It is hard to believe that there was ever a point in time when textile design seemed like a foreign concept to Chrissa Amuah. Though it wasn’t the initial career path for the Ghanaian-British founder and creative director of AMWA Designs, it is one that she possesses a seemingly natural talent for and that has kept her quite busy lately. Following her 2020 collaboration with Lexus for Design Miami, Amuah has recently launched a textile collection in partnership with furniture and design brand Bernhardt Design. Additionally, she is representing Ghana at the 2021 London Design Biennale– a global gathering of the world’s most ambitious and imaginative designers, curators and design institutions. Amuah’s desire to create designs that beautifully highlight her African culture has led to an organic growth for her brand in a relatively short space of time.
Amuah credits an art teacher she studied with at age 17 for implanting the idea of becoming a textile designer in her mind. “I didn’t quite understand how you could make textile design a career,” she says. “But it got to a point where I actually decided to revisit the idea.” After completing a series of short courses in textile design, Amuah went on to earn a Master’s degree from the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London and things quickly took off from there. Just a few years later, Amuah established AMWA designs in 2014, an Adkinra-inspired interiors company where she creates handmade textiles and print designs. In 2015, she appeared on the international design scene, showcasing at Milan Design Week.
Whether Amuah is collaborating with other brands or showcasing her own, exploring the concept of duality is always a driving force for her work. While Amuah was born and raised in London, her familial background includes Ghana, Togo, and Benin. This blend of African cultures, paired with her experiences in Europe, has given her a personal sense of duality that she is always mindful of. Her designs largely draw inspiration from Ghana, however, Amuah’s ultimate goal is to create patterns that offer something for everyone. Her collection with Bernhardt Design, rightfully named “Duality,” is a step in that direction.
“Duality exists on so many different planes and I’ve always had a sense of my own duality,” she explains. “Ghana has always been a cultural reference point and initially, I wasn’t sure if it was ‘too African’ for the world. But I feel like Ghanaian culture is so rich and so beautiful and I hope to display it in a way that everyone can relate to.”
Traditional Ghanaian patterns, colors, textures, and symbolism underpin the entire “Duality” collection, which Amuah manifested into six different patterns and 56 color palettes. For designs like the one found in “Aya,” Amuah relied upon the Adinkra symbol for fern, paired with chenille overlays that contrast the yarns being used. In another design called “Sella,” she sketched abstract replicas of the asesegua–a traditional Ghanaian royal stool– and had those sketches serve as the basis for the fabric’s design and its five distinct colorways. Each one of the textile designs in the Bernhardt collection have a complimenting pair, though they all have merits on their own as well. Amuah also describes them all as having a “three-dimensional element to them.”
Ultimately, Amuah, who emphasizes sustainability, is creating textiles that are meant to withstand the test of time. “I don’t work to trends,” she says. “I want everything to have longevity and I want people to love it, so hopefully this collection helps people break away from the culture of fast consumerism.” Not only does the collection aim to broaden the narrative around Sub-Saharan culture and creativity, but it seeks to also boost the experience of encountering it by offering such an expansive selection.
After being postponed in 2020 due to the pandemic, the London Design Biennale is returning to Somerset House in June 2021. This year’s theme is “Resonance,” which speaks to the idea that every design, every production resonates and has the power to reach a massive audience in a way that previous generations have never seen before, thanks to the increasing presence of the technology in the way we communicate and connect with people around the globe. Representing the only Sub-Saharan African country selected to participate in this year’s event, Amuah grasps the significance of using this platform to present Africa in a different context. Working with Ghanaian-British architect Alice Asafu-Adjaye (founder of boutique architecture and design firm MUSTARD Architecture), the pair explore the conversation between Ghana and two of its former colonial rulers, Britain and Denmark, over four centuries, and its relevance to the future.
“Resonance speaks to this idea of our shared humanity,” says Amuah. “It poses the question: how do we maintain our human connections despite our cultural differences and differences in global perspective, as we move toward a more digital age.”
In response to this year’s theme, Amuah and Asafu-Adjaye created a site-specific concept named “Amplify” that delves into the history of Somerset House and explores a variation of materials, space, light, and textures.
“We started our concept by looking at the 450-year history of Somerset House and how Queen Anne of Denmark cultivated the salon of European artisans,” Amuah explains. “If you look a few years down in history when the Danish were going to the gold coast, it wasn’t with that same idea of equality and mutually equitable exchange.” The concept forces us to “reconsider the value of conceptual and socio-economic equilibrium.” As African design is brought to the forefront, Amuah sees “Amplify” as an opportunity to readdress the way in which Africa is spoken about, in terms of design and creativity.
“Africa has been doing bespoke, couture, and antiques since time memorial,” she says. “It’s just a matter of figuring out how to make it work without falling into the trap of mass production. After all, Africa doesn’t need to be Ikea.”
Using traditional methods of metal-making like brass casting to make things like kuduos (a cast brass container for storing valuables, introduced to Akan peoples via the trans-Saharan and trans-Sudanic gold trade) Amuah and Asafu-Adjaye also highlight an intricate art form that has lost traction over the years. “Brass casting and other traditional forms of metal making is such an involved process and this is a beautiful way to champion and celebrate it,” Amuah states. “It is also synonymous with our history with regards to currency, gold weights, and all of the things that were exploited and taken from us.” Showcasing this dwindling art form gives Amuah and Asafu-Adjaye agency to present these items on their terms, as opposed to eras in Ghanaian history where these items were pillaged and stolen.
With her expanding brand and influence, Amuah sees it as only befitting to highlight other African creatives. In 2017, she founded AFRICA BY DESIGN, a platform that showcases and celebrates the best of Africa’s furniture, textile, and product design talent. Since its inception, AFRICA BY DESIGN has highlighted work from 34 designers from eight Sub-Saharan countries including Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Mali, Senegal, and more, creating international opportunities for those featured. The collective has also hosted exhibits in five cities across four continents.
“When I showcased at Milan Design Week, it was a wonderful experience that made me realize the importance of platforms like such and the awareness they promote,” Amuah explains. “So, that is my intent with AFRICA BY DESIGN. I’m always looking to bring others in and this continent holds such an array of incredible talent. It’s the right thing to do.”
Whatever project Amuah finds herself focused on next, we can be sure that it will continue to provoke a new narrative surrounding African creativity while exploring various aspects of duality. Amuah thrives to shift away from cliches and the hyper-absorption of Western cultural values and present her audience with designs that promote Ghanaian cultural values and those of Sub-Saharan Africa at large. “The further we move into a developed and digital society, the more we may be moving away from our innate senses and our primal frequencies. I think design is one way of re-engaging with that on both a functional and emotional, and in some instances, possibly a spiritual level.”
*Amuah and Asafu-Adjaye have launched a crowdfunding campaign to help with costs associated in realizing the "Amplify" project. Donations can be made here.