Monday, February 16, 2015

Three Patterns of Africa: Kuba, Kente, and Mud Cloth

Using ethnic cloth as an accent in interiors is a wonderful way to add character, texture, and pattern. The following three cloths, all hailing from Africa, are beautifully earthy and graphic, and would lend tremendous panache to any space.

Kuba (KOO-buh) cloth is made in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, out of raffia. Men grow, harvest, and weave the raffia into a coarse material which is then given to the women who pound the cloth in a mortar to soften it. Once it becomes supple, the women then appliqué geometric patterns to the yardage of the base cloth. The result is a fabric that bears a resemblance to cut velvet. The patterns traditionally vary in a single piece, abruptly shifting from one repetitive pattern to another.

Because of the nature of the raffia, this material is better suited for smaller, decorative items like pillows or displayed as wall hangings and art, but one does see it used on seating and chairs. The first photo below shows a bench upholstered in kuba cloth from West Elm (now discontinued).

Native to the Akan people of South Ghana, kente (KEN-tay) cloth is unique in that it is actually comprised of many individual strips of tightly woven cloth. These strips are woven into a bigger piece of fabric, much like the strapping of lawn chairs, in an "over-under" pattern, creating rich layers of stripes and lines. A hallmark of kente cloth is its bright colors of orange, green, blue, and black.

Below we see it used as a pillow cover for a bright sitting area by Glenn Gissler.

Mud cloth from Mali, also called bògòlanfini (bow-hoe-lan-FEE-nee), is dyed and patterned using fermented mud high in iron content which lends the rich rusts, browns, and blacks characteristic of this fabric. The room below uses mud cloth and kuba cloth! Like kuba and kente cloth, mud cloth also features highly geometric patterns with, generally speaking, extra thick lines.

Mud cloth is perfect for using in upholstery because of its thicker, near-burlap-like texture which holds up well on chairs and sofas. It looks good on simple pieces of furniture as seen in the desk chair in the first photo below, but it also looks amazing on antique or European pieces like the Louis XV chair in the second photo below. Remember Design Mantra #1: "Contrast brings interest!"

I used a piece of authentic mud cloth as a tree skirt under an African themed holiday tree I created a few years ago for a charity called The Holiday Designer Showhouse, here in Northern California. You can read the original post here.

I have access to many sources of fabric which invoke kuba, kente, and mud cloth, but also know where to get the original versions of these cloths. If you would like to reupholster a chair, or create some custom pieces of furniture utilizing these stunning fabrics, give me a call!

Happy designing!

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