Designer KUSHEDA MENSAH wants to get people away from their screens. Her MODULAR BY MENSAH furniture is intended to provide sculptural talking points and build community cohesion – even in an era of social distancing

Photography by Jermaine Francis Text by Darcie Imbert

Kusheda Mensah’s romanticised vision of furniture intends to bring people together. Modular by Mensah, Kusheda’s furniture design studio, uses colour, shape and texture to help piece together fractured lines of communication. Along with many others, Kusheda attributes the breakdown of face-to-face interaction to the prevalence of social media as our primary source of connection. The pandemic has illuminated our need for in-person contact. The Mental Health Foundation reported that one in every four adults in the UK felt lonely during the first week of lockdown measures, noting this was highest among young adults aged 18 to 24. Digital platforms such as Houseparty and Zoom failed to fill the void that was left in the absence of physical connection. “It’s instinctual,” Kusheda says. “People need people.”

Having studied furniture design at University of the Arts London, Kusheda was originally drawn to the tactile nature of fabrics: the textured surfaces made her want to reach out and touch them. Following the development of her Mutual collection, a capsule of interlocking abstract shapes crafted from tactile textures, Kusheda narrowed her focus to furniture design to best channel the sensation of touch.

“I have this dream of getting a commission from the council and creating sculptural or interactive models to exist in a public space”

As a Ghanaian-British woman, textiles have played a big role in Kusheda’s creativity since childhood. “Every African girl can relate to seeing your mother buying patterned textiles for a party, wedding or funeral. It’s a huge thing. Then, specifically being Ghanaian, my country has a huge textile industry, so it’s rooted in me.” She describes her aunties and uncles selling fabrics to her mum from a suitcase they had brought back from Ghana. “She would spend hours touching the fabrics, looking at the colours, hustling the retail price down. Then my mother would hold the yards of fabric up to herself in front of a mirror giving us a catwalk, and imagining what new styles she would get the tailor to cut next.” Kusheda’s work is mostly made to order, in line with her sustainable principles. “I’m making while being present and conscious of the environment, producing the things that people need, without the waste.”

Modular by Mensah is both rooted in Kusheda’s past experiences and grounded by current cultural context. Kusheda describes the positive impact, growing up on a council estate in southeast London, of peering out of her window at the monumental Peckham Library. It was designed by British architect Will Alsop in 2000; the brief called for a building that would bring prestige to the borough and engender a sense of pride and ownership for local people. Speaking with Kusheda about the library’s influence in her journey, it seems to have fulfilled its brief. When asked where she would like her furniture to end up, Kusheda replies: “In public spaces, servicing its purpose in bringing people together. I have this dream of getting a commission from the council and creating sculptural or interactive models to exist in a public space where I grew up.”

Whilst the library provided inspiration, the lack of racial representation in the art world meant there were few people for an emerging generation of artists to look to as mentors. Kusheda describes the absence of black female designers when she was growing up, especially those who were at a level of security in their careers where they felt able to help, “You can’t get a leg up from anyone else, because there isn’t anyone else. So I decided to keep my head down, focus and be an example to other black girls. That way, when they grow up, they cannot say there aren’t enough black women furniture designers. That’s enough to push forward and be successful. It’s a hard journey but we’ll get there.”

It is clear that Kusheda is part of a new generation of progressive artists that intend to be the change we need for a future of transformation and growth, both socially and environmentally.

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