.”
And so she jumped in at the deep end. She found an illustrator who could interpret her design ideas, researched textile manufacturing, went into production with her own unique line of fabric and launched a range of cushions and lampshades.
“I had never done anything like this before,” she remembers. “My competitors were professionals who had gone to design school. At the time, I felt very much like a novice. But sometimes you just have to persevere.”
Africa offers so much inspiration
The recent surge in popularity for African design doesn’t surprise her. “Africa offers so much inspiration. The V&A Africa Fashion exhibition has accelerated interest and the Black Lives Matter movement has had an impact, but it’s been bubbling away there for some time.”
Isata’s have-a-go and learn-on-the-job attitude is combined with hands-on practicality and attention to detail. She eyes new markets and makes plans for expansion, while designing new lines and liaising with manufacturers.
It was while looking for products manufactured in Africa, that aligned with Dar Leone’s African inspired aesthetic, that Isata happened across the Aurora Foundation’s Sweet Salone range of handmade pottery and baskets on Instagram. She immediately made contact with Regina Bjarnadottir – Aurora’s Executive Director, to enquire about becoming a stockist. There were several hoops to jump through, not the least that Sierra Leone doesn’t manufacture or import packing materials, and also that export is expensive and can be unreliable. Nevertheless Regina and Isata made it happen and Sweet Salone is now available in Dar Leone.
When I visited, I couldn’t leave without buying one of Dar Leone’s Lobi heads. Brightly hued, and inspired by cast bronze originals from Burkina Faso, they manage to be modern and unmistakably traditional. As she wrapped it, Isata explained that Lobi heads are used to protect the home. Mine now sits next to a pair of crystal candlesticks above the fireplace. In a 1920s London house, it doesn’t look out of place – a stylish lesson in how artistic innovation can keep traditions alive and encourage new audiences to value the creativity of cultures that are vastly different from their own.
Visit Dar Leone in person at 42 Cross Street, London N1 2BA or online at dar-leone.com